The startup pitch: It’s a short elevator ride

Any startup accelerator or startup mentor is obsessed with the elevator pitch, but it's time to rethink what that means

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If you've been part of any startup accelerator or have talked to a "startup mentor" you know how obsessed most of them can be with the elevator pitch i.e. the ability to explain your idea or business during a short elevator ride. During my time working at startups, I've heard different versions of this ranging from the beer mat pitch (a pitch that can be written on a beer mat and explained to a fellow drinker at the bar) to the grandma (or granny to my fellow Brits) pitch, which is describing your business in terms your grandma would understand.

I've always disagreed with these notions and at this point in my life, having founded several companies and running Cloud 66 for about 4 years, I'm pretty sure I'm right. The elevator pitch is useless, the beer mat pitch is a waste of time, and grandma's pitch is just plain old stupid.

Elevator pitch issues relate to two areas: context and goal.

To illustrate my point, allow me to introduce you to Paul. Paul is a Professor of Applied Mathematics at UC Berkeley. I'm sure you know what it means to be an Applied Mathematics professor. I wouldn't be surprised if you assumed he must be a good professor, since he teaches at a university like UC Berkeley. You might even be able to accurately guess his age and even picture his appearance in your mind.

This is because you have a great deal of context and an existing pattern in your mind about what Paul does. You know what Applied Mathematics is. You know what a university is and what being a professor means. You know UC Berkeley is a good university and might know it has a particularly good Applied Mathematics faculty.

Now imagine you didn't know any of this. Let's see how he'll fare pitching his work in an elevator:

Me: So, Paul. What do you do?
Paul: I'm a professor of Applied Mathematics at UC Berkeley.
Me: [looking confused]. Hmmm.... I know what mathematics is. But what's applied mathematics?
Paul: It's the practice of finding uses of mathematics in science, engineering, business, computer science, and industry.
Me: Right. I think I have an idea. So what's UC Berkeley?
Paul: Erm.... It's a university in Berkeley, California.
Me: University, eh? What do you do there?
Paul: I'm a professor.
Me: What's a professor?
Paul: [murmurs something] ... I help people gain a better understanding of the world by providing them with regular lectures and introduce them to instructional books.
Me: Ah! Now I get it! Like a school teacher, right? But what's your USP? Why not just call yourself a teacher instead?

At this point, we've ran out of beer mats, grandma is snoozing on her rocking chair, and the elevator has reached the roof garden and people are waiting for us to leave so they can get in.

OK. So this example might seem slightly bizarre. Paul's elevator pitch would have ended after his first sentence with a relatively good understanding of the job he's communicated to me. Because I have context.

But while it's difficult to think of someone who doesn't know what a university or professor are, it's completely plausible to imagine the same assumptions being impossible if Paul was pitching a cold laser surgical scalpel for retina surgery. In this scenario, it's not hard to imagine me asking him, what's a cold laser? What's retina surgery? Why cold? Is there a warm one? What's the USP? How is this different from any other scalpel?

The problem is, many startups work in cutting edge science and technology fields. Fields that inherently have few people with insights into them. That's the exact reason they can build something new: Because they know something others don't. The context is seldom as commonly shared for those types of companies. As a result, elevator pitches for startups have evolved to take on 3 different guises:

  1. Useless or meaningless: "We help companies turn into social enterprises"
  2. Incomprehensible: "We reduce tissue damage by using flexible fibre CO2 lasers"
  3. Relative: "We're the Airbnb for washing machines"

You can see how only the third one is useful in communicating something meaningful, because it benefits from a shared context. I know what Airbnb and washing machines are. Frankly this isn't unique or a particularly new insight. This is what communication is. This is what we humans do when we communicate: start from a common ground and build new pieces on top of it.

It's often said that the aim of an elevator pitch is to get the other side to ask intelligent questions and guide them through the course of understanding your business. While I agree that this is a method to engage people, the goal of an elevator pitch for a startup isn't to be a conversational piece. It's to go get investment, form a partnership, or sell a product -- not start a conversation.

Given the goal, it's justified to ask a simple question: "How likely is it to get investment from someone who doesn't even have a contextual understanding of your field? How useful is that investment going to be? And how likely is it to sell your cold laser scalpel to a removal van driver?"

While it's possible for those conversations to turn into a business transaction, it's not the most optimized way of approaching a business deal. The scarcest thing in a startup is time. Waste your time and you'll watch your startup die. It's the same thing.

But not all startups specialize in cold laser scalpels. A dating website, an online cookery school or a mobile gaming app startup can benefit from elevator pitches, precisely for the reason that people will share their context with you. But if you're building a business on new frontiers, solving hard or novel problems -- what Sam Altman called Hard Tech Startups -- elevator, beer mat, or grandma pitches are as efficient as advertising lease time of the Large Hadron Collider on TV during prime time Saturday night viewing. It might work, but it's quite likely not to.

So do your homework. Find relevant investors and business partners who don't need priming about your business. You have a short elevator ride. Don't waste it on context.

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