Crafting an Opening Line

The terror of summarizing a company in 90 characters

(This is the second post in a series about how to build a proper AngelList profile. Find the first post here. The next post on describing your product is here.)

[T]here’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.

The quote above is Stephen King dropping truth about writing a book’s opening sentence in The Atlantic. He is a master wordsmith so give the article a quick read. As he discusses, finding the right opening takes continual effort, an authentic voice and an understanding of the reader. You will face a similar task writing the opener for your AngelList profile. Rest assured the effort is not lost. Most founders skimp, letting the best really shine.

The doorway to your profile

It is easy to brush off a profile’s opening line as another pesky field in a arduous form. That is a huge mistake. What AngelList calls your “high concept pitch” is the first thing seen by investors, potential hires and anyone browsing any list of companies on AngelList; it is the single most important 90 characters you will write on your AngelList profile.

An awesome opener achieves three goals. First, it succinctly explains what a company does. AngelList is fundamentally a matching engine. So quickly understanding what a company does is core to getting value for match seekers. Summarizing a company is relatively straightforward, so I won’t spend a ton of time on it. Use that as the first draft of your high level pitch.

The second goal of an opening line is to inspire curiosity. The opening line serves as the spark that gets the reader’s attention and nudges her to read the profile. There are lots of ways to generate curiosity but I think the best examples do it by succinctly framing an interesting problem/solution.

Ooo. Tell me more.

An awesome opener is also incomplete. With Tile’s, the reader needs more information to fully understand how the problem and solution relate, but anyone interested will be happy to click and read more.

The last goal of your opener to is be help the reader remember the company. Everyone consumes a deluge of information. A memorable opening line is incredibly valuable because it lets your company’s story spread easier. Founders consistently say that being on AngelList helped create really valuable serendipity. That is impossible if people cannot remember exactly what a company does.

Making more than a summary

Once you have your draft summary, step two is to play with the language to make it interesting, engaging and memorable. The challenges to finding the balance of explanation and inspiration vary by company, but here are a few tricks and pitfalls to consider:

Specific > general.

Often times founders will make their pitch incredibly general to make an idea seem big. Without any brand awareness, that is a mistake because it leaves the reader confused and usually uninterested. It also ignores the reality that most “big” companies started out seemingly small. Could it be because small is understandable? Perhaps.

Moar specificity!
Instantly understandable.

Careful with buzzwords.

With so little space it can be tempting to use buzzwords. Use your judgement, but generally keep the language simple and human. Too many buzzwords induce nausea.

Barf bag!
Simple. Human.

Thisforthat can work (but not usually).

An almost cliche trick many teams use is to say “We are this for that”. The intention is good: get leverage from an existing, aspirational startup and quickly explain the company. The tactic typically fails because founders choose a startup that is not seen as aspirational beyond tech circles (i.e. Quora) and/or misestimate the strength of the metaphor. So if you use thisforthat, choose a startup that is entering the mainstream via press and has raised real money from credible VCs. Last, be sure the metaphor is obvious and intuitive.

Good startup. Bad metaphor.
A rare case where thisforthat works pretty well.

Avoid marketing language.

While similar in length, an opening line is not a tagline. Exclamations (e.g. #1, $2bn market) and grand adjectives feel desperate and are a mismatch for the audiences likely to read your profile: investors, recruits and partners. No arm-waving! These people are trying to learn about what your company does to see if you are a fit for investment, employment, partnerships or other business related activity.

*Less* marketing.

Finally, there is no silver bullet to crafting an awesome opening line. Writing well is hard and even harder with constraints. Your opener can and should evolve as you speak with more users, investors, recruits and partners. All the pain is well worth it though. Those 90 characters are the doorway to capturing the mindshare of valuable readers.

Up next: Describing Your Product on AngelList