Want peo­ple to fall in love with your com­pany? Don’t bother per­fect­ing that sound bite

Inc. (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - Ja­son Fried is a co-founder of Base­camp (for­merly 37sig­nals), a Chicago-based soft­ware com­pany. Ja­son Fried

THERE’S NO SHORT­AGE of lore about the im­por­tance of the el­e­va­tor pitch.

There’s the 1850s ver­sion, in which in­ven­tor Elisha Otis’s dra­matic demon­stra­tion of his in­no­va­tion—a safety brake that keeps el­e­va­tors from fall­ing dur­ing a cable fail­ure—set a new bar for color­ful, ef­fi­cient sales­man­ship.

There’s the Hol­ly­wood ver­sion, in which writ­ers pitch­ing scripts have just 60 sec­onds to cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion of pro­duc­ers. And then there’s the ru­mored Job­sian one—if you worked for Ap­ple and un­luck­ily found your­self stand­ing next to Steve Jobs in an el­e­va­tor un­able to de­scribe your con­tri­bu­tions to the com­pany on that brief trip, you might have been sent pack­ing.

To­day, the virtues of the el­e­va­tor pitch have been cod­i­fied by Sil­i­con Val­ley. Get ac­cepted to a startup ac­cel­er­a­tor and you’ll be drilled in the art of the two-and-a-half-minute pitch—be­cause that’s all the time you’ll have to sell your life’s work to a po­ten­tial in­vestor.

The mes­sage this sends en­trepreneurs is that suc­cess de­pends on your re­duc­ing your com­pany’s com­plex story to a few data points and sound bites. That’s why you so of­ten hear “We’re the Uber of this” or “the Warby Parker of that.” Those are short­cuts lean­ing on peo­ple’s pre­con­ceived no­tions of how some busi­ness in a dif­fer­ent in­dus­try de­fines yours. If you have your own com­pany but re­quire an­other com­pany to make your point, you’re al­ready headed in the wrong di­rec­tion. For years, I’ve strug­gled to come up with my Base­camp el­e­va­tor pitch—a suc­cinct de­scrip­tion of our prod­uct, in stan­dard­ized, uni­ver­sal terms. But re­cently I asked my­self: Do I ac­tu­ally need one? When you strug­gle for so long with some­thing, it’s gen­er­ally a good idea to ques­tion the pur­pose of your strug­gle. Does it mat­ter any­way? Sure, in the­ory, the de­sire for a quick pitch seems rea­son­able. Who knows whom you might meet and how long you’ll have to make your case?

Now, play out some re­al­is­tic sce­nar­ios. When have you ever had to ex­plain your whole busi­ness in 20 sec­onds to some­one who was truly mo­ti­vated to un­der­stand what you do? Cer­tainly, there are plenty of times when you are forced to bul­let-point your vi­sion to some­one who re­ally doesn’t care, like a dis­tant rel­a­tive or a cab driver. But those who are gen­uinely cu­ri­ous about your busi­ness are will­ing to lis­ten. It shouldn’t take 10 min­utes to ex­plain it, but you don’t need to jam your en­tire nar­ra­tive into a cou­ple of quick breaths. The rush of time is a false con­straint.

For me, con­text mat­ters. Re­ly­ing on a one-size-fits-all de­scrip­tion of your busi­ness means miss­ing an op­por­tu­nity to en­gage peo­ple rather than just speak at them. In­stead of blast­ing out your script, first show that you’re cu­ri­ous about your au­di­ence. Ask them about them­selves, what they do, what they strug­gle with.

That’s my ap­proach. If I think Base­camp can be help­ful, I de­fine it in their con­text. I can cherry-pick some­thing they’ve told me and weave Base­camp in as a so­lu­tion. Peo­ple get what your com­pany does not be­cause of what you tell them it does, but be­cause of how they see it fit­ting into their world and how it can ben­e­fit them per­son­ally.

On any given day, I might de­scribe Base­camp a dozen ways. Busi­ness own­ers and project man­agers have dif­fer­ent needs for Base­camp. A free­lancer with clients needs some­thing dif­fer­ent from some­one who just works on in­ter­nal pro­jects.

So ditch the el­e­va­tor pitch. Tak­ing time to un­der­stand some­one can be much more pow­er­ful than per­fect­ing an overly con­cise spiel for that mys­tery per­son in that mys­tery el­e­va­tor.

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