Joe Procopio
Aug 19 · 6 min read

What exactly does your product do?

This is the most challenging and brain-bending question a startup faces, because if a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is going to succeed, its description has to be deceptively simple. And by “deceptively,” I mean it has to convey a ridiculously complex idea in about 15 words.

To add to the confusion, when our product is just an MVP, we’re only maybe 50% sure of what it should do in the first place.

So when I ask early-stagers the what-does-it-do question, they usually launch into their standard pitch, spitting out studies, statistics, and even financials. Don’t do that. Stats always sound like proof but most people don’t even listen to them, let alone get swayed by them. What they do get swayed by is a story — a very short, deceptively simple story.

I’ve launched dozens of MVPs over a 20-year startup career. Along the way I’ve learned that you can execute every aspect of your MVP launch perfectly, but if you mess up the messaging, you’ll kill the product before it even gets into your customers’ hands.

That MVP messaging should be as individual and groundbreaking as the product it’s describing. Therefore, the message needs to be crafted by the team building the product. So rather than tell you what your message should be, let’s talk about how to craft it.

Point to the problem, not the solution

Chances are, if you’re breaking new ground in a market or industry, you don’t want to play the incumbents’ game. For example, if our startup is disrupting hiring, we want to put ourselves in the recruiting ballpark without positioning ourselves as just a better recruiting solution.

Being the better solution may ultimately be the simplest way to convey our message, but that message won’t sell. Despite conventional wisdom, the idea of being better is actually the weakest messaging we can fall back on.

So instead of referencing the solution, our MVP messaging should reference the problem that we solve.

In our example terms: If hiring is broken because our customers are basically reinventing the wheel for each hire, our solution might provide them with a new process they won’t need to reinvent. Now our messaging isn’t a standard recruiting story about a better way for our customers to make their next hire, it’s about a better way to build their team.

That kind of messaging mandates that we stay away from the trap jargon in the industry, so we want to avoid talking about job postings, screenings, interviews, commissions, retention, all the incumbent buzzwords. Instead, our messaging speaks directly to productivity, culture, growth, and all those other benefits that come to the forefront when we fix their hiring problem.

Another example closer to home. At my startup Spiffy, we’re a better car wash, but our messaging is around keeping your vehicle in top shape while you sit at your desk.

Get into the customer’s shoes

When we’re building a company, it’s difficult to take ourselves out of that company, even for five minutes. Most of the misfires I see with poorly crafted MVP messaging happen when the crafters try to tell the market what they want the market to know, rather than what their customers want to hear.

The manifests most often when startups confuse messaging to the market with messaging to investors or stakeholders. In other words, instead of focusing on the strengths of the product, they focus on the strengths of the company.

Now, there are indeed scenarios when those messages should intersect, but think about it in terms an iPhone. When you’re making that purchasing decision, do you care how many years of experience Apple’s CFO has?

The next biggest mistake happens when startups confuse messaging with mission. There may be all sorts of great and altruistic reasons why you built this particular product, but these are probably not the reasons why your customers will buy the product. Because your customers aren’t thinking about you, they’re thinking about themselves.

So to get off mission and into the mind of your customer, remember that there are several hurdles you have to jump over to make a sale:

  1. The problem has to be painful to your customer.
  2. The problem has to be top-of-mind for your customer.
  3. Your product has to solve the problem in a cost-effective manner.

There are more, of course, but if these top three aren’t addressed at the very beginning of your messaging, the chances of that messaging being effective drop quickly and dramatically.

Lead with (the right) evidence

I mentioned before that no one listens to statistics. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t quantify the benefits of your MVP. In fact, putting numbers in front of the customer as evidence of your value is critical, provided they’re the right numbers.

An example. When Automated Insights sold our automated content solution to the Associated Press for their public company quarterly earnings report articles, we realized we had been pushed the wrong numbers. What we had been leaning on was that our NLG engine could produce human-sounding, detailed content from data at the rate of up to 2,000 articles per second.

That’s mind-boggling when you think about it, but those were the wrong numbers.

So we flipped our messaging to instead talk about how our solution eliminated about three hours of data analysis that the AP’s journalists had been spending on each earnings report. Now those same journalists could spend those three hours doing, you know, journalism.

2,000 articles sounds so much bigger and sexier than three hours. But then we weren’t selling articles, we were selling time.

And this is where a lot of mistakes get made. When you’re pointing to the problem and you’re in the customer’s shoes, you realize that what the customer is really buying is time, convenience, simplification, freedom, comfort, personal or professional growth, even prestige.

That’s what should lead the messaging.

Ride the change wave

One of the reasons your product exists is probably because the market, the industry, hell, the entire world is probably changing faster than the incumbents can keep up with it. You need to address that change. Subtly.

I spend a lot of time focused on changes in the industry I’m playing in. This means I’m paying attention to the very niche sub-industry, and let’s say for Spiffy this means car washes. But I also keep tabs on what’s going on all the way up the chain to the very broad industry, say changes in how we own and maintain our cars, or the new and used car buying process, or electric and autonomous vehicles. I’m even analyzing how we interact with the service sector through mobility and apps.

All of this enters into the messaging. Remember, our simple message needs to convey a number of complex concepts, and the future is one of them. To do this, we need to imagine a world in which our new way of doing things is now the norm. What does that world look like?

In the hiring example from the beginning of the post, it’s something like, “Never post a job listing again.” For Spiffy, it might be, “All your vehicle maintenance in an app.” For Automated Insights, it could have cheekily been, “Fire your data scientist!” (it wasn’t).

But from this brave new world, we can anticipate trends in the industry and speak to those trends. It’s not the message lead, it may not even be directly spoken, but it should be implied.

The final MVP Message

Following all these guidelines, we’ve now crafted an MVP message that:

  1. Focuses on how our product solves a specific problem better than all the other solutions in our space.
  2. Speaks directly to a pain point that is a priority for our customer and offers the means to fix it.
  3. Assures our customer that we’re giving of something they really need — and an idea of how much of it.
  4. Hints at the future of their industry, and in turn the betterment of their own future.

If someone described to you a product that does all that, wouldn’t you give them a few minutes of your time?

Joe Procopio

Written by

I’m a multi-exit, multi-failure entrepreneur. Building Spiffy, sold Automated Insights, sold ExitEvent, built Intrepid Media. More about me at joeprocopio.com

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