Always Be Pitching
Every single time you explain your startup to someone, you’re pitching it.
Or at least, you should be.
I was getting dinner a few nights ago with some other students. The group is a bunch of fledgling entrepreneurs at Bowdoin, much like myself, who meet every once in awhile to swap stories. I had been invited a few times, but this was the first night I was actually able to attend.
As I was preparing to head out, one of the guys mentioned he had an idea he wanted to run by me.
“Alright, let me hear the pitch,” I said, interested.
“Well, I haven’t worked on the pitch yet, but I can just tell you the basic–”
“That’s fine,” I cut him off, I was in a hurry. “Just let me hear what you have so far.”
Besides your product, your pitch is probably the single most important part of your business to work on when you’re first starting out.
You’re a startup – by definition, no one knows about you because you haven’t existed before. That means everyone from your friends and coworkers to mentors, investors, even your parents all need to be told what you’re doing. No one knows until you tell them.
But how you tell them is very important.
Get to the Point
If there’s one thing college makes people really good at, it’s verbose communication.
Almost every single writing assignment has some minimum page-length requirements. And so we, as clever young students, have learned to develop a style of communication that is very wordy. It makes life easier for us.
The side effect of this is that it teaches us to brain dump – we try to tell our audience as much as we know, or as much as we think they’ll care about. Once they’ve gotten every last detail about our concept, they’ll understand it. To be convincing, we’ve learned to always err on the side of providing more information to our audience, not less.
I bring this up here because it’s the exact opposite of the type of persuasion you need to give an effective pitch.
When you’re pitching an idea – as opposed to just talking about – you’re supposed to explain the value of your concept clearly and succinctly. That’s why lots of pitches involve analogies, they’re easy for the audience to understand quickly.
In the situation above, the student spent several minutes explaining how the idea had come to him and what work he had done so far and some problems he had run into. Eventually, he reached the point where he explained his vision for the product and what he was hoping it would become.
The concept was intriguing, but at that point in the conversation I had all but lost interest and I really wanted to leave so I could start my homework. Get to the point.
After a group presentation during my economics seminar, I remember our professor uncharacteristically breaking the academic tone of the discussion to impart some lessons in presentation skills.
The group presenting had done well researching their topic and collecting data, she said, but they weren’t presenting their concept well to the class.
Essentially, they had a great idea, but it was plagued by a bad pitch. The rest of the class wasn’t getting excited about all of the excellent work the group had done since the group hadn’t piqued the class’s attention. Their project wasn’t being as well received as it should have been, since the audience had never been properly engaged.
In much the same way, you need to pitch your idea every single time you introduce it to someone, or else you’re selling it short.
Don’t assume that if you just explain everything, the person will get it and understand why it’s valuable. Certainly don’t start the conversation by focusing on the problems you’ve run into.
A good pitch requires a bit of showmanship. What will be appealing to your audience? What will they find interesting or exciting about your idea? People lose interest in things very quickly, but if you pitch well, you’ll have people hanging on your every word, eager to know more.
This is especially important when you’re talking to a potential mentor or investor. These are usually busy people who tend to size things up quickly and move on if they don’t think it’s worth their time. You can’t afford to be boring with people like this.
One of the biggest rules in sales is that you don’t talk about features, you talk about benefits. A feature is merely a fact, but a benefit describes how a product actually makes the customer’s life better.
It’s much faster and easier to sell a product when you’re explaining how it solves a customer’s pain, instead of merely listing all of its features and components.
When you’re first explaining your startup’s concept to someone, you’re essentially trying to “sell” it to them. You might only be looking for interest or approval, not necessarily money, but the fundamentals are still the same. You need to demonstrate how your idea is valuable, and you need to do that quickly before you lose your listener’s attention.
A good pitch presents your concept in a way that elicits an emotional reaction from the audience. You want them to be relieved or delighted or intrigued in some way. Maybe they’ll want to use it themselves, or know a friend that they’d recommend it to.
If people seem bored or disinterested while you’re pitching – or don’t have much to say – you might not be doing a good job appealing to their emotions.
Appealing to someone’s emotional needs is the easiest way to get them to buy into your idea. The most compelling pitches are the ones that focus on the needs of the user.
Practice Makes Perfect
There’s a misconception that you only really need to “pitch” your startup to investors – everyone else you just chat with about the idea.
Talking to potential investors can often be very stressful for a first time entrepreneur, so it’s especially important that you’ve practiced your pitch a lot before you’re in those situations.
That’s why it’s important to give your pitch to everyone, including friends and family. By the time Sam and I needed to pitch our first potential investor, we had already each given it to dozens of other people.
Practicing your pitch not only makes you better at pitching, but it’s also a great way to do customer research. We ended up shifting the focus of our site after watch peoples’ faces light up more when we mentioned certain concepts that we weren’t originally focusing on.
We would never have known which parts of our value proposition actually mattered to people until we tried to explain it to them. This is why you should always be pitching.
You also learn to develop different variations of your pitch based on who you’re talking to and how long you have their attention. You don’t want to talk people’s ears off if they’re in a rush.
In the last few weeks, we’ve come up with a few different flavors of our pitch, ranging from 15 seconds to several minutes long. Each of them focuses on our core value proposition, and then adds more context depending on how long we have the listener’s attention.
While developing each of these pitches, we’ve spent a lot of time repeating ourselves, telling the same stories over and over. That’s inevitable.
It felt weird at first, but we quickly got used to it. Each new pitch was an opportunity to practice. Eventually, we go to the point where we were actually finishing each other’s sentences, which impressed a few people.
It wasn’t that we had memorized a specific script, or were using the same words each time. We had just gotten to the point where we both understood our value proposition so well that it flowed easily. Pitching our idea had become comfortable and familiar.
Hopefully, your startup will last long enough that you end up pitching it to hundreds or even thousands of different people. Some of those people might be your friends and family, while others might be investors or mentors.
Regardless of who you’re talking to, you’re trying to win their heart and mind – you want them to think that your concept is valuable. Never pass up an opportunity to do that.
Always be pitching.
Update: Here’s another great piece on articulating your value proposition: Articulate or die