The Game of 20 Questions and the 5 Minute Pitch – What they have in common


When my parents needed to keep the kids busy during the long drive in the country, my parents would occasionally start the game of 20 questions.  For those who are not familiar with this game, it is a rather simple, yet challenging, game: the keeper has to imagine a thing, person or animal, and the others have to determine what is the object, etc., with no more than 20 questions. The one who figures out the actual object, etc., with the fewest questions wins. Only one freebie is allowed: Is it animal, vegetable or mineral?  Once that is determined, the game begins. One memorable challenge was the actual bathtub in which the mathematician exclaimed “Eureka” for the displacement of water by weight.

How is this relevant in a pitch to investors?  Only a few days ago, I observed several Finnish companies pitching to a panel of 3 investors.  They had a time limitation in which to present their business for potential investment within an allotted time of 5 minutes. Virtually all had failed the game of 20 questions in their short pitches. One described his business that related to laser equipment.  After several interactions, one then knew that the company is simply an integrator.  Another presenter did not know the extent of the competitive environment.  Others left gaps to understanding the business.

Meanwhile, the panel, composed of 3 potential VC investors, is challenged by not having a complete understanding of what each company brings to the table. Like the game of 20 questions, they are attempting to grasp what the company manufactures, what the competitive environment looks like, and the size of the market potential.

First, it behooves the presenter to understand the perspective of the investors.  In the case of one company, it was simply an integrator of hardware — nothing proprietary.  Why bother presenting to an audience interested in 10x companies while the integrator is worth 1x EBITDA?

Secondly, investors are an impatient group.  They are emailed to death, sit through countless pitches, and participate in many panels. The last thing they want is to face unclear pitches, when they have observed excellent ones in the past.  Even if the startup has an excellent product, a bad pitch will taint the true value of the company while irritating the panelists.

One must state in one line what are you as a company (animal, vegetable or mineral/ service provider, manufacturer of devices, etc.), the size of the addressable market, and the unique proposition (the technology).  Then focus on traction and team.  These topics have been discussed in previous blogs. And, if you start to treat the 5-minute pitch as a 20 question game, then you’d know what to present to potential investors.


About Juan Ramón Zarco, SVVGP 胡安•雷蒙•扎尔科

Juan Ramon Zarco, 胡安•雷蒙•扎尔科, Silicon Valley Ventures Growth Partners llp, Hygieia Healthcare Technologies Company, AllRest Technologies LLC, Crimson Growth Partners LLP,, is an experienced as CxO, General Counsel and Secretary to public and private companies with global operations. Established track record of producing practical, revenue-focused solutions. As Counselor and Secretary, demonstrating vision, integrity, and sound business judgment, to CxOs. Managed complex, strategic transactions, M&A, contracts support, PE Financing, IPO, SEC compliance, Corporate/HR governance, IP licensing, Budgeting, Staff, outside counsel management, International market access strategies, Domestic & foreign government relations and advocacy. Creative in designing and implementing market access strategies. Practices law beyond conventional model with low-overhead and project-based fees. Effective at managing departments, formulating marketing strategies, balancing budgets, and implementing cost-saving measures. Extensive in-house and private practice experience, advising clients on commercial, corporate, international business, and technology law and policy.; For Sprint, he managed iDen international development in Southeast Asia, Middle East, and Africa, and contractual issues with Verizon. In Private Equity, he worked with Pegasus in vetting international investment deals and interim President for portfolio companies, such as Data Foundation, a data storage company, handling marketing, strategy, fund raising, and accounting. Before Pegasus, Mr. Zarco, as CLO and V.P. of Corporate Development, played a principal role in the structuring, international expansions for 2 telecom companies, U.S. Cable Group and Viatel, Inc. in financing and M&A deals exceeding $200 million. Mr. Zarco earned a J.D. from NYU Law School, M.B.A. from Cornell, and B.A. from Williams College; is fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, French, and German, with working knowledge of Russian, Arabic and Japanese.
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2 Responses to The Game of 20 Questions and the 5 Minute Pitch – What they have in common

  1. Brad K says:

    “for the displacement of water by weight.” – Shouldn’t that read ‘by volume’ instead? 🙂

    Interesting article. Can you ask unlikely investors for a ‘practice pitch’ session? Someone could practice and refine their pitch all month long with friends, family, and SCORE advisers but I can imagine that everything changes and the pass/fail bar is set much higher when someone has their money at stake.

    What are your thoughts on the idea of reaching out to actual investors to help refine your pitch? Would this simply annoy them?


    • For me personally, the executive team should get together and write the first few lines that investors will hear or read. Normally, investors run an investment firm, not a classroom. It is easier for them to say “no”, “pass”, or simply not return phone calls, rather than point out the mistakes or lack of clarity for the pitch.Wall Street banks pay dearly to their team of people who do that exactly for the S1s and it is reflected in the engagement letter pricing. And they are good at it. For startups, it must be interna or pay someone else to do it for them. The problem with free advice is that you get what you pay for– not truthfull criticism of the pitch.

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