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How founders are finding new ways to grab investor attention

Argyle raised $20 million entirely using Notion as a way to stand out.

Argyle's founders on top of a building

The Argyle co-founders were sick of making pitch decks. So they found an alternative.

Photo: Argyle

When Shmulik Fishman started Argyle, he never wanted to have to open Keynote or PowerPoint again. His company had pulled together a $2.6 million seed round using the traditional Silicon Valley approach of sending around a pitch deck to investors and setting up funding calls once they'd glanced through it. But Fishman didn't want to return to making yet another slide presentation to pitch his company.

"I think me and Billy [Marsden, co-founder] together had put more PowerPoint slides in front of people's eyes than we'd care to mention," he said, having both worked at startups before. "And when we started this one, I was of the mindset of 'I never want to open up Keynote again.'"

By their series A, they decided to scrap the pitch deck altogether and instead turned to note-taking app Notion. The document they sent to VCs was filled with charts and graphs like you would normally see in a pitch deck, but with the ability to click into a new section that went deeper on explaining the numbers for their workforce data startups. Even their data rooms were hosted on Notion.

"It completely changed the start of a conversation," Marsden said. "You were having a conversation with a VC that you normally get to in hour four or hour six with them, but at the beginning of a phone call because they had gotten clarity on the business."

Investors seemed to like it, too. No venture capitalist pushed back or asked for the doc to be sent back in slide form, they said. Instead, the co-founders ended up raising $20 million from firms like Bain Capital Ventures, Bedrock, F-Prime and background check company Checkr.

"It was a resounding positive, and even people that obviously didn't spend a minute on it, they were still impressed with how it stood out," Fishman said.

They're not alone. Startups have been experimenting with new ways to catch investors' attention, especially in a crowded 2020 market when a lot of companies are vying for venture capitalist's attention.

In July, Dialup co-founder Danielle Baskin created the viral "fwd: fwd: lucky pitch deck" email chain, which had investors forward the email chain to receive a link to a YouTube video where they could sign up to receive the pitch deck. Investors are also increasingly seeing pitch decks sent via Figma, a design software tool, and entrepreneurs are sharing their own templates for how to build them. As one byproduct of the pandemic, even the Steve Jobs-style walk and talk pitch has made a comeback as a way for founders to make a unique pitch.

There's a good reason to try to stand out. Venture capitalists are spending way less time reviewing pitch decks on average, down under three minutes a deck in 2020, according to research from DocSend, a platform used by thousands of entrepreneurs to send their pitch decks and track who receives them and time spent.

At the same time, founders are sending their pitch deck to more investors on average than in previous years.

"As a founder right now, you have to try harder than you used to to try to get investment," said Russ Heddleston, the founder and CEO of DocSend. "There's no reason not to go fundraise, but keep in mind that investors are less patient than they used to be, and you're probably going to have to contact more investors than you would have had to last year or the year before."

But does that mean the pitch deck is dead? Far from it, argues Heddleston. DocSend has seen more founders sending pitch decks in 2020 than in previous years. Investors, too, have rebounded from what was a dip in activity in March as the pandemic hit. Investor interest levels, where they're actually engaging with the pitch decks, is up 40% over last year.

Trends, like sending videos in place of pitch decks, have cropped up, but they've never been able to kill the pitch deck. In 2018, Union Square Ventures' Fred Wilson even suggested alternatives like videos, a podcast Q&A with the founder or even a letter.

"The pitch to investors is just this unique thing, and a PowerPoint or a Keynote — it's just the fastest way to create that," Heddleston said. "You could type up a Word doc, but that's like the '90s when you would have a business plan."

But for Argyle's Fishman and Marsden, they found that writing out the Notion doc was a better way to convey the depth of their business than the typical slide setup. It admittedly took them more time than a traditional deck would have, and they both say they missed the DocSend-level of analytics that gave them insight into how much investors were paying attention. But the trade-off was being able to better articulate their business, and now they have no plans to go back to a pitch deck in the future. As Fishman pointed out: He raised $2.6 million with a PowerPoint and $20 million with a Notion doc.

"[A pitch deck is] a very poor way of articulating the nuances of a business and the clarity of a business," Marsden said. "There's a reason why VCs don't make PowerPoint slides when they share investment decisions with their LPs. They write memos. This allowed us as entrepreneurs to have a chance to really clearly articulate our business and the nuances and market for our business that could get us on the right foot when we started engaging in conversations with investors."

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