Engineers used to wonder what the point of sales and marketing people was. If a product was good, wouldn’t customers make the correct decision to buy it?
Nobody I know seems that naive anymore, but I did just get a similar question, which may be paraphrased as:
Why do investors judge a startup on the CEO’s pitching ability? Shouldn’t they focus instead on the actual merits of the company?
Most of my answer boiled down to:
Investors’ top concern is management’s ability to execute, and pitching is — or simulates — a large part of execution.
In particular (and now I’m quoting my own email directly):
- A CEO is a company’s chief salesman in one-on-one (or one-on-few) selling situations.
- A CEO is a company’s chief promoter in public forums, or in one-on-one influencer marketing situations.
- A CEO is a company’s chief recruiter.
- A CEO needs to align a company behind a shared vision, and specifically a shared understanding of the vision.
- A CEO needs to persuade employees to do things they don’t feel like doing.
I finished with one other point that didn’t fit the template, namely:
If you can’t articulate a good pitch, why should we believe there’s a good story in there at all?
I think the entrepreneur who asked me the question was convinced.
- I’ve posted a lot about how to pitch.
I’m generally a skeptic about the value of press releases. However:
- The IT trade press is increasingly understaffed, and hence press releases can in some cases serve as a draft of the article you hope folks will write. (Whether articles of that form have any influence or credibility is a whole other matter.)
- Press releases are collateral support for whatever higher-class outreach you do.
So my current opinion is:
- You should write press releases primarily for a general online audience, but …
- … secondarily for the reporters at whom they are ostensibly aimed.
That fits with my general view that press releases:
- Should tell your story.
- Should read well.
- Shouldn’t do anything to actively embarrass you.
That brings me to the subject of this post: third-party press release quotes. For starters, I think the following are pretty obvious: Read more
The concept of “elevator pitch” is ill-defined. Strictly speaking, it’s supposed to be how you’d describe your company or product in no more time than the length of an elevator ride. But if you ever actually are in such a situation, you will likely tailor your pitch to the specific listener. Ergo, you shouldn’t have one standard elevator pitch. So I’ll talk about “self-introductions” instead. Whatever we call it, the challenge “How do we introduce and summarize our story in the shortest possible time, or in the fewest possible words?” is a Really Big Deal.
Self-introductions occur at several different lengths, including but not limited to:
- Short enough to fit in the first paragraph of a press release without obscuring the main point.
- Short enough to fit into an elevator ride — — or in the boilerplate at the end of a press release.
- The first few paragraphs of the About and/or Product sections of your website.
- The beginning of a typical slide-aided presentation.
Usually, it makes sense to view the shorter ones as being abbreviations of the longer, more complete forms.
Most software technology benefits boil down to either:
- We help people be more effective. (Productivity)
- We help computers run faster. (Performance)
- We help people be more effective at making computers run faster. (Performance via productivity, or vice-versa)
A couple of the raw startups I advise have recently asked me about a hugely important subject — dealing with their very first customers. The big deal here is that initial customers can offer three different kinds of valuable resources:
- Money, in forms such as:
- Ordinary licenses or sales.
- Custom product development.
- Equity investment.
- Credibility,* to audiences including:
- Press and analysts.
- Angel/seed/venture investors.
- Potential customers who are just reading/hearing about you.
- Potential customers who do detailed reference checks.
- Product feedback and advice.*
*Confusingly, both credibility and product feedback are sometimes called “validation”.
Questions of money are of course heavily influenced by how complete your product or service is. In particular:
- It is common not to get paid until your product works and is either in late beta or else early general availability.
- It is common for early customers to want big discounts even when they do pay you.
- Somewhat contradictorily, it is also not uncommon to get a lot of payment from your earliest customer(s). Reasons include:
- They’re getting technology that is, at the moment, unique.
- You’re willing to somewhat tailor the product to their needs, and to provide very high levels of attention and service.
Equity investment by your early customers and partners is problematic. In particular: Read more
I occasionally get very hands-on in accelerating a raw start-up. Typically this is when an engineer comes to me with an unquestionably clever idea and asks me — sometimes in very broken English — whether and how he can get rich from it. So let’s collect some thoughts on the subject.
This post can be construed as fitting into my “not-very-organized series” about the keys to success. In particular, it draws on my July, 2014 post about judging opportunities.
The product plan
A start-up product idea needs to satisfy multiple criteria. Awkwardly, they’re rather contradictory to each other.
- It should be obviously appealing to sufficiently many customers, and be worth sufficiently much money to them.
- It should be something the startup can do with very few resources …
- … but which much larger potential competitors cannot.
That usually means that the idea:
- Should be based on an architecture that is anti-strategic to incumbent players …
- … but which fits customers’ technology strategies just fine.
Criticisms I’ve made repeatedly of specific ideas include: Read more
Much of what I get paid for is advising early-stage companies, especially on messaging and marketing. So let’s try to pull some thoughts together.
For early-stage companies, I’d say:
- Even more than for larger companies, the essence of messaging is to achieve the contradictory goals of excitement and credibility.
- If one of those must be sacrificed, sacrifice excitement. It is by far the easier of the two to regain.
- Note: Both your product and your company need to be credible. When your company is new, both parts of that are formidable challenges.
- Notwithstanding how limited your resources are, don’t rely too much on outside PR. You need to control messaging and key influencer relations yourself.
- Notwithstanding how limited your resources are, you need to address multiple audiences, at least:
- Prospective employees.
- Knowledgeable influencers.
- Not-so-knowledgeable influencers.
- Sales prospects (business folks).
- Sales prospects (technical folks).
Of course, these subjects are much discussed in this blog. The top three overview posts for young companies are probably: Read more
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Much of my consulting revolves around messaging, and in particular the need to have multiple specific messages for multiple audiences. Increasingly often, I find myself discussing that in terms of sales qualification, because there’s a strong duality between message crafting and qualification:
- The goal of message crafting is to find the right message(s) for particular audiences.
- The goal of qualification is to find the right audiences for particular messages.
Recall the layered messaging model, whose wording I’ll update to:
- Differentiated business benefits …
- … which are achieved because of …
- … superior technical features or SLAs,* …
- … the differentiation of which is achieved and sustainable because of …
- … fundamental product design.
A good messaging stack works well on all five of those layers. Read more
Marketing is commonly done to single individuals, influencers and sales prospects alike. A number of my posts reflect that reality. Most comprehensive are probably my 2014 post about presentations to small audiences and my 2008 survey of many kinds of influencer. Relevant bits of other posts include:
You can’t sell effectively without listening. This is one of the basic facts of business, yet shockingly many people forget it. You can’t pitch effectively without understanding how the prospect frames what she hears, and you can’t judge that unless you listen to what she says.
from a 2013 post about “fluency”,
If you are a small startup with innovative technology, put as little as possible between your own people who can talk with passion about the stuff, and whoever you’re trying to get coverage from.
from a 2011 quoted journalist rant,
the right person to lead an important relationship is:
- Usually somebody who can truly speak for your company, and specifically:
- Has the knowledge and ability to respond to pushback.
- Knows the influencer well enough to argue back in turn.
Occasionally an in-house press or analyst relations staffer. Almost never an outside PR person.
from a 2012 collection of marketing communications tips, which also makes the point that you should flat-out ask people how they like to work, and a variety of cautionary tales of how one can bungle meetings or other relationship moments.
The above can be summarized as:
- Respect the person you’re trying to impress.
- Treat the person you’re trying to impress as an individual.
- Listen to the person you’re trying to impress.
- Understand and cater to how the person you’re trying to impress thinks.
I could write a whole post on that last bullet point alone.
Here are some further tips for productive single-person marketing and persuasion. Read more
I see many slide decks, a large fraction of which are screwed up right at the beginning. Here are some thoughts on doing better. This post goes together with others that relate to presentations or press releases, including:
- Presentations for small audiences (August, 2014)
- Short lists of concise claims (July, 2014)
- Faith, hope and clarity (May, 2013)
In the first post linked above, I wrote:
The most generic and reusable part of a slide deck is its beginning — the “setting the table” part. A natural sequence is:
- Whatever seems necessary to introduce and identify you.
- Some validation as part of the introduction — company size, customer logos, whatever.
- The big business problem/need you’re helping with.
- A little validation about the problem/need.
- Some common difficulties in satisfying the need, which are happily absent in your solution.
- Specifically how you meet the need.
Let’s drill into some of those points.
Tips for company validation include:
- If you’re big enough to have validation as a market leader, of course offer that. Analyst firms (industry or stock) are generally the providers of such validation, either directly (those stupid quadrant graphs) or indirectly (via market share numbers and the like).
- Customer logos are great.
- Also great are strong aggregate claims about customers, e.g. “over 70 of the Fortune 100″.
- Financial or fund-raising success is solid validation, and has the second benefit of suggesting you have the resources to deliver on your promises.
- Mere influencer mentions are a weak validation. Also, beware of insulting influencers by quoting competitive influencers at them.
- Founder resumes are validation only for companies so small they can’t be expected to have stronger kinds.