TELL A SIMPLE STORY
Almost every day I meet and speak with young entrepreneurs trying to get their new businesses off the ground. I don’t generally have a lot of time, but I always try to give anyone at least a few minutes to explain what they’re trying to do and then I can decide very quickly whether it makes more sense to meet further with them. Frankly, what you can’t basically say in ten minutes about your business or your idea really isn’t worth saying. I don’t think of these little chats as “pitches” (elevator or otherwise) – they’re much more like speed dates where you’re trying to decide very quickly whether what you’re hearing makes sense; whether there’s a real business or opportunity lurking there; and whether the person you’re speaking to has the passion, enthusiasm and smarts to turn a good idea into a real business.
After 50 years of doing this, I can tell you that it’s actually possible to make these initial decisions with a high degree of accuracy in a matter of minutes. Now I admit that I will definitely miss out on a few real opportunities and turn down or not pursue some very talented people, but, by and large – especially since we’re all dealing with limited time and scarce resources – the system works and works pretty well. And here’s the main reason why – it’s not that I’m so perceptive and smart; it’s that way too many people make it too easy to turn them down because they’re so unprepared to take their best shot in the moment when the opportunity is there and because they don’t really understand how to make the most of that short window of time. As we used to say in the music industry, it’s really easy to tell when a song is bad, but only the public and the market will ultimately decide what sells. Note that I said “what sells”, not necessarily what’s good. The music business today is all about selling disks and downloads, not making great music. Always has been; always will be.
And it’s the same story with describing new businesses. If you’re all over the place; if you’re trying to be all things to too many people; if your story is so complicated that it’s hard to even follow; or if you’ve got a solution in search of a problem, it’s going to be pretty easy to say “thanks, but no thanks”. You’ve got one shot, one moment, and one opportunity to get right to the heart of the matter and the most crucial part of the entire process is to tell a simple story.
How simple? Your story should answer 3 simple questions about your company which, by the way, are the very same questions that will inform and guide your company for its entire existence. These answers are also every bit as significant for each and every employee as they are for any investors. So it’s pretty important to get the answers right at the outset. The answers might change over time, but the fundamental questions never do. Here they are:
Who are We?
Management and team members’ relevant experience and credentials
Where are We Going?
Short and long term objectives and goals – abbreviated milestones - timeframe
What problem is being addressed and solved – time, money, productivity, status
Short, sweet and to the point. You’ve got to be a ruthless editor and there’s no question that the hardest choices are about what to leave out, not what to include. You need to think of both detail and elaboration as forms of pollution. Cut to the quick. And stick to your story.
One of the nastiest things venture guys like to do to “newbies” is to ask them how big their businesses can be and how many opportunities and directions there are to grow the businesses. And when they charge off into the future and start building their castles in the sky; the VCs look at each other, roll their eyes, and say to themselves: “Boy, this guy’s not focused at all.”
It’s an old but important trick from debate class – tell the story you need to tell, be relentless, stay on point, keep it short, and make the limited time that you have count. Everything else can come later. Bottom line: tell a simple story.