Truth About Pitching Your Startup in Silicon Valley

There are people in this world who are great at pitching and people that simply aren’t.

Engineers and developers generally...aren’t. #sorryaboutit.

Another tidbit – your startup’s Co-founder or CEO probably wasn’t great either.

With that said, I can’t imagine being a foreigner who not only has one shot to pitch it right but having done so in English.

Hmmm, I actually do.

In this article, I promise to give you prime intel from my experience of how it is to not only pitch your startup in Silicon Valley but how it is to pitch your startup here as a foreign founder.  I’ll also throw in steps on how to successfully structure your pitch so you’re able to convince any investor in Silicon Valley as a bonus. You’re welcome.

Well, It's actually experienced from a third person perspective.

Anyway, time for the good stuff.

The difference between pitching & knowing

To start off…

Knowing what your company is and knowing your pitch are two totally different things.

Sure, you’re an expert about what your product does, your company mission, and what problem your company is solving, etc. That’s great.

But can you explain all of that to me in let’s say, 3-minutes? How about in 1-minute?

It’s true that some of you have it down to the T, but majority of you probably shook your head because pitching your startup concisely while hitting all the key points isn’t as easy as printing ‘Hello World’ on your console (programmer joke).

But, it’s okay because it’s how everyone starts off too.

Perfecting your pitch doesn’t happen overnight, I know that. This is why The Refiners strongly implements their startups to pitch at least 3 to 4 days a week during their 3-month accelerator program.

With all seriousness, pitching your startup is something you must know how to do on-the-fly because you’ll never know who you’ll be standing next to at Philz Coffee (it's the Starbucks of Silicon Valley) tomorrow morning at 8 a.m.

It’s important to have your entire team, yes, even the developers, know how to pitch your startup crisp and consistent. Just like how your top salesman would. That’s how everyone on your team should pitch.

Wait, I didn’t sign up for this...

Is what I’m sure you’re thinking right now and what I’m assuming every CEO or Co-founder’s said at some point in their startup. Not to mention all the non-sales people who now has to perfect your pitch and do your work on top of that. FML.

"When you’re trying to be good at everything, you stop being a Chief Executive Officer and you become Chief Excremental Officer…" - Carlos Diaz, Co-founder & CEO of The Refiners

That’s why you hire other people to do those things for you so you can run the company, duh.

But what about the early stage startups that don't have the resources to hire people?

This is the position for a lot of you and it’s the sad truth, I know. At the end of the day, if you want your startup to success and be the next tech unicorn, you need...A great team, yes, but more importantly, money.

And the only way to get money is to convince investors that you’re actually doing something for the greater good and it’s a project that will ultimately change how the world lives.

It’s a tall order, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

Kind of like what Albert Einstein said…

via Pinterest

via Pinterest


1. Speak English, please

This rule applies to all the foreign founders. From my experience at The Refiners, I know how it’s silly to speak in English all the time because you’re always around foreigners! So why not speak the native tongue? The answer is obvious.

Everyone in Silicon Valley speaks in English. Even if it’s not their first language.

At The Refiners, their handbook’s first rule is to “speak English” at all times. There’s a reason why it’s number one. It’s because the people you’ll end up connecting with at Philz will want to hear more about your startup, but if they can’t understand you, you just wasted valuable time that might’ve led to a partnership.

I’m not saying that you have to be fluent with absolutely no accent. What I’m saying is to just fit the part and sound like it too.

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2. Tell A Story

Definitely the most important and impactful rule of all.

Your goal is to get your listener locked into what you’re saying so you’re able to convert them from a lead to a partner.

The best way to do that is by creating an emotional connection with the listener by making them feel empathy from your story.

A study by Paul Zak from Claremont Graduate University said that a neurochemical called oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown kindness. This is what drives motivation to cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing our sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions.

"Many business people have already discovered the power of storytelling in a practical sense – they have observed how compelling a well-constructed narrative can be. But recent scientific work is putting a much finer point on just how stories change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors." - Paul Zak founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies

Don’t misunderstand what I mean by telling a story...When I say, tell a story, I’m not asking you to tell me your career and entire life story.

Telling a story in this context means to explain to the listener (aka investor) how your startup got to this point. Tell them why you’re here, what’s your purpose, what special moment made this dream a reality?

Because in the end, we’re all social creatures that want to relate to other people.

So figure out what your story is so you’re able to tap into their brain and capture their hearts.

via Unsplash

via Unsplash

The Refiners knows the impact of telling a great story, so they hire a storytelling coach for every fleet because of how difficult it is for foreign founders to grasp this cultural paradigm. It also doesn’t help that these founders are as good at telling a story as Americans are with eating healthy; not good at all.

Fortunately for them, The Refiners only invites experts for their program’s mentors, and the storytelling expert is Erica Lee.

Erica’s objective is to teach coach these startups how to tell their startup’s story the most effective and empathetic way possible. Trust me when I say that she’s good at what she does.

We did an exercise with her where the startups would provide causal information about what their startup is, maybe 60 seconds or less, and she’ll instantly whip up a pitch with a storyline that’ll hook you into buying whatever she’s selling, I mean storytelling.

In addition to her identifying the cultural differences with American conversation style with the rest of the world, she also spent a lot of time on what she calls, the Keys to Every Single Interaction:

  1. Connection

  2. Empathy

  3. Starting point

  4. Leveling the playing field

  5. Influence

  6. Action

If you want to learn more about storytelling, give this article a read.

This isn’t what I was taught in France!

The way you pitch your company in the U.S. is way different from how you would pitch in another country; let’s say France, for example. I know this because The Refiners specializes in foreign founders, most of this batch comes from France.

I did a survey with all of the founders of the startups in Fleet #2 and I asked them all the same question…“What is the difference with pitching in Silicon Valley than pitching in France?”

Every single one of them said the French culture and American culture have one major difference when you pitch your startup. That is, in the French Culture, your objective is to start off by rolling out the new features of your product, its revenue, pretty much any type of data you can provide to show quantifiable results.

Sure, people in Silicon Valley want numbers, all of it. But they need to be sold by more than that. They want to be captivated and inspired before they decide to buy in.

If you think about it, this causes a lot of friction with the normality of simply being able to tell a story for the French culture. This is something Americans were brought up as kids to do.

Heck, I remember homework was telling my 2nd Grade class about what I did over the weekend. Now I realize that I was being bred to be an awesome story teller. It’s a gift and a curse really.

3. Get Straight to the Point

Yes, please do.

Keep your pitch short and sweet.

The people you’ll be pitching to don’t have a lot of time so make sure you’re being direct with what you’re looking to gain out of the meeting.

An interesting difference I found from surveying is that the French way of communicating tends to be more complex so their message isn’t as direct as to how an American would be.

The main thing you need to understand is that people here in Silicon Valley want to genuinely help you. People here believe in doing things for the greater good. Paying it forward = good karma for them.

It’s also smart to note that you don’t want to burn any bridges, EVER.

Just like that 'highly probable’ moment at Philz Coffee, your startup has the potential to be big. What investor wouldn’t want to speak with you when that happens ;)


Coming from another country means that you’ve probably been brought up learning the complete opposite of what is taught in America...And that’s okay!

It’s how you adapt yourself and embrace yourself with the culture so you’re not only speaking in like you’re from Silicon Valley, but you’re thinking like a Silicon Vallian too.

Lastly, make sure you follow the 3 rules to a successful pitch:

  1. Speak English

  2. Tell a story

  3. Get straight to the point

If you had the same experience or even a totally different experience, please share your comment below! I want to hear about what rules you think I should change or add to this toolkit.

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