It starts in a crowded room at a conference or networking event. You bump into the person you’ve always wanted to chat with or your perfect business development partner who can “make” you. What are you going to say in the moment?
I can tell you from years of experience that most people waste that moment. You have to count on somebody interrupting you within 60 seconds so if you’re impactful you ought to at least be remembered. I’ve written about the “elevator” pitch before. If you haven’t read that post I suggest you do since it’s such an important topic. I also did a very short video on the topic. [if you're in a rush or ADHD you can skip to end of this post for the "to do" list]
One person who doesn’t waste this opportunity is Sam Jones of Formation Media. I’ve met Sam several times and each time I’ve been at an event with him I’ve heard his opening line, “My name is Sam Jones. I buy dead magazines.” He gets a stare every time. You can’t help but lean forward and want to hear what the next line is. He’s a master. He waits for a brief moment and lets the suspense build. He knows your next line in advance, “Excuse me? You do what?”
“I buy dead magazines. I run a company called Formation Media. We think that the magazine industry is going through incredible change but that the Internet website experience doesn’t yet fulfill our magazine needs. People read magazines for a reason and it’s a combination of focused content and beautiful images. We set up Formation Media to bring that experience to the Internet. My partner was in product management at Demand Media. We know that their model works for a certain type of content but we believe we can build higher value sites where we can sell premium advertising and target niche audiences. We deliver much higher CPMs”
He didn’t launch into a 3-5 minute diatribe as so many people do. He gave me the chance to absorb the message. He paused. And smiled. So many times when I get off stage after speaking at a conference and people rush up to speak to me they go on-and-on and after the first 2 minutes I start zoning out and thinking “I really should talk to the 20 people behind you – just to be polite.” The intro is meant to be quick and impactful. It isn’t mean to build your lifelong relationship with the person – it is to plant the first seed. Don’t overstep that. Know that relationships are a multi-meeting, multi-year earned connection. Over reaching in your first encounter could blow your future opportunities.
Think of it like meeting anybody at a random non-work cocktail party. People obviously ask what you do – mostly to be polite and also it’s the easiest form of small talk. Don’t confuse “what do you do” with “tell me your life story.” Plant the seed. Wait. If they dig deeper they wanted to. If they didn’t then you can try to bond in other ways.
With Sam we could have then switched to talking about the Lakers and he would have achieved his objective. I could have been pulled away but his mark was already made. I was at a crowded event, Launchpad LA, at the SLS Hotel and had drunk several beers and as the host had a ton of people waiting to chat. But I was hooked with his opener. It’s hard to imagine that somebody pitching a content business business in LA really could have captured my attention – there are so many of them.
“Really? I thought the world was moving to more automated content creation and content factories. What kind of content? How will you differentiate?” We were off to the races and talking about how he had bought the CarAudio Magazine out of death and how he started by already having a subscriber base and fans. This post isn’t about Formation Media so I won’t drill down. But Sam is a first-class act and boy does he know how to nail an intro.
So 2 things reminded me of that story and got me thinking about writing this post:
- I was on a panel this week talking to a crowd of a couple of hundred aspiring entrepreneurs. Sam stood up to ask a question. He took the mic, “Hi. My name is Sam Jones. I run Formation Media. We buy dead magazines. My questions is …”
- I hosted another Launchpad LA event this week. It was a dinner. All 10 startups that are part of Launchpad LA got the chance to stand up for 2 minutes. The first minute was a 60 second description of your business. The second 60 seconds was a change to ask a bunch of high-powered industry people & VC’s for “one ask” and they were all holding papers where they would write you a message if they could help you. Before the event I told everybody, “this is your moment of truth. Don’t blow it. Prepare. Know your pitch and make your ask count.” 3 or 4 were good – most were underwhelming. Great companies all, but if you’d never met them and judged them on these 2 minutes you might never know it.
Brad Feld was sitting at my table. He told me that he agreed how important the intro was. At TechStars apparently they spend the first couple of weeks making every startup practice this again and again. Once they have buy-off from David Cohen, Brad and others they have their 60-second pitch. They have a ritual that every time a new visitor comes to Boulder they walk them around to meet each startup and each one has to give their exact same practiced 60-second pitch. He said it’s really impactful both to help the founders clarify their vision and to more effectively communicate it to others. If you can’t communicate what you do in simple terms it’s likely that you do have a vision issue. You might lack clarity in your own mind about what you do or why you’re unique.
So my list for you is:
- Develop your 60-second pitch. Even if you’re a more accomplished company. Don’t wing it. Practice it and repeat it so many times it gets boring. Your wife, husband, girlfriend, sister or co-workers should be sick of hearing it. It needs to “land” when you say it. It needs to be memorable. “I buy dead magazines.”
- Master the art of the pause – I’ve known this for 20+ years. I was fortunate enough when I was 20 to attend Toastmasters for 2 years and they taught me so much about vocal variety, energy, pacing, well written copy, hand gestures, etc. Brad reinforced this at our dinner. He said, “often when somebody pitches they just keep going. I’m trying to process what they’ve told me but they’re already on to the next line so my brain is split between listening to them and processing what they’ve told me. As entrepreneurs you need to learn to pause and let the listener reflect.”
- Learn to pitch with energy – Anytime you’re given the opportunity to deliver your opening line do it with energy. Enthusiasm is contagious. If you’re monotone or lethargic I promise it will diminish what you’re saying. If you’re not naturally enthusiastic when you speak you MUST practice and gear yourself up at least for this moment. If you’re not enthusiastic about your business then how the hell do you expect me to be?
- Be ready for the elevator pitch – This is different than your opening line. This is the next 3 paragraphs of your story. You haven’t earned the right to say it unless your listener gives you cues that he/she is wanting to go there. Please know that the next level down does not entitle you to speak solidly for 5 minutes. You will bore the person for sure.
- And for fuck sake be ready for the “ask” – If you get far enough in your conversation that you’re pretty convinced that you’ve earned the interest of your other party and if you know that there is something that they can do to help then ask. This isn’t every encounter – often you don’t have the right for the ask. Unfortunately I can’t teach somebody when to know – it’s like art – you can just tell. But if it’s there then ask for something small, easily accomplished and very precise.
- Acceptable: Would you mind if next time I’m in Boulder I emailed you to see if you had 30 minutes for a coffee? I know that you’re running this major content division – would you mind if I asked for an intro to a junior member of your business development team to start a dialog? I know you’re a VC and we’re not ready for a large round – do you know any angels that might be interested in our space?
- Not Acceptable: Can you please check out my website and let me know your thoughts (yes, I get asked this ALL THE TIME at conferences). If I’m interested in your product I naturally will check it out. Can you introduce me to the head of corporate development at Google? (I just met you, does it seem sensible that you have earned my trust enough to bug somebody super busy on your behalf?)
Don’t put it off. Don’t think that your pitch is already good enough. Get feedback from tough critics. Everybody thinks they’re good at pitching their business. Anybody whose career involves being pitched knows how far from the truth that really is.
Practice what I preach. I have my standard line. Many have heard it too often. It goes like this, “My name is Mark Suster. I’m a partner at the largest VC fund in Southern California. But before this I built and sold two software companies. The last one was to Salesforce.com where I was VP Product Management.” Pause.