Founders: Pitch the Promised Land
How to design the most important part of your company story.
My favorite pizza shop in San Francisco is called, aptly enough, The Pizza Shop. I was devouring a slice (OK, three) there the other day, when I noticed four words atop the menu board that made me jump out of my seat.
I jumped for two reasons:
(1) “Believe in pizza again” expresses exactly how the Pizza Shop has changed my life — I had given up on ever finding a great slice in this city before they opened; and
(2) the owner of The Pizza Shop expertly does what many entrepreneurs and leadership teams struggle to do, even though it’s a crucial ingredient in every successful startup:
Before pitching his product, he describes a Promised Land that his product will help customers reach.
What’s the Promised Land?
The Promised Land is my shorthand for the desirable, difficult-to-achieve future that you commit to make real for your customers (or other relevant stakeholders). The Promised Land is the North Star that guides everything that everyone does in your company, and should always be the thing that you are ultimately pitching—on your website, in sales conversations, in recruiting discussions, and with potential investors.
Why? Because when people ask, “What do you guys do?” they’re really asking, “What change do you want to bring to my world?”
Here’s Elon Musk describing Tesla’s Promised Land before he unveils the new Model 3:
Here’s Slack’s Promised Land, expressed in three words (“Be less busy”) and delivered in search results before you even reach their website:
When founders and leadership teams define a compelling Promised Land and express it effectively, they align everyone around a single, meaningful purpose—without anyone having to memorize scripted mission statements, antiseptic value propositions, or any other corporate mumbo-jumbo.
In fact, defining a compelling Promised Land is the single most important thing you do as a leader. An effective Promised Land makes it clear to customers why they should listen to you, to product/engineering teams what they should be building, and to sales/marketing teams how they should be selling.
Searching for an answer to Simon Sinek’s “Why?” Getting customers to your Promised Land is your why.
How to Design an Effective Promised Land
Again, your Promised Land is the future state of the world that you commit to bringing about for your customer or audience. Ideally, it should be:
- Desirable (obviously)
- Improbable. It should be unlikely that your customer will reach the Promised Land in a world without you and your product/service, even through efforts of competitors. After all, if your customer can achieve the desired future without you, why does your company exist?
- A balance between short-term benefits and long-term aspirations
To explain what I mean by #3, let’s imagine that we’re the founders of a startup called FairyGodmothers.com, and we want to design a Promised Land for our company, which offers technology for turning pumpkins into chariots, rags into fancy clothes, etc. In this gender-neutral version of the tale, we help all Cinderella types—any young person tormented by an evil step-family—attend royal balls.
In the chart below, if the x-axis represents time and the y-axis happiness, the dotted lines are two possible futures, one with us (top) and one without us (bottom):
Many founders’ messages start and end with some version of “pumpkin becomes chariot”—that is, they tout what their product or service does, without offering much context to explain why it matters.
Clearly FairyGodmothers.com’s pitch will benefit from a more lofty Promised Land, but how much more lofty? Should it be:
(a) “Attend ball in chariot,” which has the advantage of being concrete and easily understandable?
(b) “Live happily ever after,” which is much more aspirational?
(c) “Marry royalty,” which falls somewhere in between?
Absent more information about our market, I like “marry royalty.” It’s more aspirational than “attend ball in chariot” (putting aside, for the moment, the question of whether marrying royalty should be the aspiration of tormented young people!) while concrete enough to paint a clear mental picture of the future we’re committing to deliver.
That said, a company’s ideal Promised Land will always depend on market maturity and strategy, both of which may change over time.
How Uber’s Promised Land Evolved as its Market and Strategy Matured
In 2011, Uber touted a Promised Land that was not that different from “Attend ball in chariot”:
Three years later, after the introduction of UberX, Uber up-leveled its Promised Land towards “happily ever after,” painting a picture of a life in which it’s easier to move around:
Fast-forward to 2016, and Uber has up-leveled the Promised Land yet again, and even further in the “happily ever after” direction. Today, Uber is committing to help you take control of your life:
Of course, had Travis Kalanick launched Uber with a Promised Land message of “Your day belongs to you” back in 2011, most people would have had no idea what he was talking about. It took time for customers to develop an understanding of Uber’s service to the point where the new Promised Land resonates.
5 Questions for Evaluating Your Promised Land
While we all recognize a good Promised Land when we see one, here are five questions I ask teams to consider when evaluating a Promised Land, along with illustrative examples:
#1. Does it motivate your target audience?
Your Promised Land doesn’t have to be 100% achievable by customers, as long as it motivates them as a goal—a kind of impossible dream, or limit, that’s worth striving towards. (One founder I recently worked with proposed that every Promised Land should only be achievable “asymptotically.”) Magazines publishers have always been masters at this: Pick up almost any issue of Men’s Health, and you’ll find a story on the cover about the Promised Land for its readers (six-pack abs).
#2. Is it emotional for your target audience?
While it’s nice if the Promised Land is emotional for everyone who comes in contact with your company, what really matters is that it’s emotional for your target audience (read: customers).
For example, “Jobs done right, every time” (above) may not sound super-emotional out of context. But it’s incredibly emotional for the customers of Parsable, a company that targets operations teams at the world’s largest industrial firms, like oil and gas companies. For those customers, who are working on stuff like sub-sea drilling, “jobs done right” means avoiding mistakes on the job that can cost millions of dollars, endanger the planet, and put lives at risk.
#3. Will it align everyone in your company?
An effective Promised Land guides your sales teams on how to sell, your marketing teams on how to position, and your recruiters on how they talk about the company. It should even guide product teams on how they prioritize features.
For years, Facebook has touted “Connect with friends and the world around you” as its Promised Land (on its home page for non-logged-in users). When when Facebook recently updated its news feed algorithm to favor friends and family posts, the company cited a variation on that phrase as the guiding principle behind its product design:
“…we often make improvements to News Feed, and when we do, we rely on a set of core values….Facebook was built on the idea of connecting people with their friends and family.”
#4. Is it worded the way people actually talk?
Once you’ve agreed on the nature of your Promised Land, there are usually multiple ways to express it. Ideally, you’ll choose one that echoes how your customers actually talk. Many times I’ve sat struggling with CEOs and their leadership teams to find the right words, and then we interview a customer who phrases it in a way that perfectly captures what we wanted to say. For example, Wootric, which offers a Net Promoter Score platform for measuring and raising customer happiness, settled on its Promised Land (“Win customers for life”) after hearing a prominent customer use those words to describe the future he wanted.
#5. Does it define a huge, profitable, differentiated category?
Above all, your Promised Land determines how you measure the perceived value you deliver. (Let me say this another way: Your Promised Land is your value proposition.) For that reason, I usually nudge teams to up-level their Promised Lands (get closer to “happily ever after”) a bit more than they might naturally feel comfortable doing so on their own.
For example, Airbnb’s Promised Land message (“Live there”) clearly defines a big, desirable (and previously improbable) future that hotels and traditional lodging alternatives can never deliver. In a very real sense, “Live there” defines a new category in which Airbnb is the leader.
Your Product? Pitch it as a Means of Reaching the Promised Land.
Once they’re bought into the Promised Land you want to help them reach, audiences are far more likely to pay attention to your product and its features. In that context, your product is a lightsaber that helps save the universe, the divine power that parts the Red Sea.
Or, it’s a steamy hot slice with the just the right combination of crispy crust, high-quality tomato sauce, and gooey mozzarella that reminds you of your Brooklyn youth, and that, against all odds, makes you believe in pizza again.
About Andy Raskin:
I help leaders build strategic messaging and positioning that powers successful fundraising, sales, marketing, product, and recruiting. My clients include teams backed by Andreessen Horowitz, First Round Capital, GV, and other top venture firms. I also lead strategic storytelling workshops at places like Uber, General Assembly, HourlyNerd, Heavybit Industries and Stanford. To learn more and get in touch, visit http://andyraskin.com.