How to Pitch a Mental Health Startup: 10 Lessons Learned From 150 Pitches

Article written by Stephen Hays



In 2018, I almost lost my life to addiction and untreated bipolar disorder.


In 2019, I tried to raise a seed fund to invest in mental health startups. Investors laughed at me and told me they would never give money to someone who, at that time, only had a few months of sobriety. So, I launched What If Ventures as a syndicate.


In January 2020, we invested in our first mental health startup (Foresight Mental Health) with 15 investors in our syndicate. As we near the end of 2020, we have invested in eight mental health startups, deploying a total of $4.6mm, and we have grown our investor base to over 3,000 investors.


We have talked to more than 1,000 founders who are building in the mental health space. Many of them ask for help and advice around similar things. While we can’t stop what we are doing and help everyone one-on-one, we did realize we could build a program to help accelerate company building in this sector.


So, we launched the What If Fellowship — a cohort-based program to help entrepreneurs accelerate their startups toward their end goals (which could be raising money, or not, depending on the business).


At the time of this writing, the first cohort is coming to a close. Over the last two months, we hosted over a dozen pitch practice sessions where our founders had a chance to pitch for three minutes and get two minutes of feedback from an active mental health investor (some VCs, some angels, etc.). The direct feedback was very impactful for these founders, but so was the secondary feedback they received by hearing what these investors said to their peers during pitch practice.


I learned a lot from this feedback as well and put together a list of the 10 most common questions and points of feedback that we heard over the course of the more than 150 pitches in the last eight weeks during our program. I wanted to share that feedback here.


1. Why you?

Most people, including investors and founders, have been touched by mental health differences or addiction in one way or another. Just about everyone building or investing in this space has a personal reason for doing so. Make sure you communicate your “why” early in your pitch so you forge a personal connection with the person on the other side of the table.


2. Frame the Problem Clearly

It is not enough to simply use some stats from the NAMI website showing that 1 in 5 Americans experience mental illness each year (or some other widely known statistic). Just regurgitating random statistics may impress an investor who has never seen them before, but you need to clearly and concisely articulate who feels what pain and how painful it is for them, as well as how many people you think could benefit from the solution you’re about to propose. Oftentimes, I see founders relying on “1 in 5 people have mental health problems” and that’s just not good enough here. Get specific.


3. Show the Cost of the Problem

For the people who feel the pain point, exactly how painful is it? Is solving the problem even worth it to them or to whomever is paying for it? The answer is mostly likely yes, so find a way to convince someone of that in clear and simple language.


4. How effective is the solution?

You’d be shocked at how many pitches don’t even touch on clinical effectiveness, which often makes me wonder if there’s any scientific validity to what is being presented at all. In order to avoid that inherent doubt in the mind of the investor, tackle this at the onset. Talk about how someone other than you has produced concrete clinical research that validates your thesis, showing that the problem can be solved effectively.


5. How are you different?

The human experience is quite consistent among all 8 billion of us. Ideas are usually not unique. There are very few truly unique solutions in the mental health market. Founders are competing to differentiate themselves on product development, traction, go-to-market, patient condition and execution — not on the idea itself. Founders need to show command of the competitive landscape, even the non-tech solutions, and show how their solution differs in a way that will make people want and need to use it. Most investors in the mental health space have already met your competition, so avoiding talking about it risks making you appear naïve.


6. What is value proposition to the user / payer?

So many pitches in this space lean on the logic as follows:

- We help people improve mental health

- Better mental health is good

- Therefore we are good

That’s not going to cut it. After you outline the extent of the pain you are solving, you need to clearly and simply explain the value proposition to the end user and payer (if they are not the same entity). Many investors do an automatic calculation in their mind where they balance the cost of the pain with the cost of the solution — in both dollars and effort required — to determine if product market fit will ever be viable. So, make the math easy on them: Tell them exactly how much value is received by the user because of your solution. This should be easy to do if you’ve defined the problem correctly.


7. How much is a customer worth to you?

This seems so simple and straightforward, yet it is often overlooked. You need to tell the investor how much each customer is worth to you. Most SaaS or consumer startups know this and never need this feedback, but a lot of the founders building in the mental health space seem to miss this crucial point. I think it has to do with the fact that you’re usually going to be guessing at this number in a pre-seed or seed stage pitch, whereas most founders in this space are from science or clinical backgrounds where guessing is dangerous.

I get it, but this isn’t providing care. This is pitching for funding. Your estimate, supported by your logic and assumptions, is exactly what investors are looking to judge you on. Don’t make them struggle to get this insight from you. Put it in the deck. Guess if you have to, but be able to justify the guess somehow.


8. Who is the coder on the team?

This comes up a lot in the broader digital health space. Often, we see a team with a strong combination of entrepreneurial skill and clinical background, but there’s no obvious “tech person” on the team who will actually be coding the product. If there is coding to be done, then make it clear who is doing it. If you’re outsourcing it for now, then that’s okay — say that. But overlooking this makes investors judge you in a negative way. It’s okay that you’re outsourcing your coding to a team in eastern Europe; in fact, some investors (not all) prefer that, so don’t be ashamed. If an investor doesn’t like it, then you can tell them you’re raising money to remedy that and bring tech talent onto the team.


9. Show Traction , Any Traction, Up and To the Right

There must be some data point, or some proof that has caused you to quit your job, forgo other professional alternatives and throw all your energy into this startup. That data point is probably some kind of traction, no matter how small, around your idea, your technology, customer usage, engagement, retention etc. So, show it.


You may not have any customer or usage data at pre-seed, and that’s fine. But you should have done some kind of customer discovery work by the time you’re pitching and you need to show this. Tell investors how many customers you talked to, and what you asked and what they answered. Try to quantify those conversations and that feedback to justify your problem and solution defined above.


In a perfect world, you have some kind of data to show, whether it’s website visits, downloads, survey answers, or fist bumps on the sidewalk while wearing a sandwich board with your logo on it. Show it in your pitch.


10. Use a Deck Designer

This seems so simple, right? Or maybe you’re a PowerPoint wizard and you’d never outsource this. Do it anyway. As a CEO, your ability to outsource and leverage resources is important and if it looks like you decided to forgo getting help on your deck appearance in order to save a few bucks, then a lot of investors will worry about your stewardship of your time and their money in the future. Invest in your presentation. Make it pop. It’s worth it, and other startups — your competition for funding — are doing this. It makes a difference.


Demo Day

These lessons learned were derived from direct feedback provided by venture investors who have deployed capital into mental health startups. The feedback was given during one of 15 pitch practice sessions conducted during the first cohort, which began in early October 2020.

These companies have made incredible progress during that time and will be pitching to more than 300 investors, live, during Demo Day on December 1st, 2020.


If you are an investor and you’d like to attend Demo Day, you can request admission here.

If you are a founder and you want to know more about the fellowship, then you can learn more on the fellowship webpage here.


About the Author: Stephen Hays — After decades of addiction and struggling with bipolar disorder, Stephen was fortunate to receive help and has focused his attention on funding solutions to the problems he lived with. You can read more about his story here.


About What If Ventures What If Ventures exists to invest in mental health and addiction focused startups. Investors can apply to join the deal distribution email list here.


More on the What If Fellowship in this blog post here.


About the Author

Stephen Hays

Mental Health Focused Venture Capitalist


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