What Your Startup is Doing Wrong: Four Small Changes for Big Growth

jessica poteet
Sep 28, 2017 · 6 min read

Lessons from a Silicon Valley Pitch Competition

Four tips for the high-tech startup trying to increase their business-savvy street cred. Photo by Olu Eletu on Unsplash.

One of the biggest rites of passage for any founder is the first time they pitch their idea / product / solution to an audience. You’ve worked hard to perfect your code and design, and your demo is debugged and polished. You’re the type of person who works wells under pressure, and you haven’t really thought about what you’re going to say specifically. Inspiration always comes to you when you need it!

You approach the mic… you pull out your lucky laser pointer… and you begin to passionately talk about “your baby.” This is the dream!

But, as you look out into the audience, you see it: the blank, confused expressions, the questioning looks, and the glances at phones and watches. Oh no! “Why aren’t they as excited as I am?” you think.

Many early-stage startups struggle to pitch and market their product effectively and efficiently. There’s no judgement in that statement; most of these companies are founded and managed by really brilliant engineers and product-focused teams. This is the reality of young technology startups. Not everyone has the luxury of getting a business degree, hiring a growth marketer, or having access to a network of savvy advisers.

But if these companies want to raise capital, make profits, and/or get good PR, they will need to be able to communicate their value succinctly. What are some quick fixes these fledgling companies can change or add to their website/pitch to bring real value?

Write a unique value proposition about your solution. Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash.

1. Write a Unique Value Proposition.

Your UVP is a statement that describes the benefits of your solution, how you meet your customers’ needs, and what distinguishes you from your competition. It also needs to be displayed prominently on your website, landing page, and marketing campaign.

More deeply, in a concise yet evocative statement, you must describe the benefits of your product using The Four U’s:

a) Useful: how is this product useful to a customer, and what problem is it solving for them?

b) Urgency: why does a customer need your solution right this instant?

c) Unique: what about your service is unlike anything else on the market?

d) Ultra-specific: can you describe your company without any ambiguity or confusion, such that it leaves a reader without any hesitations or questions about what you are selling?

Holy crap! A UVP needs to have A LOT of information in a super tiny space. It may seem impossible, but aim for clarity over creativity initially. As awareness for your product or service builds, then you can begin to get clever with your messaging

For example, Netflix now simply states:

“Watch what happens next.”

This is a hat-tip to their binge watching reputation. But Netflix can be creative and vague because nearly everyone knows what Netflix does. They’ve achieved product market fit. Unfortunately, your machine learning startup with an esoteric company name and logo will probably need an incredibly ULTRA-SPECIFIC and USEFUL value proposition to keep users on your site.

Do you want to quickly test your UVP? Ask strangers who are completely unaware of your website and product to view your home page with your UVP visible. Only allow them to view it for seven seconds. If they can’t tell you want your company does and how it will benefit someone immediately, keep tweaking your UVP.

Pitch your product in a streamlined, catchy manner. Photo by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash.

2. Craft a concise, catchy pitch.

You may wonder why people use this analogy, but there are some useful reasons why you want to be able to pitch in 15 seconds. Those who can quickly and accurately describe their product and its benefits are seen as competent and prepared. They demonstrate they know what they’re talking about. You don’t want to lose your audience’s attention and you don’t want to lead them down a rabbit hole of misinformation and confusion.

There are two types of pitches:

One is this elevator pitch: a super quick overview, almost a spoken unique value proposition. The second is a meatier pitch: a longer pitch, useful for investor meetings, competitions, candidate interviews, and media events. I like to use this format to craft a one minute pitch:

a) Start with a short, funny anecdote or staggering statistic that relates to why someone would use your solution. You need to get your audience’s attention, and using emotion is a great way to grab someone’s focus.

b) Introduce your solution by succinctly stating what you do.

c) List the key benefits of your solution.

d) Highlight why your company and/or market has a competitive advantage (great team, huge market size, large waitlist of customers, large network or famous connections).

e) Close with a final catchy phrase that re-summarizes your solution.

Insert clear calls-to-action in your website and pitch. Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash.

3. Have a clear call-to-action.

We’ve all seen these vague buttons on websites. To the person who built the website, it’s obvious what clicking that button will do. But to your audience, your intrepid potential customers, they have no idea what they’re getting into.

Companies need to make sure the messaging around their call-to-action (CTA) is crystal clear. Returning to the Netflix example, their sign-up button clearly states:

“Join Free for a Month.”

You know when you click that button, not only will you be joining Netflix, but you’ll be getting my first month free. No confusion there, right?

If you’re simply selling a product online, “Buy Now,” always works well. But what about getting people to give you their email address to sign-up for a waitlist or newsletter? “Click here to be added to our Beta release launch!” or “Sign up for our otter meme-a-day email!Make it obvious! Run A/B tests on your messaging, or perform the stranger test I mentioned above.

Who are you trying to reach? Understanding this will allow you to tailor your messaging appropriately. Thanks to GIPHY and HBO.

4. Cater to your audience.

If you’re pitching to non-technical investors, and you’re a high-tech engineering startup, make sure your presentation has the appropriate amount of technical definitions and background, as well as business-related information. This way, investors can make informed decisions, and you can appear business-savvy and empathetic.

If your consumers are teenagers, but your customers are their parents, make sure your website is understandable to both generations. This will help you attract and sell to an appropriate audience.

Many people hate old-school frameworks, but it could be incredibly beneficial to sit with your co-founders and conduct a STP exercise (segment. target. position.)

a) What possible demographic segments could be interested in your solution ?

b) Which segment will you be targeting initially and why?

c) How will you position your solution to get that target’s attention?

Remember: know your audience, know your customers, and know your unique value proposition!

Know your audience… and audience size. Thanks to GIPHY and HBO.

This article was inspired by my first San Francisco pitch competition last week, where my company was one of the few startup to go beyond the tech. We impressed the judges, especially the ones who weren’t data scientists and were looking for investments, with our emphasis on UVP and STP. Big props to my team at PipelineAI: we won the Startup Showcase at The Artificial Intelligence Conference.

What is one overlooked business or marketing aspect you have found makes a big difference to focus on early in the life of a startup? Do you prefer focusing on traditional marketing frameworks or new-age growth hacks in a startup’s infancy? Share your thoughts below!

Thanks to Thomas Maremaa and John A. Parks for providing invaluable editing direction on this article, Mikail Gündoğdu for GIF advice, and the Tradecraft community supporting me in my endeavors as a growth writer.


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