Every once in a while on VC Twitter, a comment or statement seems so outlandish, so completely outrageous, that it must be — certainly has to be — false. Such as it was for Primary Ventures investor Jason Shuman, who commented on the recent prices for pitch deck advice in the Valley today:
Founder friend just told me that SF deck designers have quoted him between $20K to $40K + the right to invest up to $250K...my mind is officially blown
— Jason Shuman 👟 (@BoatShuman) December 20, 2019
You can almost hear that plaintive scream, “My mind is officially blown” (Shuman doesn’t scream, mind you). And indeed, in a world where more and more founders are worried about a bubble; assets are more, let’s say, notionally expensive than ever before; and everything just seems a little bit crazy these days, it seems downright fucking insane to think that a PowerPoint file and some “thoughts” are worth tens of thousands of dollars, and a goddamn term sheet to boot.
But they are.
Or at the very least, they can be. And I say that as the guy who wrote an article last week entitled, “How to avoid the startup trap of the parasitic consultant.”
For sure, not every pitch deck consultant is worth top dollar, any more than not every croissant in New York’s West Village is worth $10. But some are, and certainly a select chosen set of consultants are worth every penny they demand.
The best consultants are not luxuries to plaster on your WeWork’s walls, but critical tools to invest in your startup. Framing a startup’s thesis, product, team and market exactly right is a qualitative skill that can’t be learned from reading a book or scanning through a founder friend’s deck or two. Get a single slide wrong, or hell, a single bullet point wrong, and the whole thing can blow up in a pitch meeting in 30 seconds or less.
Trust me. As a former VC investor, I have gotten hung up on single sentences before. A founder has put their life’s work into a company, synoptically condensed it to a handful of slides and I am stuck on eight words. But those eight words make no sense, and once something doesn’t make sense, the whole edifice of excitement and confidence comes crashing down. Eight words — one badly chosen verb and adjective.
A good pitch deck consultant may barely move the needle on a fundraise, while a superstar may not just get you a better term sheet, they may fundamentally transform the entire course of your startup’s trajectory. Those are the stakes.
And of course, it’s not just pitch deck consultants who can do this. The right PR consultants can potentially get you traction that no one else can. The right sales consultants may lock in those critical early design customers that represent the difference between an orderly liquidation and a massive Series A. The right product marketing specialists or pricing experts may be what drives conversions and eliminates churn.
What’s so hard today for founders is that the Valley has indeed matured, and all these consultants and more are available. There are the hucksters and the tricksters, the bon vivants thriving on naive capital, the idiot clowns cloaked in their own compelling pitch decks.
But as the market has expanded for these services, at least some superstars are emerging from the marketplace, people who can offer more value for you in a week or two than the mediocrities can in a year.
Your job as founder is to constantly probe and find those diamonds, and get them working on your idea at any cost — even costs that might at times seem insane.
The thing with tech startups today is that they are built upon strata of superstardom. Superstar talents lead to superstar products, superstar VC capital and, ultimately, superstar exits. Superstar momentum is real. Yes, yes, yes, not every time, and every stage in the pipeline is multiplied by a stochastic chance of failure, for sure. But idiocy has rarely been a path to success.
And so as with all parts of innovation, it’s all about making the right investments in the right people and the right ideas. Indeed, $50K or even $500K for a consultant won’t do anything if they are the wrong person working on the wrong idea — parasites are parasites after all. But leverage that early seed capital into the right people working on the right problems, and that’s where the magic happens.
And so I can understand some of the outrage over these figures, as well as the lingering presumption behind them that VCs care more about a startup’s deck than the underlying startup itself. Those frustrations are palpable and not insane, but let’s not avoid the tough question: everything has some value attached to it. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that top experts in their fields, who understand their own leverage, would take advantage of their expertise and drive their own prices higher.
Paying tens of thousands of dollars for a pitch deck consultant isn’t a prerequisite for securing a venture capital round. There are founders whose entire skill is securing capital for their companies who have never paid a penny for this skill.
Yet ultimately, all early-stage startups face the same challenge: too many activities, too little time. Something, somewhere is going to have to get outsourced today and the quality of that external work is largely going to be determined by how much you are willing to pay for it. Where you choose to spend whatever capital you have will determine the trajectory of your startup. So whether it is pitch decks or another activity, never blink from those top dollars. It may very well be what gets you the top dollar in the end.