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Pitching fastballs

“Do you have some time for a coffee or beer to chat about my startup?” – Anonymous entrepreneur

I’m happy to talk to entrepreneurs, learn about your startup and even help you out if I can. Since I have a bad habit of over committing and taking on too many activities. Let’s see there’s DemoCamp, Founders and Funders, StartupEmpire, my job (yes, I work at Microsoft), and a personal life (think 2 kids under the age of 2). Things are chaotic and busy, I’m starting to ask entrepreneurs to help me. So without more information, the answer to the above question is “maybe, help me understand why we should me”.

This sounds familiar. It’s similar to the problem faced by investors (made more pronounced with time-constrained applications), and journalists, and customers.

“If we get 1000 applications and have 10 days to read them, we have to read about 100 a day. That means a YC partner who reads your application will on average have already read 50 that day and have 50 more to go.” – YCombinator How To Apply

We talk about an Elevator Pitch. Except this isn’t a world where you might have forced my focus of attention by being artificially trapped in an elevator. The goal is like a newspaper headline. It’s to make me read the rest of the story. You need to stand out. You have to be able to simply, clearly convey what your startup is going to do. The YCombinator team do a great job describing what they look for in How To Apply. The initial filtering criteria for a YC application are obviously different than the criteria that journalists use to find stories, and different that what I use when determining to take a meeting or how I can help a startup. But the process is the same.

“What is your company going to make?" This isn’t the question I care most about, but I look at it first because I need something to hang the application on in my mind.

The best answers are the most matter of fact. It’s a mistake to use marketing-speak to make your idea sound more exciting. We’re immune to marketing-speak; to us it’s just noise.” – YCombinator How To Apply

This is about stand out from the pack. And helping the reader/journalist/audience member figure out who you matter to and why. Think of this as demand generation. You’re driving awareness and interest in your company, your team, your solution. The number one key is to be empathetic to the person whose attention and imagination you are trying to capture. Put yourself in the shoes of your intended audience, and help them understand what is special about your company, your product, you.

“Boil down your elevator pitch to one sentence. Tell us what you sell or do in very concrete language. This sets the context for the rest of your presentation.” – David Rose

Here’s an attempt to write that opening description for a few local startups.

  • FreshBooks is a QuickBooks killer. It is a web-based accounting system allows small businesses to have accurate, professional estimates, time tracking, and invoicing.  
  • Well.ca is Canada’s online drugstore. Strong sales growth over past 3 years, raised $1.1M from angel investors in July 2009, technology focused with strong customer service.
  • Rypple is a web application that gathers anonymous feedback from anyone. Peter Thiel is an investor. Founders have a strong track record at Workbrain.
  • Dayforce is an rich internet application and web service that allows managers to visualize and plan their employees schedules and the employees to enter their timesheets. Founders have strong track record including Workbrain.
  • Kiiro is a social project management application built on SharePoint. It uses the web and Microsoft Project to improve collaboration between the project managers and the team on larger projects.
  • CoverItLive is web application for live blogging events. Companies, conferences, individuals can connect photos, tweets, live video, and rich media during events.

This is just the beginning. But that is the point. The goal is to entice the reader to want to know more. Ideally I’d love to see a short description of what you’re building. A clear identification about how you think you’re going to make money. What you think your secret sauce is. And a brief summary of key team members. Sound familiar. It’s very similar to the advice that David Rose provides as a Pitch Coach. The goal is to take basic pitch information and digest it into a smaller, customized components for your audience. It means that entrepreneurs are going to have stop being ego-centric and start thinking about others. You need to understand what is important to the individual that you are trying to reach and to shape your message appropriately.

For me, I want to understand what your company does/builds; the management team; the market opportunity; the business model; the stage of corporate development (pre-funded, funded, pre-revenue, etc.); why you think I care about this; and what your ask is of me. Is that too much to ask?

Open challenge to local startups to “pitch” for a meeting in a 140 characters or less in the comments (more realistically less than 420 characters – basically 3 tweets).

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24 Comments

  1. A few folks have commented that this is about “Forget the elevator pitch, who has the time? What is your one sentence description?”, I’m looking at you @randymatheson.

    This is really about understanding your audience and their situation, when you are trying to deliver your message. Help me, help you. Let’s say I get ~125 emails a day (using anecodotal evidence and http://theemailwars.com/2008/07/16/chomp-on-these-numbers/ of 578/week + 20%), how do you stand out as one of 125?

  2. A few folks have commented that this is about “Forget the elevator pitch, who has the time? What is your one sentence description?”, I'm looking at you @randymatheson.

    This is really about understanding your audience and their situation, when you are trying to deliver your message. Help me, help you. Let's say I get ~125 emails a day (using anecodotal evidence and http://theemailwars.com/2008/07/16/chomp-on-the… of 578/week + 20%), how do you stand out as one of 125?

  3. I think I’m going to steal your elevator pitch for Kiiro. Nice work! :)

  4. I think I'm going to steal your elevator pitch for Kiiro. Nice work! :)

  5. Actually I like to know:

    What problem do you solve?
    How big is the problem and who does it affect?
    How do you solve it?
    (and then, Who else does that too?)

    I’m not so concerned with what you make, but I do wnat to know that it solves a known problem that you can quantify, that you know that market, and that you can quickly describe the solution. And that you know if your have competition. Then I’ll ask what sound like dumb questions that are merely designed to test that knowledge.

    By the way (and I had this conversation yesterday), don’t tell me you have no competition. Or course you do, even if it isn’t direct. Competition validates the market. If you actually have no competition, then either you are incredibly freaking smart, or there isn’t really a market for the solution.

  6. Actually I like to know:

    What problem do you solve?
    How big is the problem and who does it affect?
    How do you solve it?
    (and then, Who else does that too?)

    I'm not so concerned with what you make, but I do wnat to know that it solves a known problem that you can quantify, that you know that market, and that you can quickly describe the solution. And that you know if your have competition. Then I'll ask what sound like dumb questions that are merely designed to test that knowledge.

    By the way (and I had this conversation yesterday), don't tell me you have no competition. Or course you do, even if it isn't direct. Competition validates the market. If you actually have no competition, then either you are incredibly freaking smart, or there isn't really a market for the solution.

  7. Hi Larry,

    The competition piece is critical. I HATE when startups say we have no competitors. That is immediately a red flag. It usually means one of two things:

    1. Startup/entrepreneur doesn’t know the market space very well or hasn’t done adequate diligence;
    2. There is not a market for the offering

    In longer pitches, I really like the slide breakdown that David Rose provides at http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_38/b3951447.htm:

    Company Title Page
    Start with the name and logo of the company, the name and title of your presenter, a one-line description or tagline about the company, and the dollar amount of the round you are raising.

    Business Overview
    Boil down your elevator pitch to one sentence. Tell us what you sell or do in very concrete language. This sets the context for the rest of your presentation.

    Management Team
    Show us your talent and experience, with one line of background (two lines max!) on each member.

    Market
    What’s the environment in which you operate, how big are the segments, what are the pain points?

    Product
    How do you solve a customer’s pain? What exactly do you do? This can be illustrated with a clear product or screen shot, or a simple process diagram, but if we don’t know what you do, we won’t know why we should fund you. (But don’t spend too much time on this, since you’re pitching the company here, not the product.)

    Business Model
    Who pays whom, how much, for what and from where. What does this mean for annualized revenue streams?

    Customers
    Who are they, how many are there, how do you distribute to them, and how are they attracted and retained?

    Strategic Relationships
    If you have any, make sure we know about them.

    Competition
    Who and how threatening are they? What are the differentiation factors? Include both direct and indirect competitors. Remember that everyone has competition, even if it is just “the old way” of doing something.

    Barriers to Entry
    How will other potential competitors be kept at bay?

    Financial Overview
    Show us your top-line revenues and expenses, and EBITDA two years back and four years out.

    Use of Proceeds
    Where will our money take you?

    Capital & Valuation
    How much have you raised previously, who are your current investors, what are you looking for in this round, and how do you come to your suggested valuation?

    Review
    Provide a brief summary of what you said, in this same order, narrowed to the five or six most important points.

    Contact Info/Next Steps
    Lead us into the next step, such as a follow-up meeting for due diligence…and include your contact info!

  8. Hi Larry,

    The competition piece is critical. I HATE when startups say we have no competitors. That is immediately a red flag. It usually means one of two things:

    1. Startup/entrepreneur doesn't know the market space very well or hasn't done adequate diligence;
    2. There is not a market for the offering

    In longer pitches, I really like the slide breakdown that David Rose provides at http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05

    Company Title Page
    Start with the name and logo of the company, the name and title of your presenter, a one-line description or tagline about the company, and the dollar amount of the round you are raising.

    Business Overview
    Boil down your elevator pitch to one sentence. Tell us what you sell or do in very concrete language. This sets the context for the rest of your presentation.

    Management Team
    Show us your talent and experience, with one line of background (two lines max!) on each member.

    Market
    What's the environment in which you operate, how big are the segments, what are the pain points?

    Product
    How do you solve a customer's pain? What exactly do you do? This can be illustrated with a clear product or screen shot, or a simple process diagram, but if we don't know what you do, we won't know why we should fund you. (But don't spend too much time on this, since you're pitching the company here, not the product.)

    Business Model
    Who pays whom, how much, for what and from where. What does this mean for annualized revenue streams?

    Customers
    Who are they, how many are there, how do you distribute to them, and how are they attracted and retained?

    Strategic Relationships
    If you have any, make sure we know about them.

    Competition
    Who and how threatening are they? What are the differentiation factors? Include both direct and indirect competitors. Remember that everyone has competition, even if it is just “the old way” of doing something.

    Barriers to Entry
    How will other potential competitors be kept at bay?

    Financial Overview
    Show us your top-line revenues and expenses, and EBITDA two years back and four years out.

    Use of Proceeds
    Where will our money take you?

    Capital & Valuation
    How much have you raised previously, who are your current investors, what are you looking for in this round, and how do you come to your suggested valuation?

    Review
    Provide a brief summary of what you said, in this same order, narrowed to the five or six most important points.

    Contact Info/Next Steps
    Lead us into the next step, such as a follow-up meeting for due diligence…and include your contact info!

  9. David,

    Great post as always.

    One additional suggestion for anyone considering a pitch – spend some time learning something about the person and organization you are pitching:
    – What is their background?
    – What are the criteria for their funding?
    – How do they measure success?
    – What have they done recently? (Does this match what they SAY they do?)

    A lot of this you can figure out on-line before the call. If not, position the call to learn about them and their organization.

    It respects everyone’s time if we spend a bit of time to figure out if we are in the same game.

    John

  10. David,

    Great post as always.

    One additional suggestion for anyone considering a pitch – spend some time learning something about the person and organization you are pitching:
    – What is their background?
    – What are the criteria for their funding?
    – How do they measure success?
    – What have they done recently? (Does this match what they SAY they do?)

    A lot of this you can figure out on-line before the call. If not, position the call to learn about them and their organization.

    It respects everyone's time if we spend a bit of time to figure out if we are in the same game.

    John

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    Tim Harris
    Founder – Star Return
    (Website nearly done)

  12. Network Hippo is a smart address book for startups and professionals. It combines and scrubs contact information from dozens of sources, finds more info about them on the web and social networks, plugins into your email, and alerts you when – and who – you should contact. It’s a smarter, personal, social CRM. We’ll replace Highrise completely & Salesforce’s smallest customers.

  13. Network Hippo is a smart address book for startups and professionals. It combines and scrubs contact information from dozens of sources, finds more info about them on the web and social networks, plugins into your email, and alerts you when – and who – you should contact. It's a smarter, personal, social CRM. We'll replace Highrise completely & Salesforce's smallest customers.

  14. I think this is a great exercise. Here’s my shot:

    In 140 characters:
    Manawa Networks joins independent IT professionals. It provides them a common brand, new sales, a peer network, and a web-app for invoicing.

    In 420 characters:
    Manawa Networks is changing the lives of independent IT professionals. It provides them an umbrella brand, sales opportunities, a peer network, vendor partnerships and a web-app for invoicing and collaboration. For independents, earnings go up via increases in opportunities and efficiency. Quality of life goes up via a peer safety net and reduced risk and stress. In turn, Manawa retains a slice of all service revenue.

  15. I think this is a great exercise. Here's my shot:

    In 140 characters:
    Manawa Networks joins independent IT professionals. It provides them a common brand, new sales, a peer network, and a web-app for invoicing.

    In 420 characters:
    Manawa Networks is changing the lives of independent IT professionals. It provides them an umbrella brand, sales opportunities, a peer network, vendor partnerships and a web-app for invoicing and collaboration. For independents, earnings go up via increases in opportunities and efficiency. Quality of life goes up via a peer safety net and reduced risk and stress. In turn, Manawa retains a slice of all service revenue.

  16. Beg, borrow and steal. It is yours to use, I'll even transfer any copyright and residual rights ;-)

    Keep on rocking it in Edmonton.

  17. Beg, borrow and steal. It is yours to use, I’ll even transfer any copyright and residual rights ;-)nnKeep on rocking it in Edmonton.

  18. Beg, borrow and steal. It is yours to use, I’ll even transfer any copyright and residual rights ;-)

    Keep on rocking it in Edmonton.

Comments are closed.