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This article was published on August 21, 2020

How to explain WTF your company does when no one’s listening

Pitching without being a bother.

How to explain WTF your company does when no one’s listening
Alex Rosen
Story by

Alex Rosen

Co-Founder & Managing Partner, Ridge Ventures

Alex has worked in venture capital for more than 20 years, tallying 15 exits exceeding $20 billion in value. He holds BS degrees in electric Alex has worked in venture capital for more than 20 years, tallying 15 exits exceeding $20 billion in value. He holds BS degrees in electrical engineering and economics from MIT and an MBA from Stanford University.

It’s the most crucial and deceptively simple question to answer as a founder: “What exactly does your company do?” 

In the midst of a pandemic and economic downturn, when fundraising and customer meetings are drying up, nailing this all-important question — via suboptimal Zoom audio, nonetheless — is more critical than ever. How does a founder hit all the right notes without losing investor or customer attention?

After hearing about 10,000 fundraising and customer pitches myself as a VC, “What does your company do” remains the most fundamental question for any business and one that is hard to answer in a succinct way, especially for enterprise-facing companies.

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Whether it’s fundraising, recruiting, customer intros, business development, or potential acquisitions, here are four storytelling blunders to avoid along with some tips on how to keep your story straight.

[Read: Most mobile apps suck — here’s how to fix them]

The jargonauts

When entrepreneurs spill an alphabet soup of generic industry buzzwords, the listener wants to roll their eyes.

You know, something like “We make the internet better” or “We are a cloud-based, AI-powered platform utilizing big data for closed-loop effective marketing.” Doesn’t really tell me what you do.

“Jargonauts” also run the risk of misleading their audiences. It’s easy to get bogged down by tech-speak that is unfamiliar to those outside your field, and many terms can carry an alternative meaning. One example is abbreviations, such as IP (internet protocol/intellectual property), or SME (subject matter expert/small-medium enterprise).

The other pitfall is too much technical jargon. It’s fine to unleash the geekery outside of a pitching context, or when it’s known that an audience has technical expertise. But otherwise, save “multivariate hypergeometric distributions” for the data science lunch-and-learns.

If you do find yourself in the throes of DEFCON 1 abstraction, refocus on the problem you’re solving. Highlighting concrete evidence of your company’s upside — growth numbers, case studies, etc, can help rejuvenate a drowsy listener.

In the weeds, out of mind

Jargon is also the easiest way to enter The Weeds, where “what do you do?” responses come to die. Weeds kill gardens and lawns, cause multimillion-dollar lawsuits, and obfuscate pitches that may as well be delivered in a Tolkien dialect.

The easiest way to avoid The Weeds is to keep it simple. There is a temptation, particularly in the enterprise world, to explain how companies work in the most technical (read: confusing) way possible. This is a no-no.

“What do you do” answers should be succinct, provide a clear description of product offering and the larger industry problem, and only decrease altitude after building a solid foundation of understanding.

Here is an example of a pitch that embodies this gradual, high-to-low approach:

We are a mobile engagement platform, allowing brands to connect with their customers on mobile devices via text, email, web, or in-app notifications. Consumers increasingly want to interact with products and services on mobile, so this is important now. And brands need a modern technology that is able to process billions of transactions in real-time, integrate with their existing systems, and optimize delivery format and functionality for mobile devices, to deliver and analyze a great end-user experience for their customers.

Impaired comparisons

Analogies are the ultimate weed-whackers. Even the all-powerful “Uber for X,” though a bit cliche at this point, still remains a reliable bite-sized pitch format. But analogies can sometimes get out of hand, e.g., “We are for the enterprise what Amazon is to e-commerce.”

Um. Come again?

Grandiose analogies are admirable, but making sense is priority number one. Steve Jobs mastered the balance between visionary yet easily digested analogies. He was, after all, the first to liken a computer to a “desktop,” to convey the device’s digitization of traditional desk functions.

Your billion-dollar analogy may not come overnight, but don’t rush into a half-baked one-liner that reeks of obvious posturing.

If you’re hitting a wall, try talking with people outside of your industry, or even outside of tech altogether, to rekindle your creative faculties. For extra inspiration, check out Sideways Dictionary — it defines nebulous tech jargon using nothing but analogies.

Forgetting the user

User, user, user. That’s the mantra. Effectively clarifying what your company does starts with the end-user and that user’s real need. 

For example, look at the rise of Git and GitHub. Emerging from the rubble of early open source communities like SourceForge and overtaking Google Code, GitHub’s shared platform featured a user-friendly, sleek UI, and was far more collaborative than its predecessors.

GitHub welcomed coders of all skill levels, not only the geek supremes. It allowed developers to easily collaborate in a central place and, at the same time, have a local version of the code, 40 million users and a $7.5 billion Microsoft acquisition later, it seems that serving the needs of the developers worked out quite well.

Unlike GitHub, “What do you do?” flunkers fail to tell a compelling story about their target user and how the product changes that person’s life for the better. If you’re selling to a DevOps engineer, explain how your solution helps developers win. How will your product benefit them like no existing product can?

Spotlighting your end-user is the foundational ingredient of the “What do you do?” elixir. No matter how dire the market is, if you apply this user-first approach, simplify your messaging, spray those weeds, and analogize sensibly, your pitch will have the best chance of sticking a landing.

So you like our media brand Growth Quarters? You should join our Growth Quarters event track at TNW2020, where you’ll hear how the most successful founders kickstarted and grew their companies.

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