The Startup Pitch

In graduate school, whenever we were getting ready to attend a conference, we would all get together to practice our elevator pitches. In theory, the reason we practiced our pitch was that if by some miracle we found ourselves on an elevator with a philanthropically inclined Bill Gates we’d be ready to win him over with a 30 second spiel on our research. In practice, this never happened. We did use our elevator pitches to introduce ourselves to like-minded researchers and build our professional networks, which is almost as good.

The general formula we followed was:

Pitch = problem to solve + method to solve it

My pitch went something like this…

Hi, I’m Meg! I want to make it easier for teachers and students to adopt educational technologies, so I’m designing ways to make ed-tech usable in all sorts of real classroom setups, from projected onto a big screen to a handheld for each student.

From there I could easily jump into the details of what my dissertation was all about.

The other benefit to practicing our pitches was that it forced us to pick our heads up out of the details and focus on the one, central research goal we had. Research can be messy and complicated. There are usually lots of moving parts and a million tiny decisions to be made. It can be easy to get swamped in the details. A good elevator pitch helps you focus on the one thing you are trying to achieve.

Starting a business and building your first product is not unlike a big research project. There are lots of tradeoffs to consider and decisions to be made. There is always more research and investigation to be done (and that you wish you had time to do). It is easy to start getting lost in the minutia. When you start to feel overwhelmed by the details,  it is useful to refocus on a well-crafted startup pitch.

A startup pitch, like a research pitch, should be short and sweet. It should focus on the problem being solved and how you intend to solve it. The only difference is instead of describing a method, you’ll describe a product.

Startup pitch = problem to solve + product to solve it

The first part of that equation, “problem to solve,” should describe the demographic you are reaching out to and the problem they have. Here is a list of examples I generated off the top of my head:

  • People who like to journal, but don’t want to carry a notebook everywhere.
  • Professional women who have a hard time finding a stylish, affordable carry-all bag that is also comfortable to carry.
  • New parents who are struggling with sleep deprivation.
  • Bloggers who find it difficult to grow their audience.

(By the way, this list was easy to generate because they all describe me in some form or fashion!)

The second part of that equation, “product to solve it, ” should be a description of the one, central feature of your product.  In, The Art of Writing One-Sentence Product Descriptions, Dave Bailey suggests the following formula for describing a product:

You do X and Y happens.

So to use or list of examples from above, we could describe some corresponding (fictional) products like this:

  • The SMS journal: you send journal entries via text message and it updates your journal for you.
  • The awesome backpack: A bag that is as easy to carry like a backpack, and can carry mountains of stuff, but is professional and stylish looking.
  • The Sleep Nanny App: You request a sleep nanny through the app, and a professional, certified nanny shows up at your door to take care of your infant through the night.
  • Audience Finder: You provide us with a link to your blog and a brief description, and we provide you a comprehensive plan on how to reach your target audience.

So here is an example of a full start-up pitch, making use of one of our examples from above:

Journalling is awesome, but it can be cumbersome to carry a notebook around with you everywhere. With SMS journal you simply send an entry via text message and we update your journal for you.

Admittedly, SMS Journal might not be the next killer app to hit the market. (I did spend a grand total of 5 minutes developing the idea, after all.) But from the pitch you can tell exactly what SMS Journal is trying to accomplish. If I were seriously pursuing this business idea, I could refer back to my startup pitch to keep me focussed on the problem and how I intend to solve it. All the other details and decisions can wait.

More reading on crafting the perfect pitch:

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