Pitching Pitch after raising $50 million: Q&A with serial Berlin startup founder Christian Reber

Pitching Pitch after raising $50 million: Q&A with serial Berlin startup founder Christian Reber

As you can read here, Berlin-based startup Pitch has just raised $30 million in additional funding to bolster the development efforts for its collaborative presentation software product, which it has just begun releasing to selected companies and teams.

We caught up with founder and CEO Christian Reber, who previously started Wunderlist and sold it to Microsoft a number of years ago, to ask a few more questions on top of the funding announcement.

tech.eu: You're building what you refer to as a 'collaborative presentation software' platform. What is so painful about the current solutions out there, and the way/speed with which they're evolving?

Christian Reber: When we started Pitch we conducted a lot of research and identified 4 major problems with presentation software:

  • Most presentations are being created from scratch, and not 'on brand' – users are forced to create most slides from scratch with existing software, using templates is often extremely painful for people. A lot of the work is repetitive and it's slowing down teams and companies dramatically. We've learned that people want to recycle presentations a lot, so we're investing heavily into making Pitch really fast, especially if you create slides you've created before.
  • It's painful to collaborate on slides – with software like Slack, Zoom and Figma, as designers, developers, or anyone really at modern companies we're used to working with truly collaborative software. It's easy to collaborate with big teams on projects, code, or designs. For some reason, it's really hard on slides. Pitch is truly collaborative, with powerful workflow features to help teams to coordinate work around slides effectively.
  • Integrating data is nearly impossible – most people take screenshots of data and charts, and put them into presentations. In the age of Slack, we felt like that's a problem that deserves to be solved. Our ambition is to seamlessly integrate Pitch with any tool you're already using.
  • Working with presentations is no fun – that's probably the biggest problem we've identified. People don't have a happy relationship with existing tools. In fact, they waste an enormous amount of time working on moving boxes around. There were so many smaller problems people had. Sharing, versioning, exporting, working on multiple devices, offline/online capibilities, broken fonts... the list goes on and on. A quote we heard from one of our research participants was: "I didn't go to business school to align boxes". We aim to fix all of those problems people have, step by step.

Joshua Kusher from Thrive Capital, a big investor in Pitch and in your previous startup Wunderlist, says the market for presentation software is 'ripe for change'. Yet we've already seen companies like Prezi come with truly novel ways to build and show presentations, and they are still a niche product after many years.

Obviously, you would agree with the fact that there's still a massive market here, but what will differentiate Pitch in a profound way?

Presentations have gotten a bad rep in general. Amazon famously switched from presentations to memos. We believe there's nothing inherently wrong with the format, but the tools. Presentation software stopped innovating on the core problems people have many years ago.

The big promise behind Pitch is a superior experience that is the sum of all changes, not a particular feature. It's blazingly fast and incredibly easy to use. It's optimized for teams, syncronizes seamlessly between all your devices, and connects with tools successful teams already use. We offer powerful templates, and tiny superpowers that make working with presentations fun again. People have a lot of time and energy invested in making presentations so we don't want to reinvent the wheel but rather focus on fixing everything that's broken with the tools we have today.

This invite-only beta comes roughly 21 months after the company was founded. Are you intentionally foregoing the MVP stage and making sure the product is super polished when the general public gets to take a look? Or is there another reason for the relatively long waiting time?

Many tools we're competing with were invented decades ago - for example, the first version of Powerpoint launched in 1987! So building Pitch fast and in the right way is a huge challenge, and involves many people, a lot of research, and most importantly, testing and iteration. We're working closely with our first customers, like teams at Notion, Zoom, Slack or Superhuman. When we founded Pitch last year we knew that it's going to take time to build a polished product – and we set ourselves a limit of 2 years to invite first customers. We've started inviting teams this August, and the feedback was very positive and useful, so I'm super happy to be able to start scaling invites now.

I love to build stuff quickly. For example, the very first version of Wunderlist only took a few weeks to build. But it was unstable, buggy, and simply not a great product. It took us 2-3 years to make Wunderlist rock-solid. I think the expectations for Pitch have been very high from the start, both from the market and ourselves, so we want to be sure we're launching something that people can love and we can be proud of. That said, we're almost there. We have a clear roadmap for the next 12 months, and are working as hard as we can to get it done. And with a solid foundation, we hope to be set up to move faster and scale quickly.

Which specific learnings from the Wunderlist days did you take away to build this company in the way that you are doing now? Which mistakes with recruitment, culture, product development, management, marketing etc. are you trying not to make (again)?

Great question. A million things to be honest. I was a first time startup CEO at Wunderlist, I made every mistakes one can make. I worked like a manic, and was completely burned out when the company got acquired by Microsoft (and so was the team).

At Pitch, my co-founders and I decided early on that we want to be extremely careful in how we build our business. We hire a lot more senior talent, and build a transparent culture that enables everyone to do their best work while being able to enjoy their private life. We are focused on building a stable and sustainable business. I was a real junior CEO at Wunderlist, and hired an experienced leadership team way too late – at Pitch we hired our leadership team in the first year.

As for the funding you've raised so far, there are some interesting angel investors on board, such as the founders of Instagram, Zoom, Elastic and SuperHuman. How were those connections and is there anything you can tell us about the process of getting them actively involved in financing and helping to grow Pitch?

We've always focused on getting partners on board that can be incredibly helpful, and are focused on product. Thrive for example was by far the most product-driven investor at Wunderlist, they provided incredibly useful feedback for us – that's why I was excited to work with them again. Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger from Instagram are product builders and leaders I've admired for years. Eric Yuan from Zoom built a product that blew me away after I started using it, and I want to create a business as successful as his.

We can learn so much from everyone we have on board, and that was the motivation behind it. The process of getting them involved is pretty easy. I write monthly updates and I talk with most of my investors quite frequently. I often ask for feedback on product, hiring, pricing, or any other strategic topics. I'm really happy with the our investors - they're definitely a great group of individuals to work with and learn from.

Going back to your previous startup Wunderlist, you've been public about the fact that you're sad about Microsoft shutting down the product following its acquisition, even offering to buy it back from them. Have they reached out at all, and what would you do if it were to actually happen?

I think Microsoft To-Do is a solid replacement for many people, but not the ultimate todo app that people deserve. Microsoft went radio-silent on me some time ago and I actually offered a buy-back many times before I tweeted about it recently (that's the only reason I made my offer public in the first place). I published a public roadmap for what I would do with it. Even competitors got excited about seeing Wunderlist coming back, but I guess at this point it's quite clear that Microsoft prefers to retire a product that people love rather than giving it back to me :) But to be clear, this has nothing to do with Pitch.

Following on from that, what lessons did you take away from the whole acquisition story that will help you build Pitch into a stronger stand-alone company?

Be ready for constant change, and don't get too attached to what you create. Even though Wunderlist was a great success, in reality it wasn't a fairytale. I'm not building companies to become an employee at a giant corporation. So this time I'm taking revenue growth very seriously, early on. Wunderlist was a pure consumer product, and we were really successful in getting a lot of users – but we didn't have a great offering for business customers. With Pitch we still want to grow a product that can scale globally very quickly, but we intend to focus much more on teams and companies where there's a clear path to sustainability.

Generally speaking, what's your impression of the Berlin startup ecosystem these days? You have had an inside view for many years; what in your opinion has changed, for better or worse?

Berlin's startup ecosystem changed dramatically since the Wunderlist days (~2010). You have significantly more active investors, raising money is not a challenge anymore. Due to global politics it's also really easy now to attract international senior talent (thank you Trump), which is absolutely amazing for us. I think Berlin is one of the most comfortables places to both start a family and live in peace, while also having amazing career opportunities in international companies.

Unfortunately there are downsides to it. The ecosystem is growing so quickly now that Berlin is struggling with offering enough real estate (especially commercial spaces, but also apartments).

One thing we also really need to fix though is taxation for employee stock options.

Thanks Christian, and we'll be giving Pitch a whirl here as well!

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