A few weeks ago, I was in Berlin for a conference. This was before the coronavirus crisis hit its current state: no European country was in lockdown, the flight to Berlin was full and the conference had only a few cancellations due to company travel restrictions.
I took the opportunity to have my first face-to-face meeting with a founding team I’d been spending some (remote) time with and was really excited about backing. It wasn’t a long meeting, maybe 45 minutes. After some additional work over the next couple of weeks, I decided to bring the company to our investment committee. But by the time they were supposed to fly in it was clear that travel was out of the question. We did our investment committee using Zoom — a first for us (though all the partners were in the same room, so even that seems like ages ago now). We decided to offer them a term sheet and, during our discussion, I noted that all my interactions with the team had been remote, except for the one brief meeting in Berlin, so maybe the fully-remote world we were entering wouldn’t be that difficult. One of my partners asked me how much the in-person meeting swayed my opinion, and even I was surprised by my answer: not very much.
“It’s definitely not business as usual on either side, and pretending it is won’t end well.”
I’ve been reflecting on that the past couple of weeks as all my interactions with founders (and everyone work related) has become remote. What was it that the Berlin founder did well that helped me build such high conviction, even before meeting them face to face? What could I learn from the process to change how I have meetings with founders in this new fully remote world? With in-person meetings a distant memory for now, investors and founders hoping to properly engage and connect will have to embrace the change in format and ensure that they approach the pitch process eyes wide open; it’s definitely not business as usual on either side, and pretending it is won’t end well.
Online meetings can be efficient and productive, but only with some advance planning. Having now experienced a handful of pitch meetings in the last couple of weeks, below are some pitfalls for both sides to avoid.
Before the call
- Pre-read: Don’t jump on the call without sending the presentation in advance. Sharing the deck ahead of time means that you can (and should!) encourage the investor to ask questions or highlight topics they want to focus on in advance. It also means that you can direct everyone to view the document on their individual screens to avoid any screen-sharing challenges.
- Questions in advance: One primarily for the investors. Help the founders set the agenda by taking the time to go through the deck and tell them the areas you want to focus on and key questions you want to cover in the meeting. Good to do in a non-remote world as well.
- Agenda: Don’t wing it! Always set an agenda and manage the time allocated for the meeting (the previous tip really helps on this front).
“Don’t gamble with s**t wi-fi.”
- Wi-fi: Don’t gamble with s**t wi-fi. Do the relevant speed tests beforehand and if you’re in doubt, consider postponing. Consciously or not, poor bandwidth leaves a poor impression.
- Interruptions: If you can, try to be in a room where you won’t be interrupted, but of course everyone understands that children or others walking in and out of a room is the “new normal”.
- Participants: Don’t feel the need to have lots of people on the call. This really is a case of less is more. Think carefully about who is on and what they’ll contribute for that specific call. For a first meeting, don’t overdo it — one founder (the chief executive) and one venture capitalist (the likely champion) is optimal. Having many faces on the screen but only one person speaking feels weird and adds nothing (and possibly detracts) to the overall pitch experience.
During the call
- Set the tone: Take a minute at the beginning to recognise that this is strange and new for everyone. Investors, help put founders at ease by recognising in advance there may be interruptions (on your side as well!) from kids/pets/laundry machine alarms.
- Visuals: Don’t position your camera awkwardly. No one wants to talk to your chest, forehead or mouth. The screen should be mostly on your face and perhaps up to shoulder level — it better simulates a meeting. And if you use a “funny” Zoom background for your internal team meetings, maybe reconsider it.
“Use the mute button generously.”
- Sound effects: Don’t forget to use the mute button generously, especially if you happen to be in an area with background noise (be it noisy children or whiney pets) and don’t be afraid to direct the rest of the participants to do the same.
- Chime in: On the flip side don’t forget to unmute yourself when it’s time to speak. No one wants to spend time lip reading.
- Talking points: If there’s going to be more than one person from the company on the call, don’t all try to answer every question. Be highly coordinated in your responses/questions. This applies to both investors and founders! A meeting is never great when people are talking over each other, but it’s particularly bad on a video call due to the time delay (however brief).
After the call
- Post-meeting actions: Don’t close the meeting without clarity on the actionable next steps. This isn’t specific to remote meetings, but I’m always surprised at the number of meetings that don’t end with a clear next step.
- VC process: Communicate what your process is, whether there are any changes in a fully-remote world, and be upfront about what you’re still figuring out.
- Follow up: And finally, don’t forget to follow up straight after the meeting — poor manners don’t look good on anyone. Don’t send an essay — just a quick note with the key bullet points, takeaways from the meeting and additional answers to any questions you might not have been able to adequately answer during the meeting.
The above are all pretty straightforward but it’s surprised me over the last couple of weeks that just how many of these faux pas have shown up in meetings.
If you take one thing away, it should be this: if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail.
Sitar Teli is a managing partner at London-based venture capital firm Connect Ventures.