Accountants have spreadsheets.
Painters have paint brushes.
And entrepreneurs have pitch decks.
Pitch decks are the tool they use to show insights, rally others, and demonstrate learning. But most young entrepreneurs at the earliest part of the process have a different problem: they don’t yet have the insights and learning to convey in the first place.
In this essay, I’m going to argue that we’ve had it wrong all along. The pitch deck isn’t the right tool for early stage entrepreneurs. Nor is a canvas.
Starting out, the personal newsletter is a better tool to build insights because it facilitates learning in public, emphasizes process, and allows one-to-many interactions.
In this piece, we’ll explain why newsletters are superior for learning and how to get started on a newsletter.
Newsletter vs pitch deck audiences
A pitch deck’s core function is to express a business opportunity to investors.
A personal newsletter’s function is to express an individual’s ideas to anyone who subscribes.
In the case of early stage entrepreneurs, the latter is more valuable because it focuses on the development of the entrepreneur. Not every business needs investors, and a vehicle that prioritizes the growth, thinking, and skills of the entrepreneur should come first.
What I mean by newsletter
When I say “newsletter,” I am not referring to a generic company newsletter that announces new products or a revenue-generating newsletter publication like Ben Thompsen’s Stratechery. I’m talking about a personal newsletter: a free, regular publication that gives the entrepreneur a vehicle to share learning, work through ideas, solicit feedback, and pose thoughtful questions.
Learning in public vs. learning in isolation
“Cavemanning” is a phrase to describe solitary founders who hide themselves away in a garage or a dorm to build a product. They emerge months later, and share their creation with the world. Most of the time, their product misses the mark because they failed to get enough feedback.
When you share your journey of learning in public, your potential for feedback skyrockets. The newsletter is the inverse of cavemanning. Newsletters are built for public consumption. Readers can suggest ideas that spark strategic shifts, meaningful connections, and resources that speed up the evolution of a business idea. This is another area where a canvas fails—because a completed canvas isn’t built for public sharing, feedback is limited and unintuitive.
Frequency of feedback
Opportunities to pitch arise infrequently and inconsistently. Which means opportunities for feedback on a pitch are similarly infrequent and inconsistent. Consistent, steady publishing cycles are a best practice for newsletter writers. If you publish weekly, your readers can offer feedback on a regular cadence.
A pitch is a snapshot, a newsletter is a process
Pitches are generally one-time affairs. You tend to have one shot, whether your audience is investors, customers, or startup competition judges. Newsletter subscriber relationships sustain: each mailing is a longer-form opportunity to develop the relationship and convey you, your ideas, and your potential.
Creating a successful newsletter demands sustained execution. A pitch involves preparation that culminates in a few moments of performance. And a canvas has no inbuilt schedule or timeline for completing the next iteration.
A standard best practice for newsletters is to send at the same time every week. Because of this, building a newsletter demands consistent, steady action and improvement over time. And in the startup game, steady progress beats inconsistent execution everytime.
The major counterargument to this point is that it takes time to build a consistent newsletter practice and an engaged audience. I agree. But doing so means that when the big pitching opportunities come, the entrepreneur is ready to capitalize. After just a few months of publishing a newsletter, awareness of the competitive landscape and clarity of thought will improve.
One-to-few vs. one-to-many
So much entrepreneurial knowledge is gained by way of coffee meetings and one-on-one zoom sessions. As a young entrepreneur, I treasured exchanges where a seasoned founder gave me advice. But one-on-one sessions don’t scale, for the advice-giver or the founder. And I wasn’t always having coffee with the right person.
A newsletter relaying my ideas, my approach, and my intent would have clarified where I was–for me and the person connecting with me—to ensure our meeting made sense.
How many subscribers?
You don’t need a huge subscriber base for a newsletter to be useful. When starting out, a personal newsletter is similar to an investor update. An investor update is the email that a founder sends to their investors to report progress and challenges. There are typically 10 or less recipients. A founder’s newsletter will begin with a similarly low number of recipients. And in a way, the recipients are investors—they are investing their time and attention in that founder.
Note also that the early days of writing a newsletter involve shouting into the void. You might have a readership of less than five people. This is exactly the same problem that early stage startups face. Crowded, noisy markets mean that having a product with no awareness is practically useless. See also the trend of startups such as Fast bringing on influencers (In this case, Matthew Kobach) before the product is released. In the era of audience first products, where distribution and reach are critical, this makes perfect sense.
Newsletters put audience building skills to the test well before the product development phase.
Your audience is your audience
Email is the last medium where you maintain a direct connection to your audience. And there are benefits to having a direct connection to your audience as opposed to algorithmically mediated relationships like Twitter and Facebook. This is a big deal: the greatest trick that Facebook ever pulled was making you have to pay money for your content to reach the audience you earned.
What should the entrepreneur write about?
You don’t have to be a brilliant writer or a visionary to share your thoughts and experiences. Thoughts and information related to the list below is guaranteed to be interesting to someone, whether that is someone experiencing the problem you find interesting, potential customers, or friends:
- Insights from customer interviews
- Photographs of prototype mockups
- Changes to your thinking
- Interesting findings from competitive research
- Analysis of relevant sectors
- Other entrepreneurs you encounter
While a pitch deck is built for an investor, there is a perspective where the newsletter is a more powerful indicator of potential. Imagine that you are an investor and there are two founders in front of you. One of them has a beautifully designed, elegantly constructed pitch deck. The other has a year-old newsletter with one hundred engaged subscribers and a well-documented evolution of strategy and thought.
One of these reveals audience building and execution skills where all we really know about the other is that they have a beautiful slide deck.
One of the biggest changes in entrepreneurship education was the insight that the entrepreneur should talk to customers before they build a product. A logical next step is that before an entrepreneur starts talking to customers, they should publish a newsletter.
Thanks to Alejandro, George, Nate, Ayomide, Jenn, Jim, Brendan, Sher, and Christina for reading earlier drafts