What does Thomas Ahn of Mad Ventures look for in a pitch? Personality.

This may seem a bit counterintuitive. Don’t investors want to open the hood of your company and see how everything works before listening to your story? Not to Ahn, who believes it all comes down to personal connection and building a relationship.

Ahn isn’t alone. The emphasis on personal connection in a pitch is as old as Aristotle, who described the three key elements of a successful presentation as pathos, ethos, and logos. Pathos is empathy and building an emotional connection with your audience. Ethos is credibility, conveying confidence and expertise. And logos – which Aristotle believes should only be displayed once a personal bond and credibility are established, is the substantiation of your argument. In other words, before you get to the facts, you need to pitch your personality and credibility.

What else does Ahn look for in a pitch? Here are a few key pointers that should help anyone who wants to get more than advice from him.

Hear the full interview here


Breakthrough technology is important, as is having a product that will find an eager market. But Ahn thinks the real differentiator is entrepreneur grit.

“Startups are all about ups and downs. I need to know that the person in front of me has the determination to see through the tough times.”

Ahn believes some demonstration of traction is important, but sees it more as greens fees. Ultimately, the pitch has to convey passion and determination – the qualities that will see you through if the hockey stick of growth suddenly takes a turn in the wrong direction.

Don’t spill your guts

Ahn doesn’t want to hear everything about you, your company, your hopes, dreams, aspirations and pet’s name. Discipline is as important as storytelling.

He’s a big believer in Guy Kawasaki’s 10 slide rule  that includes these key elements:

  • What’s the problem you’re solving?
  • What’s the value of the pain you’re alleviating?
  • Where’s the magic in your solution?
  • Who has the money, and how are you going to make them spend it on your product?
  • How are you going to market without breaking the bank?
  • Who are your competitors?
  • Who is helping you?
  • Three year projections including dollars, customers and conversions?
  • Current status of your startup?

Know me as a person

Ahn sees great value in getting to know entrepreneurs long before they come looking for investment.

“I’m a fan of making this like a dating process. I can’t make a decision to invest in fifteen minutes. The earlier you reach out with updates, challenges and questions, the better.”

In essence, Ahn believes that the pitch begins long before the pitch. This isn’t surprising to anyone who understands the value of chemistry and personal relationships in achieving successful outcomes, but it is a revelation to entrepreneurs who are convinced the world should simply see the value in what they do.

“I see lots of people who hide in the garage or in front of their screen, trying to come up with something that will transform the universe. I believe it’s far more important to connect with mentors early, and really dig into your business with them. If nothing else, this process helps you build a relationship and perhaps even a friendship.”

Five mentors

Ahn believes entrepreneurs shouldn’t have a mentor. Instead, they should have five.

“If you have a mentor, that’s no guarantee you’ll come up with a great solution – we’re only human. But if you have five, your odds of coming up with answers that work is much higher.”

In addition to providing input, these mentors become a network to investors. Not only do you have five people working on your idea, but you have five rolodexes being put to work looking for your investment. Simply put, it’s like having five respected people doing your pitch for you.

The best thing you ever saw in a pitch

Ahn recounted his favourite pitch story. True to form, it was all about personality and relationship, not charts and slides.

“About five years ago, I had a coffee with a previously successful entrepreneur who was in a slump year. He had his tail between his legs.

Something clicked. I understood his new idea, even though it wasn’t fully formed.

So I told him “I don’t know what you want to do, or how you want to do it, or how many pivots it’s going to take, but here’s a $100,000 cheque – see what you can come up with.””

Parting thought

Ahn finished our interview with this story’s headline thought – if you come to me looking for money, you’ll probably get my advice. But if you come to me looking for advice, you might just walk away with money.

To Ahn, personality, humility and grit are paramount. A refreshing way to do business. And a great reminder that an idea is only as good as the person pitching it.

Don’t miss next week’s interview with Jeff Cherry of Conscious Venture Lab / Conscious Venture Fund. Sign up for updates here.