Entrepreneur Educator, Program Developer, Facilitator

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The first thing your customers see

How to avoid shooting yourself in the foot during first contact with customers and investors

I spent a week in Boston working with founders at Intel’s Ignite program, a corporate accelerator that helps deep tech startups find product/market fit and sell to enterprise. My role was to help these founders attract more customers and investors through video. I wrote this so people not in Intel’s program could benefit from what we covered.

The original Intel Ignite team in Israel

If you have an important meeting with a customer or an investor lined up, “first contact” is not when you meet in-person. More often than not, their first impression of you happens when you interact with them in Zoom.

Better pitching for an AI protein startup 

Chris Bahl, Founder of AI Proteins

Chris Bahl runs a biotech company called AI Proteins, which is part of the Intel Ignite accelerator. His company uses AI to hallucinate new forms of proteins. (Aside: how great is it that this is a perfectly normal sentence to write in 2023. We live in exciting times). Synthesizing new proteins opens the door to new types of therapeutics, which means Chris is developing new ways of healing injuries and ailments.

The company has raised $18 million to date. But for biotech, that is a modest sum. Biotech is capital intensive, and if Chris can’t raise more, he can’t get his dream of AI-synthesized protein therapeutics off the ground. So he pitches investors over Zoom as often as you or I buy groceries. A year ago, he pitched a certain VC. Securing this funding would have closed out the round on a high note, positioning the company for the next wave of growth. When the time came for the VC to make his decision, the answer was “we love what you’re doing, but…”

You know when words turn to mush because you already know the substance of what’s being said? Chris sighed and closed out the round without the support of this investor.  

This is when I enter the story. First, Chris and I workshopped his value prop and pitch. Next, we overhauled his Zoom setup: camera, lighting, audio, background, and composition. 

Bad Zoom setups are bad for business 

It’s bizarre to me that people still show up to meetings looking like they are in a hostage video. Business, no matter how focused on data and technology, still runs on relationships. Relationships develop through communication, most of which is nonverbal: facial expressions, vocal tones, body language. 

In Zoom, these non-verbal elements realize their full potential when the picture is crisp and the audio is clear. This is where connection happens and you, your company, and your potential can shine. It doesn’t matter how good the story of a company is if the delivery of that story is hampered by staticky audio and poor quality video.

Basic tips for a great Zoom setup

I gave Chris a gear list and we worked through the ALF (Audio, Lighting, Framing) framework:

  • Audio: purchase an inexpensive microphone, reduce ambient noise
  • Lighting: prioritize lighting the face, aim for the softest light possible
  • Framing: center yourself in the shot, fill the frame with your face, minimize headroom

“Something is Different”

Almost a year later, it was time to raise the next round of funding, which led to Chris having another meeting with the same investor. After he delivered the pitch, the investor literally said, “something is different this time.” Chris smiled, knowing exactly what had changed. A week later, AI proteins had a multi-million dollar round of fresh powder in the bank.

Chris before fixing his Zoom setup: distant, impersonal, washed out 

Chris after fixing his Zoom setup: confident, clear, creates a sense of connection

The future will laugh at us

A decade from now, we will be embarrassed that this is how we showed up in virtual meetings. Something essential to the fabric of work and  business was handled like an afterthought. 

But the most exciting part is that it’s an opportunity. Because so few make the effort to improve their setup, it takes minimal effort to look and sound better than 99% of people out there. Giving just a little attention to your audio, lighting, and framing will help you win over customers and investors, make your words resonate more deeply, and increase your impact to the other attendees. 

In part two, we’ll break down the other big first impression: a compelling startup website. We’ll break down key elements, whether to design for customers or investors, and a process for bulletproofing your messaging.

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Thanks to early readers: Latham Turner, Alex Telford