November 20, 2013
This article was previously published on Tech Cocktail partner 1776‘s website for The Challenge Cup. This event is a global competition to identify and celebrate the most promising startups tackling the biggest challenges. You can learn more about The Challenge Cup here.
In the world of startups, the following scene plays out over and over again: An eager founder finds himself in front of someone who can make a difference for his or her business. It could be a potential investor, mentor or customer. Success for a startup requires making the most of each of these moments.
Yet, it continues to amaze me how many founders blow their chances when given this opportunity.
There are many ways to blow it. But there are some simple steps founders can take to make their pitch work.
What Not To Do: “EduZoom is a social learning platform that leverages big data and behavioral economics to incentivize learners and teachers to share in a collaborative active learning experience. We’re going to transform a $400 billion market!”
I hear a lot of startup pitches. Between our incubator program at 1776, angel investing and the Challenge Cup, I’ve probably heard more than 100 pitches a month for the past six months. If I think back now, there are maybe 10 or 15 startups whose pitches I can actually recall, and I suspect that’s true of many mentors and investors.
It’s difficult to overstate how hard it is for a founder to engage someone in a memorable way. As someone who watches startups pitch people often and am pitched to regularly, it is so easy to listen to a founder politely, offer a smile with a few words of encouragement and then find the first opportunity to excuse myself. The rare exception is when someone is able to explain what his or her startup actually does in clear, simple terms. Just crossing that threshold puts a founder in the game for a meaningful conversation.
But being memorable doesn’t require a catch phrase or a slick delivery. All it really requires is telling someone how a customer will actually use your product.
I give this advice to founders over and over again. Yet there seems to be something about the nature of founders that makes it incredibly difficult for them to follow the advice. In all honesty, it’s something I’ve been guilty of in my own pitches as well. In some cases, I think it’s a symptom of founders not actually knowing who their customers are yet or what their product does for that customer. In other cases, I think it’s the founder’s fear of constraining his ever-expanding vision for the product into something as trivial as a value statement. Jargon is easily malleable, which makes it great for describing abstract visions—but that also makes it forgettable. Perhaps it’s simply a bad habit. Founders hear bad pitches that sound cool and assume they should do the same. No matter the root of the problem, a bad pitch will never help your startup.
There is something crisp and refreshing about a founder who states a clear hypothesis about who his customer is, what is frustrating or painful for that customer and how a company’s product will actually make that pain go away. If your startup is still discovering exactly what your business is, then let your audience know that those points are simply hypotheses. If you have strong validation, then let us know and support your hypotheses with credible evidence in the form of traction.
What To Do: “Teachers are providing their students with more digital content inside and outside of the classroom. Unfortunately, teachers really struggle to know how much individual students understand from the content and where they’re struggling. EduZoom allows teachers to easily embed simple pop quizzes into digital content that tests understanding and retention of key concepts. Before each class, the teacher gets a report that tells them how each student in the class handled each concept, allowing them to better tailor their classroom time. We already have 120 teachers using our app in three months.”
Clarity, brevity and specificity take work, but they are worth it. Building a memorable pitch requires strong, consistent thinking about your customers and why they’re really using (or will use) your product. It demands refining each word to make sure it has maximum resonance and making sure that each sentence builds logically to the next in the mind of someone who has never thought about your business before. You cannot test your pitch enough with new audiences.
The benefit of this work will be immense. Making your startup memorable through simplicity will immediately put you beyond 90 percent of the other founders fighting for time, attention, and money.
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