I start this two-part series “Four must-haves for a practical elevator pitch for your startup” with experiences and recommendations on introductory messaging. It is critically important that the succinct time you have in the elevator is memorable because you just don't know when you'll get that chance again.
You are a startup. There are more companies out there that don't do business with you than do business with you. While that is probably true of almost all companies, startups take that anonymity to a new level - your market share is 0.0001%, and your mind share is not much better.
An elevator pitch is an answer to the benign question, "What do you do?" You can get that question at a cocktail mixer, a meetup, on the plane with the guy sitting next to you, or even on an elevator ride. If someone whom you don't know asks about your company, they have expressed genuine interest. In reciprocity, you should be polite - not only in a succinct response but also in appreciation of their question. Emily Post says, "Etiquette requires the presumption of good until the contrary is proved."
An elevator pitch is not a 5-minute oratory on your company; be polite by respecting their time and attention. Create innate curiosity with a narrative allowing your guest to follow a path of increasing value.
Your goal in an elevator pitch is to capture the interest and imagination of someone you have just met--in about the time it would take both of you to enter an elevator, travel down to the lobby level, and then cross the office building foyer together.
In that short walk together, you should communicate the essence of your message--succinctly and memorably--whether or not there's an elevator involved or not.
I would be amazed if any startup told me that developing the elevator pitch is easy. Part of the problem tends to be where to stop. Do you talk about only the current deliverable capability? Do you mention all of the great work that is in the beta product that the developers are just finishing up? Do you talk about the great win that you closed last month? Do you talk about the aspirational stuff that your CTO is currently puzzling over, and you pitch to the latest VC?
Here are your initial two steps that may help you with this process.
1. Describe your business without using any (not even a little) jargon
The first words that come out of your mouth should be a brief and memorable description of your business. That means avoiding acronyms, corporate-speak, or tech talk. Your grandparents, your spouse, or your children should understand this first sentence or two. And then there's "the pause" which I will explain later.
Focus on concrete words in your pitch, not abstract concepts. If possible, start with a firm metric that you deliver, such as, "We enable companies to set up their secure cloud infrastructure in less than 60 minutes." Wow, that's impactful!
The biggest mistake that I see startups make is to include the word "AND" in their opening statement. Also, overusing "AND" is a mistake in many unsuccessful startup philosophies. The word AND implies that you do multiple things, hence confusing the direction of our elevator pitch, or even worse - going down too many rabbit holes. Boil up all of your AND phrases to one high-level statement. To give you an example, I will use my own company Agile Stacks and what we could say (but thankfully do not say) with lots of AND statements:
- We deliver infrastructure as code AND
- we provide composable stacks of components AND
- we manage the Kubernetes ecosystem AND
- we track and tag all of the components in our stacks so you can monitor your costs AND
- we have pre-built super stacks of components to allow you to get started quickly AND
- we deliver your customized stacks to multiple clouds and even into your on-premise data center or mini data center in your stores AND
- we allow you to store all of those configurations in Git so that you can adopt GitOps in your company.
The above list is a perfect example of what not to say in an elevator pitch. It is filled with jargon, very vague, and not very compelling.
All of those statements above are true of Agile Stacks, but they would probably cause your elevator listener to beg for the door to open to escape your diatribe. When the door opens, he or she will make a Usain Bolt-like sprint to the nearest exit stairwell.
Skip the ANDs. Focus on one value proposition that is very high-level and combines with a metric that makes the listener excited to ask, "How do you do that?"
2. Focus on your clients or customers but most importantly, focus on your audience
In my example above, you will notice a reference to my target market at Agile Stacks - companies. If I was at an industry event, or I knew my listener's professional affiliation, I readily improvise with an industry narrative. Let's pretend I am talking to someone at a cocktail mixer. When we shook hands, she identified herself as someone from a medium-sized consumer goods company that I recognized as having several hundred stores along the Eastern Coast of the US (actually, this is a real prospect for us currently). In this case, I may have enhanced our opening line of the elevator pitch to say, "We enable retailers to set up their secure cloud infrastructure between their stores, data centers, or favorite cloud provider in less than 60 minutes."
And then I pause.
So what is with the pause? We all know that the first person to fill silence has lost in a negotiation. Effectively, this is a negotiation. It is a negotiation of the topic of our discussion. This pause is your opportunity to allow your listener to respond. A positive response with something like, "Wow! How do you do that?" is an invitation to continue. A neutral answer such as, "I have no idea what that means" is probably a signal to find an off-ramp to move the conversation to sports.
If you don't get a lot of positive responses to your opening line, it implies that the line is weak, or you are attending the wrong cocktail mixers with absolutely no target prospects in attendance. You should seriously evaluate your results to see which situation is correct.
Also, give your guest a gentle exit ramp if there is no interest in what you are saying. For example, make a witty anecdote about the local professional sports team's current success. Remember always to be positive even if the team is on a losing streak.
But let's assume that you got that positive response. Now you need to tell a story that continues the interest, and we explore that in step 3.
Subscribe to this blog series to immediately catch the next two must-do's for your elevator pitch.