The software industry is no spring chicken, and that fact has now brought us to an interesting moment in technology. Some of the biggest legacy apps — ubiquitous as they may be — are getting revisited by smaller and more fleet-of-foot startups, who are building new apps that they hope will disrupt their respective Goliaths. In the latest turn, a startup out of Berlin — whose founders have already sold a company to Microsoft — is today announcing the closed beta of Pitch, a new take on presentation software that hopes to compete against the likes of… Microsoft, specifically PowerPoint.
Along with this, Pitch is announcing that it has raised an additional $30 million in funding led by Thrive Capital, with participation also from Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger (Instagram’s co-founders) and Rahul Vohra (Superhuman’s founder). It comes on top of a $19 million round Pitch raised a year ago from Index Ventures, BlueYard, Slack, and a number of other angels well versed in the art of software disruption (they included the CEO of Zoom, the CEO of DataDog and the co-founder of Elastic).
Founded by the same people who built Wunderlist — the popular to-do app (backed by many of the same investors) that Microsoft acquired in 2015 and then eventually announced it would shut down to develop its own competing service, To-Do — Pitch has been fairly under the radar since last October while it has been building the first version of its service. (The founders include CEO Christian Reber, along with Vanessa Stock, Marvin Labod, Adam Renklint, Charlette Prevot, Jan Martin, Eric Labod, and Misha Karpenko.)
The invite-only phase that we are in now is a gradual advancement on that. The purpose of the beta, Reber noted in an interview, is to gather usage information and feedback from beta testers to figure out how to shape the app for a future full launch.
This means that there isn’t really a product to test quickly right now — when I asked, Reber told me that I would need to wait at least a few weeks go get on-boarded — but that the wheels are definitely in motion, now fuelled by a significant amount of capital.
The main push behind building Pitch, Reber said, was the idea of revisiting processes that have been around for a long time, and that are very entrenched as a result, but don’t actually work that well and could stand to be rethought with all of the advances of technology in mind.
PowerPoint is a prime candidate for disruption: launched waaaay back in 1987 (!), and it has over 1 billion installations and 500 million users, making it the biggest and oldest rooster in a large field of presentation tools that might also be a little past their sell-by dates.
“We loved the idea of building pitch as a product,” he said. “There has been so much innovation in design in the last few years, when you consider companies like Figma, and it led us to wonder: why have presentation tools stagnated? We loved the idea of building a better version of PowerPoint, but my business brain told me it’s a terrible idea. Why enter a market with products like Keynote and PowerPoint?”
The answer to that question came when the team started to play around with prototypes to get feedback from friends, which Reber said helped them understand the business opportunity of changing what is essentially a stagnant format into a living one. That positive progress found through dialogue with users is also a big reason, I’m guessing, behind why Pitch is continuing to extend the testing and feedback before building phase into a closed beta.
Reber said the choice to build Pitch was also informed by his experience as an investor, where he has focused on a number of apps that are also rebuilding services otherwise dominated by established software. (His investment portfolio includes Notion, which is building a virtual workspace, and whose founder is also in return investing in Pitch.)
There’s an interesting lesson to be learned in the launch of Pitch when you consider what else has been occupying Reber’s time on the work front: he has also been busy trying to buy back Wunderlist, which despite the announcement that it would shut down, still remains operational and has millions of active users.
Reber said that he has no regrets about selling Wunderlist when he did. Although the company was growing, he felt that ultimately there needed to be a bigger platform play that they didn’t feel they had the firepower to build, and looking at the fate and downfall of Evernote — always a big inspiration for Reber and his team — he knew they made the right choice by selling to Microsoft.
Be that as it may, though, seeing the product languish and get ignored under its current, big owner has been tough.
“I emailed the leadership team at Microsoft quite a few times to see if I could buy it back, since I could see that it was struggling to shut it down without screwing the users,” he said, making them an offer: “You can give it back to me. Keep the team and everything else if you want. Everyone wins.” Not so fast and easy, however. A year later, and he’s now taken his pitch (so the speak!) to Twitter. “They have gone radio silent,” he said.
While Wunderlist might have emerged at a time when it might not have been possible to conceive of how to build an app without the platform play firmly in place around it, it seems that this is a maxim that is not quite as simple anymore — reason why Reber thought he could buy back Wunderlist and run with it.
“The most challenging question for any new software company, especially if you think of the example of Slack, is the one of platform,” Reber said. “Microsoft is building Teams and pre-installing it on Windows, forcing users to at least try it. It’s an extremely unfair advantage in my opinion and something you are continually fighting against if you are a startup.
“But at the same time I think all these companies building new stuff are building things that connect deeply with each other — Slack, Zoom and Airtable are all tightly integrated. That means you can build really large companies without having whole suites of products.” Indeed, like these, the idea with Pitch will be to offer web-based versions alongside light apps that people can use if they choose to install them. Reading and interacting with a Pitch document won’t require software licenses, but offering a paid tier from the start for those who want to create them will be at the core of its business model.
(To wit: revenue generation was one small detail that Wunderlist didn’t focus on early enough, Reber noted: its main purpose was to build traction, similar to early Evernote and many others. That’s also a lesson learned.)
Longer term, there will need to be choices made about which direction a startup takes, whether to stay independent or make a play as a platform itself, or jump to another platform. But for now, those are not choices that Pitch will have to make.
“We invest in fast-growing companies with big market potential, and Pitch is in a strong position to create a great product in a market that’s ripe for change. The demand for Pitch is already clear by the thousands of companies who have expressed interest in the limited preview,” Joshua Kusher from Thrive Capital said in a statement. “We believe in Pitch both because of the product vision but also because of the team. As investors in Wunderlist, we built strong relationships with the founders and are excited to work with them again at Pitch.