Know Your Audience
Customers and investors need brave founders.
Once Upon a Pitch Problem #15
“We are focused on this niche market because the other larger markets are too hard to enter in our country.” My heart stopped. My eyes jumped from looking down at the stopwatch up to the stage where the founder, who just uttered those words in response to a question, was standing before a panel of Judges at a marquee industry pitch competition. “Oh no,” I thought, then internally panicked, “Oh no! That was an easy GTM question and that answer is tragic!” An awkward, nervous smile came across my face and with my furtive eyes, sweeping left to right across the faces of the Judges, I silently implored them to let that mistake go. I looked back at the founder and prayed to the Pitch God to prevent the competitor from continuing to speak on that topic. Holding my breath, I watched a different Judge, looking downward over his spectacles, glumly pick up the microphone. I gulped. With mercy, he asked an entirely new question.
One and done. Short form pitching is a first impression and the same rules apply as if this were a first date, a first interview, a first meeting of a potential mate’s family. Every single word matters. You can be charming and attractive at your first coffee date but if you unreasonably snap at the underpaid and overworked barista, you are one and done. Whatever you said before and after that moment no longer matters, the snap is all that is remembered. This one and done response is irreparable for investors: (1) the founder is not brave; (2) the founder is not globally minded; (3) the founder is not ambitious; and (4) the founder is not a person to make a big money bet on. Whether the sentence spoken by the founder was truthful or not, just like whether the barista screwed up or not, is wholly irrelevant because the words spoken are fatal. Always stand in the shoes of your audience; they want to hear thoughtful confidence with brave ambition. Just like you don’t tell your first date everything that is wrong with the coffee service, you don’t tell the audience everything that is challenging for your business. You sip that lousy coffee and answer all questions carefully, keeping your audience in mind.
“And every day . . ..” Setting up the scope and size of the customer problem you are solving defines not only your pitch, but also the potential size of your enterprise. As a new business, investigating and researching the customer problem is your single only job and every conversation should lead you to another conversation. Some markets will look ripe and ready, others will look impossibly difficult and far away. Your job is to assess and rank markets for attack over time. Focus on your super customer first, your beachhead market that has the highest chances of success for product adoption and revenue on the quickest timeframe. Often, this is a small sub-market and if that were the end of your company story, it would be a successful small business. But this market may only be the start of the story; once you are successful and experienced, then with the benefit of time, product deployment, and team experience, you can mindfully go after that next, bigger market, closing in on the harder, massive, industry changing market. Be careful not to imply that the first sub-market is the only market; the “and every day” of your story will change with each customer success.
It’s you, it is always you. Founders often fall into verbal traps when they are spontaneously answering questions in quick pitches. Answering these questions is not a deathbed confession of universal truth or defense of a PhD requiring radical honesty with academic attribution. Answering a quick pitch question requires a demonstration of listening skills, knowledge of product and market, and a practiced list of memorized answers for basic business questions. Bravery is not spontaneous, recklessness is. Memorization of ready, flexible answers is the key to confidence. Start by not speaking at all. Reflect on the question. If you know the answer, but it is too detailed to answer in fifteen seconds, think about one of your memorized answers that is related to the topic. Answer first by articulating you understand the question, then weave a memorized answer into your response to demonstrate your command of the topic at a high level and close off any follow up questions: “We are first attacking this market because of quicker proof of product/market match with revenue and then with success and experience, we will go into the larger, incumbent markets.”
What They Said
Verbal fender benders can certainly take a toll. For instance, not long ago a client from a fairly straitlaced company told me this story about an up-and-coming managing director. The executive was chatting with the company’s CEO during a cocktail party. She was understandably nervous, and her jitters had a predictable effect on her. Her nerves accelerated her speaking pace. She lost control, allowing an F-bomb to slip from her mouth. That one crucial error created a shift in perception from “up-and-coming” to “loose cannon.”
Unlike a vehicular fender bender, there aren’t any repair shops for your reputation and professional image . . . It’s never more important to slow down or pause than when you are in unfamiliar territory . . . That’s why I suggest you severely curtail ad-libbing, especially during high-stakes communication situations.” - Bill McGowan and Alisa Bowman, Pitch Perfect: How to Say it Right the First Time, Every Time, “The No-Tailgating Principle,” pages 93-94.
See You on the Track
Author The First Principles Pitch, startup storyteller, board member, advisor and investor. Once Upon a Pitch is a weekly newsletter looking at one business pitch problem and offering storytelling solutions to help solve that problem. On Demand startup pitch and business coaching now available for May 2023 at Jack Industries.
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