Why do most startup pitches suck? Because they follow a flawed formula.
They start at the top with some grand vision—“Here’s where we’ll be in 10 years”—and then work backwards to today. But that timeline doesn't make sense for most startup pitches.
Here’s a quick example:
It's 1998 and you, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page have started a little company called Google. One day, I run into you at a party and ask, “So what’s your new startup doing?”
And you say, “Glad you asked, Steli. We’re basically trying to capture the world’s information, organize it, and make it universally accessible to everybody.”
What the fuck does that even mean?
Remember, it’s 1998. Phones looked like this:
Unfortunately, this is how most startup pitches go. They start with some grand vision that’s nearly impossible to imagine. This pitch, while concise and aspirational, doesn’t help me understand what it is that you actually do. Are you creating an on-demand library? A worldwide book sharing service? You’ve created zero concrete images in my mind.
Instead, you need to begin your pitch at the bottom. Start with your current situation and add layers until you arrive at that grand vision.
Here’s what the bottom-up framework looks like in action:
Explain what you do
When you create your pitch, start by telling me exactly what it is that you do. Tell me in the most concrete, least sexy way possible.
Back in 1998, here’s what I’d want you to say about Google:
“We’re a website with a text box that lets you search for things on the internet. It’s a search engine. When you enter a word, phrase, or question in that text box, we’ll deliver the content that’s most relevant to you.”
You’ve started with a clear image that I can reference throughout your pitch. At this point, I'm ready for the next step...
Show me why your idea is better than what exists right now. Explain why your particular product or service is valuable to me.
If you were pitching Google, you could say:
“Other sites out there already do this, but the problem with most search engines is that they don’t really provide relevant results. You end up with content that’s tangentially-related at best. Many times, the results don’t even answer your questions. So you’re left searching over and over to find what you’re looking for, which can be incredibly frustrating. Have you had a similar experience with search engines?”
I was definitely experiencing these sorts of problems in 1998—most search engines were awful. So now I understand what you do and why your product could be valuable to me.
My next question will be: “Can I trust you?”
Which means it’s time to create credibility. You might start by saying:
“We’re Stanford students, and we’ve developed an algorithm with a professor who happens to be an expert in this field. We launched our search engine on campus and every day—simply through word of mouth—we add another thousand students. They’re currently using Google multiple times a day, and they’ve switched from other search engines because we’re finding them more relevant results.”
You’re building a lot of credibility with this response. For one thing, you guys are students at a reputable university. You’re also working with a known expert. You have tons of power users already. And you have plenty of user traction.
Other ways to build credibility include:
- Press (We’ve been covered in CNN…)
- Investments (We just received $10 million in funding…)
- Data (Tests show that we’re 35% faster than the competition…)
For many of you, establishing credibility is a difficult step. You may not be Stanford students. You’re probably not working with other well-known experts at this point. You don’t have explosive growth... yet.
But this is a crucial step, so you need to find some way—any way—to create credibility. Run tests, conduct a study, do press outreach, ask for testimonials, change your business name to sound better if you have to. Do anything you can to convince me that you’re not the only one who believes in your startup.
Build understanding and rapport
After you create credibility, it’s important to build some understanding and rapport. You need to show that you understand who the customer is and why they need your product or service.
What’s the easiest way to do that? Ask questions:
“Have you used a search engine? What do you normally search for? Have you ever had trouble finding the information you need?”
An effective startup pitch needs to be a two-way exchange. You can’t just talk your way through the entire conversation. When you ask me the right questions, not only do you better understand my problem, but you also build rapport. I know you’re listening, and I know you care about my answers.
This is also a great way to qualify me—so this step actually accomplishes two goals.
People will always have reasons for why they don’t want to change their behavior. But it’s your job to manage these objections, so that you ultimately get to the final step in your startup pitch...
Go for the close
Once you’ve managed their objections, go for the close. Here's all you have to say, “What would it take for you to become a customer?”
What would it take for you to start using Google today?
And no matter how I respond—even if I say, “Thanks, but I’m sticking with Ask Jeeves”—you know it’s not the end. It’s the beginning.
This is your chance to say, “Everything you just told me seems like a perfect match for Google. So you saying no right now means I’ve missed some critical information. What am I missing? Help me out there.”
Or, if you’ve done a convincing job in these previous steps, there’s a good chance I’ll say, “This sounds great. I’ll give Google a try.”
When you’re crafting your next startup pitch, remember this bottom-up framework
Most founders think your pitch needs to be fancy, but it doesn’t. All you have to do is:
- Explain what you do
- Demonstrate value
- Create credibility
- Build understanding and rapport
- Manage objections
- Go for the close
When you follow this bottom-up framework, you create a stronger user experience for me. I understand where you’re coming from. I get what you’re trying to do. I feel comfortable with you and your product. I start believing what you say and, before I realize it, I want to become a customer of yours. Follow this framework and I guarantee your startup pitches will be a lot more successful, especially with me.
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