In the world of startups, every moment in the face of a potential investor can be critical. The first meeting with them, whether by plan or by accident, may only offer a few of those moments. When deciding how to pitch an idea to a business that could make or break a product launch, it's important to understand how to optimize each second of that pitch.
Developing an elevator pitch is a popular way to design and practice a process that will allow us to be prepared to sell our product in nearly any scenario. To understand the concept of an elevator pitch, it helps to imagine it in context: We've just entered an elevator, and we realize the person in the elevator with us is someone that could be key to lifting our project off the ground. We know we have one chance to make an impression and a brief time to impress. It's an opportunity that may never present itself again; how well we've prepared for that moment will determine the likelihood of our success.
Of course, to succeed with an elevator pitch does not mean making a sale necessarily. If done correctly, the elevator pitch won't end in the elevator; it should lead to further conversations. In fact, entrepreneur and author Seth Godin says it shouldn't be about pitching the project, but rather about pitching the next meeting to discuss the project. He elaborates: "The purpose of an elevator pitch is to describe a situation or solution so compelling that the person you're with wants to hear more after the elevator ride is over."
The versatile elevator pitch can be used in many situations faced by startups. It can be used in any scenario where we need to grab our audience's attention and pitch a product quickly. It is also crucial to the intro of a pitch deck, which is a set of slides potential investors may want to see that should persuade them to invest. If we're going to send a proposal to someone, we want to pique their curiosity right away, and a quick, well-designed pitch will perform very well in this role.
At some point, it will be time for us to perfectly design an engaging opening, a solid body, and a call to action. That time is not yet. First, we must craft—and the key to crafting is to thoroughly and imperfectly splash those elements across a page.
Assuming we've already identified our potential audience, the first step in crafting is simple: write it all down. We want to write down our name and company, the product we're selling, who we want to sell it to and why the product fits that market. We need to write down some information about what sets our product apart, a few ideas for a closer, some questions we might ask to make the investor think critically about why our product will suit their needs, and anything else that might seem relevant.
If that seems like too much information, it's because it is. And that's the point. We want to craft our pitch with a pencil sharpened at both ends so we can't erase. At this point, everything makes the cut.
Essentially, our goal in doing all this is to remove ourselves from a comfort zone and put every idea on the table. The alignment of ideas isn't as important right now as getting the information down. There's no reason to feel embarrassed about writing down any idea because no one will ever hear that idea unless we choose to tell them. It's possible, however, that writing down every idea will allow us to see how it fits among the other pieces of information and give us a bigger picture: how best to pitch our product.
A terrifying predicament for any startup founder to find themselves in is one where they have to gather every piece of information about a product and put together an impromptu jumble of jargon that a potential investor will forget the moment the elevator door opens. We want to trim it down to the key pieces of information and rehearse them with precision and enthusiasm. Such preparation may seem like folly, but a betting man knows it's simply a case of risk-reward. Understanding risk-reward is a major key to success for startups, and practicing an elevator pitch has the potential for a reward worthy of the risk.
Now the trimming begins. It's time to throw out the pencil sharpened at both ends and replace it with a pencil with erasers at both ends.
Remember all those ideas we wrote down with reckless abandon? Let's pick just a few and cut the rest. While we're at it, let's also cut out any of the following:
- Jargon - No wants to hear anyone talk about the churn rate of forecasting a value-add to the buyer persona, especially in an elevator.
- Buzzwords - While it seems like it's the same thing as jargon and sometimes may include jargon, there is a difference. Jargon uses technical terms that at least make some amount of sense to anyone in the same or similar field. Buzzwords are just gibberish used to make it seem like a salesperson understands something of which they have no clue. In a sales pitch, this almost always includes the word 'synergy'. Avoid it.
- Looking at the ideas we have left, cut out any words that don't add meaning to the presentation. The point is to get straight to the point, not to overwhelm folks with fancy adjectives.
- To keep the pitch on the right track, we need to remove anything that focuses on our needs instead of their needs. Rather than saying, "I need this sale so I can put food on the table," it might be a better strategy to say something like, "I've put everything into creating a product that works within your system and addresses the issues you've been having."
With the pitch narrowed down to only the necessary information, we can now put it in the right order to make sure it flows. There are a variety of approaches that are suggested by entrepreneurs on how to open a pitch, but many carry a common and simple thread. We introduce ourselves and our company, and then quickly explain our product. We want their mindset to be on how and where our product will fit within their business model. In doing so, we put the emphasis back on how we can fulfill their needs, not the other way around.
Within this opening, we might insert a question. Rather than stating outright what we offer and how it can address their problem, we could ask them a question about that problem and gauge their interest level in our solution.
For the middle section of the pitch, small business consultant Kurian Tharakan suggests asserting a "unique selling proposition or difference from the competition." It can sometimes—especially in politics—be considered a negative thing to even mention your competition, as some would argue that doing so gives them free advertising. However, this has been widely disregarded as campaign mythology, as anyone who cares enough to listen likely already knows the name of the opponent. Likewise, if our audience knows who we are and has any interest in what we offer, there's a good chance they know who else is in the same field. It would be in our interest to differentiate ourselves from that competition.
At this point, if there are still a few seconds left in the body of the presentation, Tharakan suggests a benefit statement of some kind. This could include an empirical or emotional approach, and which direction to take it will depend more on the context of the pitch. For example, if we're presenting to someone who is known to value statistical evidence, it would be in our best interest to give a statistical reason why our product will work. On the other hand, if we're pitching the ASPCA on the way to save stray dogs, our best position might be to provide an emotional pitch.
What's the best way for startups to close an elevator pitch? Trick question. There isn't one because there's a minimal chance we'll be closing a sale after a thirty-second pitch. Like we mentioned before: it's about pitching the next meeting. If we're going to do anything before those elevator doors open, it will be to make sure that next meeting happens in an office or boardroom.
The call to action should not only lock in the next meeting but also show them that we have the enthusiasm and knowledge—if given the opportunity—to talk about our product at length and explain in detail why it's the best fit for their needs.