Techstars' Brad Feld: How to create a killer start-up pitch

Elaine Pofeldt, special to CNBC.com

Few people know more about what it takes to pitch a venture capitalist than Brad Feld. He is co-founder of the prestigious Techstars accelerator, which has mentored 762 start-ups to date, helping them garner more than $2 billion in funding. Feld is also managing director of the Foundry Group, an early stage tech fund widely credited with helping to ignite the start-up scene in Boulder, Colorado, and of Mobius Venture Capital, an early stage fund that has backed companies such as Verisign.

Brad Feld at Iconic Devern on June 16, 2016.
David A. Grogan | CNBC

Asked how many pitches he's heard in his career, Feld said, "I don't know the number anymore. It's tens of thousands — maybe multiples of tens of thousands."

Last week CNBC asked Feld for his tips on pitching a venture capitalist. Here are tips based on his recommendations.

Stow the PowerPoint — for now

Trying to plow through a slide deck in a first conversation with a venture capitalist often isn't the best approach, according to Feld. "A lot of times when I interact with someone for the first time, I don't want to see the presentation," said Feld.

Feld often prefers more of a free-flowing conversation. So how do you spark an investor's interest in that conversation? "The pitch should be very clear about what you are doing, why you are doing it and why I should care," said Feld. "If you can cover those things quickly and precisely, it's easy for me to decide whether I want to spend more time with you or not."

Coming up with a more conversational pitch can take forethought, he notes. Even with a very early stage company, he said, "you should have some clarity on why it is something people are going to care about."

Startup trends & troubles
Startup trends & troubles

Know your audience

It's easy to check out a venture capitalist's background and interests before you pitch — so don't skip doing a Google search or looking on LinkedIn before you meet. It'll show.

"I can't tell you the number of people who pitched something and have no idea whom they are pitching it to," Feld said. "They don't know the background of the investor."

Once you've done your homework on an investor, try to get an introduction from someone who knows him or her through your network, he recommended. "It's much easier to get a reception from someone if there is an introduction versus randomly trying to get in front of people," Feld said.

The Foundry Group invested $9 million in the 3-D laser printer maker Glowforge in 2015 after Feld met CEO Dan Shapiro, who has some mutual contacts, on a trip they were both on.

"It was very obvious from all the work he had done in advance that we were a great fit for him," said Feld. "We'd invested in MakerBot, which was a similar type of business to his. He analogized that well. He knew how to press our buttons and how to lead with a product, not a market opportunity."

So far, it looks like Feld made a smart bet. Glowforge went on to raise $28 million by hosting the crowdfunding of preorders on its own website earlier this year.

Ovuline CEO Paris Wallace (center) speaks with investors John Gargasz (left) and James Alvarez (right) during a Techstars event in Boston.
Aram Boghosian | The Boston Globe | Getty Images

Deliver some substance

A high-end 20-page presentation on fancy paper stock won't do much for you if there's nothing else to your business, noted Feld. Relying too much on razzle-dazzle can be a red flag that a start-up doesn't have much else to show for itself, he said. "It's much better to be clear about what you've got and where you are going."

When Feld first talked to James Park, co-founder of the physical-activity tracker Fitbit, on a conference call, "he walked me through his pitch in a dry, factual way," Feld recalled. "I liked the idea of the business, but I didn't connect with the pitch at all and passed."

Then two investors Feld knew "reached out very aggressively" and told him, "You really need to pay attention to this."

On the second contact, Feld and Park did a videoconference so they could engage more. Park won Feld over with nine months of data on what the business had already accomplished. "He told clear stories of who was using the product, why, and why there was a much larger opportunity," said Feld. Park also went into what types of products the company planned to build, the experience of the team in building the first product and how that was going to translate into building the next products, Feld added.

"I came out thinking, `Yep, this has the potential to be awesome,'" recalled Feld, who became an early investor through Foundry Group in 2012.

If you're looking for tips on how to create a great presentation, Feld recommends reading Get Backed by Evan Baehr and Evan Loomis. "That book, I think, does an excellent job of covering a good framework for how to do a presentation," said Feld. "It varies by investor."

Have an honest dialogue

It's tempting to tell investors that every idea they suggest is brilliant, out of a desire to please them, but don't fall into that trap. Feld often tosses out ideas while trying to get an understanding of how a business works, and sometimes, he said, he knows these ideas are bad. When an entrepreneur keeps agreeing with them, Feld starts to worry that he or she is too easy to push around.

So what does Feld want to hear when someone disagrees with his suggestions? He recommends something along the lines of "Hey, Brad, I don't agree with that. I don't think that's a good place for us to go. Here's why."

"What I'm looking for in my interaction is critical thinking on the part of the person pitching to me," he said. "Most of the time, my feedback is probably wrong."

— By Elaine Pofeldt, special to CNBC.com