Gone In 20 Seconds

In principle a startup elevator pitch should be a conversation starter, but in practice it has become a word-smithing exercise whereby the founder tries to cram everything relevant about his company into two short paragraphs.

Today, more often than not, the elevator pitch comes off as canned and obfuscated and counter-productive.  It’s like when you just can’t fit your Tweet into 140 characters so you start to do unnatural things to force it and then the message you intended gets lost.

With this is mind, I did an exercise with 13 startups on Friday.  Each company had 20 seconds to tell me enough about their company that I wanted to engage them to find out more.  They didn’t have to tell me everything.  It got back to the essence of what I think the elevator pitch was intended to be.

Because the companies didn’t have to follow a fixed formula or make all their salient points at once, the pitches became more conversational, more understandable and also more interesting.

The reason it was helpful to me was that with 13 data points in one sitting I was able to think about not only what to leave in and what to take out when time is constrained, but what delivery method works the best.  This is what I figured out (remember this is only for an elevator pitch):

Simple – Of course simple is always better.  And hand-in-hand with simple is brevity.  Many businesses have a lot of nuances – I know that.  The business model may be multi-facited  (but hopefully not).  Properly simplified now, there will be time for deeper discussion of complexities later.  When founders tried to jam a bunch of concepts together in describing the business it resulted in wonky descriptions that felt forced. Commerce has certain immutable principles.  It worked better for me when the founder didn’t get too far away from those.

Non-technical – I noticed I didn’t care too much about process.  What I mean by that is the technology can be completely awesome, but unless the technology itself is the business, describing it during an elevator pitch is a waste of precious time.  Of course, if I am interested in the idea, I will want to get into the ‘how’ at some point later.  Founders that did better elevator pitches seemed to remember that the ‘what’ was the most important thing at that moment.

Metaphors – there are pros and cons to metaphors.  On the plus side a metaphor is quick and dirty and leverages something that I know – a time saver.  “It’s Airbnb for catering” or “It’s Mechanical Turk on steroids” worked fine for me.  The place where things gets dodgy is when the metaphor bifurcates the market.  For example, “It’s Facebook for sports fans.”  That’s no good because 1) why isn’t Facebook good for that market and 2) it’s a smaller market.  The difference, of course, is Airbnb doesn’t do catering – so the market is not sub-divided. Obviously I come down on the side of metaphors are okay.

Value – I always wanted to hear about ‘value’.  What is the value added?  What is the competitive differentiation? What is the benefit the end user gets?  How do we quantify and measure the value? How does the value translate into VC return?  The essence of capitalism is capturing and monetizing value and when this was brought up directly it always me think about how this investment would work – which is good.  So if the business aggregated something or improved it’s aesthetic or simplified it, it was important to know the worth of that.

Strength – every company is different and each has it’s unique strengths.  In an elevator pitch with such a brief time to get the message out it’s not rocket science to know that you gotta lead with your strengths.  And, in fact, I wanted to hear the company strength and assess exactly how strong that was.  If a companies best isn’t that good, who cares about the rest.

There’s more of course.  Organization is important – can’t say that it’s not.  Delivery is important.  Style is important.  But message is most important.  Keep it simple and interesting and make sure it is based on business fundamentals.  More in another post.


Curious: how often do you hear a 20 second pitch, outside of a group event, and followup up for further info?