Jerry Seinfeld used to do a bit where he noted that the number one fear most people have is speaking in public, followed in second place by the fear of death. “That means that, if given a choice of what to do at a funeral, most people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.” I’m sure there was a “what’s the deal with that” thrown in there for good measure, but his point is a good one. Trying to present to a group of people can be an overwhelming experience, even under the best of circumstances. It takes practice and confidence in your mastery of the material, particularly when you’re trying to pitch yourself or your product. Winning over a potential partner without putting in serious preparation time puts your entire pitch at risk, but it happens all the time, because people assuming they can simply wing it and still succeed.
This is actually a topic we get into at some length with clients, because it’s a lot easier to create valuable data than to get into a room an explain it. We see one of two scenarios happening. In situation one, you run into the Asymmetrical Knowledge Problem. Here, you decide to send someone from the sales or marketing team in with shiny powerpoint slides and a great sense of confidence. Unfortunately, your prospective partner has two data scientists sitting in, and they want to hear all about how you’ll use API calls to automate data inflows and how you’re able to meaningfully differentiate structured and unstructured data before you autopopulate fields in your SQL database. Your marketing guru gives a few “umms” and explains that they’d be happy to send more information over in a second PowerPoint deck. Bzzz, no thanks, next.
In the Expert Droning Scenario, we run into the opposite problem. There, you someone from your team with a fantastic knowledge of data science or the underlying data gets up, uses terms that sound like zoology (“We were never that reliant on using Pandas when we used Python but we think Hadoop is better to identify bugs”) that, while valuable, don’t connect with the sales and leadership team you’re selling to. Eyes glaze, attention flags, and your deal falls through. Some things never change.
Split the Difference
Fortunately, there are some rules you can follow that will make data presentation less of a minefield. Obviously, there’s no substitute for data presentation by someone who really understands what they’re talking about but who also is a captivating presenter. Yes, that can be a hard combination to find, but it’s not only worth the effort, it’s the kind of thing that yields dividends over the long term. You don’t necessarily need a dedicated data evangelist, but you need someone who knows how to carry a room. Sometimes that person already works at your company — if you find, for instance, that someone close to your data can not only explain how you use it but sees its potential and gets excited about it, ask her to make a presentation to your team. Sometimes, all it takes to find talent in your company is a low-stakes trial pitch to show how it’s done.
Once you’ve found your presenter, think about the structure of your pitch. First, present the data value in person if possible. Depending upon what industry or data specialty you reside in, this initial meeting may happen quickly, or it may take a while to set up. To speed the process, you may want to convey some of your initial value proposition early and, depending on the value of the data partnership to your strategy, you may even convey that you are willing to barter data for similarly valued data in return. This can take a lot of the “pitchiness” out of the discussion early, if in fact, you are seeking to start with a partnership and not a purchase. One strategy is to share portions of the data brief presentation in your first few emails along with an explanation of why you see a potential partnership creating additional value for both firms.
At the in-person meeting or video conference, your firm should walk through the entire data brief, promising to share the presentation after the call. This ensures you keep their attention on the discussion, because the goal is to learn as much as possible about their data business and needs. By asking discovery questions related to each slide in your presentation, you seek to uncover the same information about their business that you are willing to share about your own. What is their current data about? How much data do they currently have? What is the refresh rate of their data? How do their fill rates look? Each answer you provide about your data should be followed by a discovery question to understand what they may have in terms of datasets.
Keep it Secret, Keep it Safe
While many meetings in Silicon Valley or San Francisco don’t happen now without first completing a mutual non-disclosure agreement, or MNDA, you may be able to have the initial discovery meeting without one. You should conduct a thorough legal review with your counsel to determine what level of information you are willing to share before or after an MNDA is executed. That said, the MNDA is an excellent follow up for any initial meeting between two potential data partners, where the MNDA is used as a stepping stone to the second and third files: the data catalog and the sample data file.
Who drafts the MNDA? Most large or public companies require that firms have a standard MNDA to maintain consistency across the organization. Regardless, if you are provided an MNDA by an interested potential partner, have your attorney review and provide reasonable feedback. At this point, you may also get your first glimpse into what dealing with this company will be like should you continue further in a data partnership discussion. A company’s MNDA can be completely mutual or mostly one-sided in their favor. In reviewing the document with your counsel, take note of what stance this counter-party typically starts with, as it is likely you will experience that approach as you continue negotiations. As long as your rights are protected in the NDA, you can be confident, but you can’t discuss terms or undertake discussions outside the scope of the NDA if you want to protect your assets. Remember: inside the NDA, it’s okay.
When you are drafting your own MNDA, there are a few keys points to consider. First, you should recognize that not everyone who wants to view your presentation is making a good faith effort to get to know your business. The risk is an obvious one: unsavvy company meets unsavory one and the crown jewels are stolen. It isn’t likely, of course, and it may not ever happen, but you can’t ignore the risk of a potential partner using your presentation to pilfer valuable data. The question to ask when you are being stonewalled about an MNDA is “why are they not willing to agree to mutually protect our interests?” If there isn’t a meaningful or satisfactory answer to that question, then you are unlikely to go forward with a productive partnership.
Second, when structuring your presentation, don’t forget that not all of your data has the same value. There are times when it may make sense to reveal some information (as an opening salvo) rather than to require everything under the sun to fall within the MNDA. You have to determine the value of the data relative to the benefits it provides and its status as a component of your presentation. If you think that giving a little information away will garner goodwill and help close a deal, it may make sense to exclude it from the scope of your MNDA – it’s really a decision you have to make dependent upon the circumstances. There is no one-size-fits all here. We have witnessed massive global organizations that have a completely healthy and fair-minded approach to disclosure agreements while tiny shops that are terrified of sharing any data will request complete and total confidentiality around all aspects of their data. Figure out a balance that works.
That balance means that you need a thoughtful, step by step approach to what you share in terms of data. Some datasets refresh or change so quickly that a sample data file might be worthless in a matter of days (think of weather forecasts). Other datasets contain a substantial amount of value where sharing them might present a conundrum where their value can’t be protected easily. These situations require the thorough review and alignment with your attorney.
Ultimately, any good pitch for a data partnership boils down to two things: competence and confidence. You need to be fully versed in the details of your data and understand its value. You have to be so sure of its potential usefulness that you go in with the likeliest questions mapped out and ready to go. But you need to be confident enough that you can present to a room of decisionmakers with enthusiasm and clarity. Remember that confidence also means protecting what you have with an MNDA and a refusal to sell yourself short. Getting to a pitch meeting is hard enough, but by following the steps we set out here, you can help ensure that the meeting is worth the effort.