Eleven Compelling Startup Pitch Archetypes (with examples from YC companies)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve helped a handful of startups work on their YC applications and interviews. I spent much of the time brainstorming with the founders on the best way to explain their business in the most clear and compelling way possible. These founders knew a lot about the market and had spent months if not years developing their ideas, but that often meant they would be all over the place when talking about what they were doing. This caused their pitch to sound weak and not be as compelling as it could be.

Paul Graham is, among other things, really good at boiling companies down to their essence. When practicing for Demo Day, you’d see founders start to pitch their company and Paul would say “Wait, don’t say that. Why don’t you say you are doing ____” which summed up the company in a more beautiful and compelling way than anything the founder had previous pitched.

Startup Pitch Archetypes

When talking to an investor (or potential advisor, partner or other person who cares about the viability of your business success) you will talk at some point about all the major things: the market, the product, the team, the target customer, the business model etc — but how you lead the discussion and how you frame your points matters a lot.

From my experience at two demo days, talking to investors about Ridejoy and listening to lots of aspiring YC founders talk about their businesses, I realized that the best startup pitches seem to fall into several patterns. Depending on the type of business you’re building, who you’re pitching and your personal style, there are probably one or two archetypes that would be most compelling.

I’ve identified eleven compelling startup pitch archetypes (depending on how you slice it) and have tried to explain what they are, what they sound like, examples of YC companies that might have used this archetype and advice on how you might go about using it.

Take a look.

[alert style=”grey”]DISCLAIMER – I tried to match YC companies to pitch archetypes that I thought made sense but I was not at their meetings with investors nor did I attempt to verify this article with them (not enough time). The “What it sounds like” quotes are all simply illustrations of what this type of pitch might sound like and are all written by me, not by other YC founders. I’m not trying to put words in anyone’s mouth. Finally, these pitches are not magic. Nothing works unless you do.[/alert]

The Standard Pitch

What it is:

You’ve identified a problem / unmet need that a specific group of people have and have created product or service that addresses the need/solves the problem and is within your target customer’s budget.

What it sounds like:

“Over 40% of widget makers say they are “displeased” or “extremely displeased” with their widget designing software, particularly in areas X, Y and Z. We’ve built a better widget designer that is 2x as good in X, Y and Z than the competition”

Who uses it:

  • Many startups. MBA students in business plan competitions. I mean in the sense that nearly everyone tries at some point to explain their startup this Problem -> Solution way.

When to use it:

This is the by-the-book pitch. The one you use when you’re out of ideas. It’s dry, clinical and doesn’t reveal any passion, insight or competitive advantage. The pitches below are far more interesting in hooking the listening and I believe more compelling as potential investments.

Archetype 1: “Traction”

What it is:

You’ve got a product or service that’s growing quickly and gaining a ton of users, engagement, perhaps even revenue.

What it sounds like:

“Our app’s growth chart is through the roof – here’s the graph of daily active users. As you can see, we’ve been growing at over 40% week over week for the last 3 months and it’s all organic – no paid distribution.”

Who might use it:

When you want to use it:

This is obviously an extremely compelling pitch but hard to deliver credibly without the metrics to prove it. At the end of the day, almost every investors will want to put money in something that is growing uncontrollably because they believe there must be something special about this product. They know how hard it is for a product/service to get adoption so quickly   – especially without any paid distribution.

Archetype 2: “X for Y”

What it is:

You hear X for Y a lot as simply a way to describe a startup: “Airbnb for Dogs” or “Instagram for Video”. But in my mind, X for Y specifically is about applying a proven model/service/product for a new customer segment/market/platform.

What it sounds like:

“Pokemon was a 24+ billion dollar franchise. As far as anyone can tell, Nintendo has very little interest in building games outside its own platform. We are making Pokemon for the iPhone.”

Who might use it:

When to use it:

There are three elements to making a strong “X for Y” pitch. First, X has to be something everyone agrees as being successful – I often hear people choosing “unproven” startups as the X in their “X for Y” pitch which immediately hurts them.

Second, it needs to make sense for why “Y” would be receptive to this new “X”. eBay for passwords, Foursquare for tweens aren’t necessarily great ideas.

Finally, “Y” ideally should be a big, growing and penetrable market.

Archetype 3: “Personal Story”

What it is:

A personal story about how the founder/founders were trying to solve a problem in their own life and created this product/service which they now hope to distribute to the masses.

What it sounds like:

“I’m building this to scratch my own itch. It’s incredibly frustrating to have to rely on emailing files to myself, carrying around USB sticks and generally have files in different versions on different computers. I’ve coded up an easy way to keep my files synced across multiple devices and I think there are a lot of people out there like me.”

Who might use it:

When to use it:

I think a lot of founders over use this pitch. The fact is, your investors generally don’t care that much about your specific problems. The best personal story pitches are ones where the pain is very generalizable (like it was with Dropbox) and your product is solving a broad consumer problem.

Archetype 4: “Pivot/Offshoot”

What it is:

Both of these are about the discovery of an idea. In a true pivot, it was that you started by working on one thing, but found intense interest / an untapped opportunity in something tangential or related to your original idea and that lead you to what you’re doing now. In an offshoot, you are building something that you knew was a big need from your time at a previous job or company.

What it sounds like:

“When we were building and growing our last product, we had to create a scaleable real-time backend to power our service. But then we realized that there are tons of developers who would love to build onto of this backend because there is nothing like it on the market. And that’s why we’re doing this thing.”

Who might use it:

When to use it:

This pitch is all about insight and discovering a customer need. You show the investor how you came to work on this – not from market research, not from R&D labs, but from on the ground work, which lead you to this interesting idea that you’ve now decided to pursue heavily.

Archetype 5: “Evolution Next”

What it is:

Walking the investor through a story of how a market or industry has evolved over time, then describing what you believe is the next phase and how what you’re building will be in a strong position to profit from the trend.

What it sounds like:

“No one thought people would buy things from strangers on eBay, but they did. No one thought people would share cars on Getaround, knowledge on Skillshare or accommodations on Airbnb. But they are. We’re building the next great peer-to-peer marketplace with this company.”

Who might use it:

  • WePay – Paypal was a major hurdle in bringing money online but it has stagnated — payments needs to work for casual internet users and we’ve built the platform to do that
  • Ridejoy – rising gas prices, deep penetration of social graph and the increased comfort people have with sharing services point toward a future where people will share trips and we’re building the marketplace to allow them to do so
  • Aisle50 – the tens of billions of dollars currently spent on grocery coupons in FSIs (free standing inserts) in newspapers is eventually going digital. Currently the market leader is the awful Coupons.com. We’re going to do it right.

When to use it:

To make this pitch work, you’ve got to credibly show how your company is building on several big trends, convince your investors that your version of the history/present/future is the right one and demonstrate that your approach is the best way to capitalize on all these trends.

Archetype 6: “Painting the Future”

What it is:

You embody someone who’se come back from the future, filled with vivid pictures of an incredible new world. You show how your company is building the pathway to that future.

What it sounds like:

“Isn’t it amazing that we still use so much paper in the office? In 10, 15 years, there is going to be close to no paper in a standard office – it’s going to be all replaced by a mixture of hardware (tablets, e-readers) and software. Our business is bringing that future one step closer.”

Who might use it:

  • Hellofax – creating a paperless office, starting with fax and e-signature
  • DrChrono – one day, all medical records will be stored securely on digital servers. It starts with a better patient check in iPad app.

When to use it:

Similar to the evolution story, this requires you to be a good storyteller. In this one, you are looking farther into the future, describing a vision that might be decades off. After convincing investors that this indeed is what’s going to happen, you show them how your product is the logical next step down the road toward that future vision.

Archetype 7: “Service at Scale”

What it is:

You’ve taken a service that is generally done by freelancers, agencies or small businesses and turn it into a scaleable software-based product. Generally service-businesses have decent profit margins on the actual work, it’s the marketing and keeping a full pipeline that’s hard.

What it sounds like:

“Every small business needs someone to crunch the numbers – usually the owner (who hates doing it) or a part-time accountant/bookkeeper (who the owner hates paying). We’re building simple, easy-to-use software that eliminates 90% of all accounting work that used to be done by humans.”

Who might use it:

When to use it:

If your product directly targets work otherwise done by human beings, especially highly trained human beings who usually command a high salary, then this might be your pitch archetype. But beware, you may make some bitter enemies from people who feel you are destroying their jobs/livelihoods.

Archetype 8: “Wouldn’t It Be Cool If?”

What it is:

You’re describing a curious idea, something fun and interesting that wasn’t possible before, but now is, thanks to some clever engineering. You invite the investor into a bit of a thought experiment.

What it sounds like:

“Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could get someone to help you run errands or take care of something, instantly? Now you can, just post a job from our mobile app and we’ll have someone on it in 10 minutes or less.”

Who might use it:

  • Exec – wouldn’t it be cool to have an demand workforce accessible right from your phone?
  • Pair – wouldn’t it be cool to have a special app to keep in touch with your significant other?

When to use it:

The “wouldn’t it be cool if” is just a hook. Your business cannot just be a novelty, but some times novelty can be a good way to introduce your business to an investor. You have to explain how this could become a huge business because in fact this “cool little thing” has the potential to be much bigger. Think Twitter circa 2006 vs Twitter in 2012.

Archetype 9: “Insane Tech”

What it is:

You have created a new set of technologies that can really be called breakthrough – stuff that blows apart the existing paradigm and the mind and opens up entirely new realms of possibility.

What it sounds like:

“We’re creating a completely new set of technologies that’s going to transform the way people do X. It makes certain processes so much faster that we can do things real-time instead of batching, which changes what is possible.”

Who might use it:

  • Flutter – Minority Report-like gesture recognition
  • MemSql – 30x faster than relational databases

When to use it:

Insane tech by itself is generally not enough. You use this pitch as a hook when you can really impress your investor with how powerful this new tech really is and what mind-blowing opportunities are available now that you can do these things.

Archetype 10: “The Dream Team”

What it is:

We are the right team to tackle this market and build this product because no one else has the right mix of skills, experience, connection and knowledge to make it happen.

What it sounds like:

“With the growth of smartphones and mobile app usage, it’s clear that the industry needs a Heroku for mobile – a scaleable backend for mobile apps. But this is a tough technical challenge and the winner will need to command a lot of credibility with the developer community. Our founders all hold technical degrees from top schools, have founded multiple successful technology companies and have worked on tough scaling challenges.”

Who might use it:

  • Parse – a really really smart team building the scaleable backend for mobile apps
  • Science Exchange – an online marketplace for scientific experiments founded by an Assistant Professor in Oncology, a Sloan MBA and a CS grad / 2nd-time entrepreneur

When to use it:

This pitch works best when the idea is obvious, but where execution is the challenge. Often, you are combining two or more people who are very skilled in very different fields, creating a deadly combination that’ll be hard to beat. Of course, having even the perfect team isn’t enough without a big market and a great product.

Archetype 11: “Consumerfication of Enterprise”

What it is:

You’ve taken something that used to be super expensive, time-consuming or require an expert to build/implement and made it simple, fast and doable on your own. Now you’re going to open up an whole new market and eat your way up to the bigger fish.

What it sounds like

“Screensharing is more important now than ever, because people around the world have a need to collaborate and work together. But the market largely consists of over-priced, clunky software used by big businesses. We’ve made screensharing dead simple, opening up a whole new segment of potential customers.”

Who might use it:

  • Screenleap – share your screen with just a link
  • Weebly – powering 2% of the web’s sites because they made a really really easy to use site builder

When to use it:

Big companies often get disrupted from the bottom up by cheap, crappy technology that continually improves. If you’re operating in a market dominated by very large players — prove that you can deliver that core experience reasonably well at a much lower price/faster speed/easier to use interface and you’ll be in a great position.

Whew, that’s a lot to digest.

I would love to get your feedback on these ideas. If you’ve got a startup, how would you pitch it? Are there other archetypes that I missed? Post a comment!

Photo credit by TEDx Vancouver

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and talent expert. He is CEO of a performance hiring platform called Headlight, a Fast Company contributor, and an advocate for Asian American men. Follow him on Twitter at @jasonshen and subscribe to his private newsletter.

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    •  @mattmanuel Whoops! Meant to add photo attribution. My bad! Fixed. But to answer your question, I searched for “speaker” on http://compfight.com/. Gotta scroll down a ways…

  1. Any data on which of these has the greatest success rate? Which is the most common?

    •  @tprobotics I’m sure there have been huge successes from each archetype listed, and there is not a startup on Earth (IMO) that could use all of them… startups have so many diverse attributes… but I bet you can find more than one to use on your startup!

  2. Cool stuff! As I was reading through I was grabbing the archetypes that I felt would clearly work for pitching my startup, myLocal HERO Rewards: http://mylocal.coop/maps/ames/  — Now I am going to write out the pitch for each… and use them like KUNGFU on partners, investors, and potential collaborators.
    A.K.A. I am turning this article into money!
     Graham Torpey Jay Greco 

  3. Great stuff! The “Wouldn’t it be cool” pitch is employed over and over by Steve Jobs, and my favorite

    •  @kenziwang There is a difference between pitching for consumers (what Steve is doing) and pitching to investors/analysts. Consumers don’t really care about the viability of the business so you would never use most of these for a product launch to customers.

      •  @jasonshen Well said Jason. Just curious if you’ve done A/B testing on archetype 2 (X for Y) vs archetype 5 for Ridejoy? 

  4. Very interesting, nice clustering!
    Running my own start-up (doonited.com.) we are just entering the investor-pitch-phase and I am working on a Pitch Presentation to be sent out by Email.
    Reading about the archetypes, I am wondering if I can mix up some of the styles? For example:
    > open the pitch with a “Wouldn’t it be cool if”-line (Wouldn’t it be awesome if every person in the world makes a good deed every day)
    > using the “Traction”-approach when talking about the Status (User numbers)
    > showing the “Evolution Next”-trends to highlight our growing market relevance (Doonited merges two global trends – social responsibility and social networking – into a powerful movement)
    > taking the “Dream-Team” approach for the team slide (We have the skills and passion to make it happen).
    Can such a mix be the best way to go?
    Well, of course I don’t expect a Yes or No on that… just thinking and letting you know after working (!) it out. You will hear from us :)

    •  @oliverstark Thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts! Most pitches do have elements from a variety of archetypes but there is usually one that is the primary focus for your discussion.
      If your traction is truly amazing, then that is your pitch. Otherwise, you aren’t really using that archetype, you are just giving information related to your product’s numbers. Same is true for the team – if it’s killer, then you focus on it. Otherwise, it’s just background on the founders.

      • @jasonshen @oliverstark Even though you focus on one archetype, you may use several archetypes to maximize the pitch. How many mixes should be perfect for fascinating investor’s cognition?

  5. This was timely for us, our demo day is coming up in 5 weeks!  Thanks and good article, we’ll definitely be using it as a reference.

  6. Solid stuff!  I like it because it breaks the strict mold of the Guy Kawasaki / Sequoia / etc. outlines for how to do a pitch, which I have often found rather liand allows for more flexibility.  I’ve worked on tons of pitches over the years, and I usually start by looking at the big picture– i.e., “what is the investor story”– then I try to weave that into the traditional 10-slide format.  But this list provides for a much richer playbook to pull from.  Nice work.  

  7. Solid stuff!  I like it because it breaks the strict mold of the Guy Kawasaki / Sequoia / etc. outlines for how to do a pitch, which I have often found rather liand allows for more flexibility.  I’ve worked on tons of pitches over the years, and I usually start by looking at the big picture– i.e., “what is the investor story”– then I try to weave that into the traditional 10-slide format.  But this list provides for a much richer playbook to pull from.  Nice work.  

  8. Solid stuff!  I like it because it breaks the strict mold of the Guy Kawasaki / Sequoia / etc. outlines for how to do a pitch, which I have often found rather limiting and restrictive.  When I work on a pitch deck, I like to start by looking at the big picture– i.e., “what is the investor story”– then I try to weave that into the traditional 10-slide format. This list provides a richer playbook to pull from…much more flexibility.  Nice work!

  9. Great post!  Regarding ‘X for Y’, eBay for passwords sounds like a brilliant idea although it should probably be offshore and use bitcoin.

  10. Great post!

    In addition to Oliverstark’s comment….For most startups, several archetypes you suggested might be compelled for one pitch. Even though someone focuses on one archetype, it may be better to mix others in a good way.

    What number of mix could be the best for fascinating investor’s cognition?

  11. Pitching in 3 weeks, will be using the “Personal Story” approach, but reading through the other styles they gave me some quality ideas.

  12. Assuming you are not just talking about the Consumer Internet, there is also the counter of #11. The “Enterprisification of Consumer” a.la. what Yammer did to Twitter

  13. Great list, Jason. Thank you for your insights.  

    I didn’t know it when I was building the pitch deck, but I’m using Archetype 5.

  14. Fantastic post Jason! Really helps. What is your recommendation on combining a few of these? Do you think that might make a stronger pitch, or just dilute the focus?

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