Four must-haves for a practical elevator pitch for your startup

Four must-haves for a practical elevator pitch for your startup

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?

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.

There is a natural point of transition in the conversation. You get an immediate gut check when you know the listener wants to learn more, or they are about to check out. For this ride, and this ride alone – your listener is engaged by actually asking “So how do you do that?” But please don’t start explaining the exceptional performance of your auto-scaling groups or multi-Kubernetes abstraction layer. Umm, snooze – you’ve just made your listener regretful of not only the first two minutes of the proverbial elevator ride but now the remaining 90 seconds to the ground floor.

Instead, pique their interest by not using a sales pitch. Rather, bring it close to home with a story but not some canned Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale of saving a company from the big bad wolf. Instead, keep the story smaller and closer to the people involved. I find that abstracting a story at the ‘company level’ doesn’t cement the point of the story as well. But when you talk about people affected by your solution and the implications then you offer your listener a possibility that they have a similar story.

3. Tell a story of how you’ve helped overcome a challenge

Customer stories may be hard to find for a startup. You may not have that many successes yet. You do not need ten stories; you only need one story. You may be bored talking about that one success, but your listener has never heard the story, so it is new to her. Pick one customer story where you were able to show the success that you mentioned in that opening statement.

I suggest that you follow the advice that I discuss in my book, Eliminate Your Competition, and that is to use the PONI method. PONI is a simple way to tell the story of a success that is easy for the listener to grasp. PONI stands for:

  • Project
  • Old
  • New
  • Impact

For Project, we simply want to introduce the reference company and what they were trying to accomplish in their project that they used your product. Then quickly introduce the team. Was it a large team? Were they distributed? Did they have a tyrant boss (everyone’s been here, believe me)?

For Old, we want to set the stage on what their goal was to change or fix in their organization. The more that you can build the pain in the story, the better. Remember, Stephen King could have written “The Shining” as “A writer went mad while in a haunted house in the middle of winter and tried to kill his family.” The more you build into the old way of doing this, the more your new friend will understand that he has the same problem.

New is the new way of doing business after they adopted your product, and the personal hero stories.

The Impact is the change or success they measured at the end of their project, measuring the pertinent metrics of Old compared with New. If you can do it, Impact is great to state as a percentage improvement.

It doesn’t take a lot to create PONI stories. In each of the four areas, you probably can write it down in 1-3 sentences for a total of perhaps 8 sentences that you can easily recite in 90 seconds. That 90-second speech is critical because now you need to deliver the story quickly and the same way every time. The crucial thing about elevator pitches is that everyone needs to say approximately the same speech every time. Your entire company can learn 90 seconds of talking using the PONI method.

Then you need to pause again. You need her to respond. Does she need to pivot to sports and weather, or can you continue? Step 4 assumes your conversation is more interesting than the fact that we haven’t had rain in 6 days.

4. Close

You have not mentioned all of those ANDs from above about which someone in her company is going to care. Those ANDs detail the HOW question. HOW questions are essential during your sales process, but they are not part of your elevator pitch. In my example of a cocktail mixer where I am talking to a mid-sized retailer, the HOW question inevitably is, “How do you enable retailers to set up their secure cloud infrastructure in their stores, data centers, or favorite cloud provider in less than 60 minutes?”

You now have two options. If you are at a casual mixer, you probably should stop while you’re ahead. You might suggest a more extended meeting in the near future, and you should pull out your calendar and ask for an appointment. Trying to explain how you accomplish this amazing feat could backfire on you and prevent that person from accepting that future appointment now that they have more information. You have achieved your goal with your elevator pitch, they want to talk. Now it is time to stop selling, and it is time to close for the appointment for a more in-depth conversation.

If you are not at the mixer, but instead in an area where you can effectively sit down and discuss all of the details, then, by all means, you should do so. However, be careful that you are not winging it with only a portion of your best pitch resources available to you. Do you have the best version of your slides and documentation with you? Do you need to have your ace technical guy or your ace sales guy with you? Do you think that your prospect needs to have some more people present for this first conversation? Your best strategy is likely to come back in the future with your best foot forward.

Once you have the appointment locked in, now is the time to work on understanding your prospect. It is time for your prospect to tell you about their needs and goals. This information will be invaluable as you formulate your ultimate value proposition that will close the deal. In fact, if you can get her to tell you her elevator pitch, that is a win. Now is the time for you to use the two ears and one mouth adage – listen twice as much as you talk.

An elevator pitch that everyone in your startup can give is critical. You don’t need to turn everyone into salespeople, but you should try to turn those elevator pitches into firm appointments for the sales team.

This post originally appeared on my blog series on my company website “Skinned knees—what an MBA didn’t teach you for rebel sales in a software startup.”

Header image Elevator by robinsonsmay on 2020-01-01

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