Death by Deck by Bob Rosenberg

Everyone remembers their first time.

Mine was in the late fall of 1989.  A young polymath, Lawrence Furnstahl, had been hired as CFO of the medical center at the University of Chicago.  His job was to chart the future of a complex institution, to support research, teaching and patient care functions at a time of massive demographic and policy change.

He walked into my office and showed me my first Power Point presentation.  It was clear, it was logical, it was more compelling than any business plan or financial analysis I’d ever seen.

It was love at first sight.

For the startup and venture world, the deck today is your brand, your bona fides, your best foot forward.  It isn’t a business plan, but business plans have been all but superseded; successful startups are effectual, dynamic, and a good team is eager to pivot at a moment’s notice.  In a world where speed is increasingly important, business plans are an albatross.  In contrast, a new slide or two in the deck takes but minutes to effect.

A great deck well presented is a brilliant achievement, mixing facts, fantasy, and sales savvy.  But the great ones are vanishingly rare.  Most business decks are like the clothes at debutante balls, where onlookers judge just how well the upstarts have fit themselves into the formal gowns and tuxedos of proper society.  Hiding their awkwardness, not to mention a bulge here and there, entrepreneurs display how well they clean up, and what it all portends for the future.

And for the most part they (debutante balls and decks) are dull, dull, dull.  

Compelling pitches are compromised by the corset that is the ‘preferred’ deck structure.  All too often, the deck describes technology, not business.  The standard facts in a deck can be blindingly off-target; TAM, SAM, SOM are as useful as price-earnings ratios were to the financial markets in the 1970s.  Financial projections are more a measure of spreadsheet expertise than any measure of reality.  Most of the deck information is good for ticking boxes, not particularly useful when it comes to selling a real product in a real market to real customers.  

Why is it all there?  Because VCs need reasons to pass on opportunities.

And with the advent of web presentations, the problem has gone from chronic to critical.  

Online deck presentations – even those limited to five minutes – are hard to follow.  The presenter (whose personality and engagement counts for so much in person) is relegated to a face in the corner of the screen.  She loses agency and most ability to connect with the audience.  The deck is even harder to read, the story becomes diffuse and disconnected from reality and one is left feeling distracted.  

Finally, the Q&A, which is reduced to one-on-one exchanges, loses its power – and value to both the entrepreneur and the audience.

I’m using this post in hopes of starting a dialogue about decks.  And how to make them a more useful process for the entrepreneur and a more dynamic way of engaging audiences – investors in particular.

I don’t have a cogent answer (the solution will be some intersection of deck-like vehicle and technology), but here are some thoughts:

  1. The elevator pitch is even more important.  Especially online, you win or lose in the first twenty seconds.  I’m here to report that most seed-stage companies are at a loss when it comes to delivering a compelling elevator pitch.  In my mind, if you can’t characterize what you’re doing in a powerful, brief way, you don’t really know what you’re doing.  The rest of the presentation is elaboration (and repetition) of the elevator pitch.
  2. Ditch most of the deck, especially online.  Get the presenter up front making the personal case to other persons.  Emphasize presentation (sales) skills.  Large swath of the deck are either show-and-tell for investors, belt and britches for the presenter.  Maybe there could be a chart or graph or video, but only when necessary.  Less tuxedo, more running gear.
  3. Focus on story, on the go-to-market.  Treat the audience with greater respect (most decks act like the audience like a bunch of twelve-year-olds); the goal is to pique their interest.  Lots of time for due diligence and digging into the details.
  4. Lessen presentation time, expand interaction.  Create an environment where most of the information exchange happens in a communal give-and-take, perhaps with a facilitator.  This means that there is less dog-and-pony and more the entrepreneur(s) demonstrating their grasp of the key elements of their business (including customer, competition, market, sales, technology, value).  Make it more dynamic, perhaps more challenging (i.e., a better learning experience) for the founders.

Okay, I’ve had my say.  I’m all ears.  Thanks for listening.

Bob Rosenberg
Educator (Associate Professor) / Entrepreneur / Leader of angel
communities /Entrepreneur in residence at PorterShed
and BioExcel /


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