Pitching a VC – Dealing with Competition

This is a post in the ongoing series about how to pitch a VC.  If you want to to see an overview / table of contents of the series go here and if you just want to see what the first slide in the pitch deck should be go here.


This is the slide that most presenters handle very easily so I won’t spend too much time on it.  For the first-timers I’d like to tell you the two most common approaches that I see and for everybody else I’d also like to add a section on the common pitfalls – even for experienced presenters.

1. Harvey Balls

180px-Harveyballs.v2.svgOne of the most common ways to present the competition slide is to show your company stacked against your main competitors, who will be plotted in vertical columns against each other.  On the horizontal rows you will plot a set of features or key attributes of how you define your competitive differentiation.  This is not only a way to talk about you versus your competition but a chance to reinforce two things: 1) what you see as the most important buying criteria for your customers and 2) how you believe your firm differentiates.

Harvey Balls look something like the graph I’ve attached here.  Try your best not to make this a small-minded feature comparison in which you come out on top in each category.  The best way to do it in my opinion is to really have this form the basis of your company strategy.  Think back to the slides in the VC deck where you define the customer problem you’re solving and what your solution does.  The Harvey Ball slide should in a way just be a depiction of this strategy.

Literally 90+% of Harvey Ball slides that I see presented to me have the presenting company with all the balls fully filled out and some weaknesses in your competitors. Why not take this opportunity to differentiate yourself in the VC presentation?  Why not say, “look, I know most people just show themselves with all the benefits and competitors with all the weaknesses, but here is a realistic view of where we’re at today” and show some weaknesses.  It will be a great chance to build rapport with the investor.

You will be able to say why you’ve chosen to be strong in certain areas – these being the ones you believe your target customers care about the most – and how you will develop other features to match competition in the future.  It is a great place to talk about your future roadmap.  It is also a great place to emphasize that you think it is important not to just replicate every feature of your competitors but to build your product in a cost-effective way and building to the MVP (minimum viable product).  I think the pro’s of showing a VC that you understand how to be customer and cost focused far outweighs the “were better at everything approach”.

If you can’t resist the temptation to be the best at every category the VC will forgive you and it is the one place I think you can get away with it (even if I don’t recommend it).  It’s the lie we know you’re telling (along with your hockey stick growth ;-) that we sort of accept for some reason.

2. Two-by-two matrix

The alternative to (or in addition to) Harvey Balls is the 2×2 matrix – the ones so popularized by The Gartner Group (and every consultancy out there).  This is the one where you plot yourself on a 2×2 graph along vertical and horizontal dimensions in which you gartner-magic-quadrant-bi-2008define what the measurements are.  Often they are things like: functionally complete product, platform coverage, price, intuitive UI, geographic coverage or some other way of slicing the competition.

Here I would say 100% of presentations I see have YourCo as the leading player usually position in the upper right quadrant.  Again, that’s as per my comments on Harvey Balls it is probably OK since for some reason, maybe tradition, we just accept that you’re going to say this and you get a free pass.  But even if you’re the best on your slide use this as an opportunity to really talk openly about what you believe customers want and why you believe your positioning will help you succeed in the long run.

3. Pitfalls

“We have no real competition”

I hate when I hear companies say this.  In some rare circumstances it is conceivable that this is true but it is very seldom.  The first thoughts many VCs have when you say this (and many novices do say this) is that “if there’s no competition maybe it’s because there’s no real market?” or the variant, “if there’s no real competition it is going to take way too long to educate the market and adoption will be slow – yuck.”  But the most common thing they’re probably thinking is, “of course there’s competition – you’re just either naïve I thinking there’s not or you’re not being direct with me.  Either of these is a problem.”

Why do we want to know your competitors?  Aside from the reasons mentioned above (with no competition there is either no market or long time to educate the market), we also want to know because if we get serious about evaluating your company we really want to understand the industry you’re competing in, which means researching the competition.  We also want to hear how you think about your competitors and your market and how you will respond to the inevitable changes by your competitors.  And frankly we want to know that you spend some time thinking about the competition and how you’ll differentiate.

But what would you do if you actually had no competitors?  In that rare case you’d need to talk about the substitute products that exist in the market or how customer are solving the problem you’re addressing with work-around solutions today.  You can talk about your biggest problem being inertia (as it often is in sales) and how you’re going to solve that problem.  Even better – just find some competitor to compare yourself to – it will make life far easier.

“Our competition sucks”

So I know that no company pitching us actually says it this harshly but the disdain for your competitor is often felt in the word choices and how you position them.  Having grown up in the US, I was used to this kind of “slash-and-burn” competitive positioning when talking to VCs, the press and even customers.  This is the style of Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs or Marc Benioff.

But I lived in the UK for nearly a decade and learned a lot from them in being gracious to competition.  It is simply “not the done thing” to be brash about competition as US companies would be and I find this to be a better way to position yourselves.  Even though we tolerate these kinds of attacks in our society (think politics) – the people who seem to stay above it all I believe garner a better impression of themselves.

So I recommend pointing out the positive things your competitors do and giving an honest sense of where you differentiate (e.g. not a falsely positive comment about the competition but a true one).  “Our competitor has been in the market for 6 years, which clearly gives them an advantage in terms of features and a large installed base.  Where we hope to continue to differentiate with customers is in the simplicity of our design.  Because our product wasn’t built 6 years ago we were able to take advantage of many of the Ajax-based toolsets that are newer on the market and thus have a more intuitive design.  Had we been around 6 years ago we would have built more of a legacy system and, of course, once you have a large installed base it’s much harder to change your product.”

Next up: Customer Adoption or “Traction”


2 Responses to Pitching a VC – Dealing with Competition

  1. Tim Platt says:

    Although warm referrals from a ‘trusted’ corporate lawyer catering to the tech and start-up sectors are helpful, they pre-suppose a connection with that lawyer and a favorable recommendation as well.

    The best way to find growth capital is to apply to a venture summit where you can speed pitch your ideas to several investors face-to-face in a single day. One such example is The Speed Venture Summit, the premier speed-dating-style event for fast-growth businesses and investors in New England. http://www.speedventuresummit.org; and follow the virtual discussion at Twitter #SVSNE

  2. […] up: Customer Adoption or “Traction”.(Cross-posted @ Both Sides of the Table) Posted Under : General Tags startups entrepreneurship vc funding venture capital […]

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