I Buy Dead Magazines (the art of the intro …)

Posted on Aug 15, 2010 | 42 comments


The life of an entrepreneur is filled with 20 second opportunities. Some get converted into 5 minute opportunities or into a lifetime. Most are squandered.

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:

  1. 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 …”
  2. 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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
    1. 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?
    2. 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.

*** Appendix:
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.

  • Rajat Suri

    Nice one – good trick. This does help a lot, and I don't think we've quite nailed the snappy 10 word intro yet for our company.

  • http://jack.dempsey.myopenid.com/ Jack Dempsey

    Excellent post Mark, thanks. This line really resonated with me:

    “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.”

    This quote deserves a spot next to “Just f'ing do it”.

    A question: is it better to go “big” and perhaps over do it a bit (at least you'll be remembered), or make sure you don't go too far, try too hard? “I kill bad ideas before they happen” feels ok, but “I'm an executioner of foolish thoughts” seems a bit too much. I guess you just get good at finding that sweet spot with practice?

  • http://twitter.com/pjozefak Paul Jozefak

    Great that you use Sam as an example. I met him at the Retreat and was just as compelled by his opener. Done so well!

  • http://twitter.com/MatSutton matteo sutto

    Nice article mark, i think most part of what you said could be applied to the “art” of dating as well

  • http://myOnePage.com/Oo OoTheNigerian

    The Pause.
    That is where I have to improve.

    PS: Your link to formation media is wrong.

  • http://twitter.com/MorningDew777 Jag

    Become an actor. Read scripts. Let someone video you and see if you can be the Clooney in entrepreneur entertaining the other party.

  • Michael_RightSite

    Ok, I'll give it a try.
    “I'm Michael Cole and I'm one of less than 100 international entrepreneurs to found, build and profitability exit from a media company in China.
    Now my new company, RightSite.asia, is helping thousands of Chinese property developers and agents to fill more than 3,000,000,000 square feet of available Chinese commercial space on the Internet.”
    (Pause)
    How'd I do?

  • http://twitter.com/wfjackson3 Willis F Jackson III

    I continue to struggle with this. The problem part of my intro pitch involves…

    Actually, I just figured out one of my major problems as I was typing this. Sweet!

  • philsugar

    Great as always. I totally agree about the pause. I learned this at Mitsubishi. If you ever are working with Japanese businesspeople nothing is considered ruder than always being the one that always breaks the pause.

    I also think tempo is important. There is nothing worse than trying to listen to somebody that is doing the “show up and throw up” i.e. trying to get in every single detail about their business by talking as fast as they can. I get really uncomfortable.

  • http://ericbrown.com Eric D. Brown

    Great post Mark.

    I struggle with this myself….I get wrapped up in trying to tell someone everything I do instead of a brief outline that gets people interested.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  • Kitty

    This is just superb and so true. You know when you get it right. The person(s) keep looking at you, even when you pause. Then smile, bring it! People love to be engaged this way.

  • http://twitter.com/dennyferra Denny Ferrassoli

    I used to have trouble starting or continuing conversations when I was young. When I got older and realized my problem I began practicing techniques that would jump start conversations. The easiest and most effective technique I found was to either start with a question or make a statement that makes the other person(s) ask a question. It has helped me in communication as well as writing.

    In any form of art the goal is to provoke thought (or perhaps action) in the audience. I need to go work on my pitch now :)

  • David Bloom

    Mark: Another great post and very welcome timing. I think the last line of #4 is one of the most important ideas: your pitch needs to be about the listener. The beauty of Sam's pause is that it gives room for the listener's curiosity to grow. My startup is demo'ing at the Web 2.0 Expo next month. We''ll have a series of five minute pitches during the Startup Showcase. Given the brevity, a pause might seem like precious seconds wasted but obviously can be a great tool for engagement. People rarely buy what you are selling. They buy what they want or need. The pause helps the listener help you find out what that want/need might be.

    Thanks again.

  • http://www.jasonwolfe.co.uk/ Jason Wolfe

    This might be a cultural thing (UK here), but I'm not sure it works for me. The opening line doesn't work for me. Sounds almost like bragging (but delivery is everything – so maybe you could pull it off). Not sure about the numbers in it either – makes me have to think too hard.

    Mark's example worked well because it said something about what the guy DOES. Right now. It is very action-oriented, but with a structure that is both simple (at first glance) and deep (upon consideration). Quite a challenge for all of us to frame our own ideas like that.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    It's obviously a judgment call but I think memorable but not cocky is the right approach. What appeals about Sam's pitch is … it's not exaggerated. It's just bizarre and makes you want to know what the next line will be. He doesn't rush it, so it builds anticipation.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Luckily I don't know ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    When Brad mentioned the importance of a pause to me it dawned on me immediately. Some of us take this for granted. We slow down for effect. But many people race through and the listener feels like they're being “pitched” to.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I tend to agree with Jason below. If you said the opening line more humbly and understated it would have more effect. But more importantly is the description of what you do. And 3bn sounds so exaggerated – you're clearly not filling all of that. So you probably lose a bit of credibility there. Finally, it would help to have some specifics on why you're better positioned to do this than others.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Your second paragraph captures my sentiment exactly. I wish more people understood this.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Great tip! Thanks.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Good luck at web 2.0!

  • http://jack.dempsey.myopenid.com/ Jack Dempsey

    Thanks Mark, appreciate the response. I think it's going to be a challenging process to come up with that perfect balance, but if it was easy then everyone would be memorable…

  • http://www.feld.com bfeld

    Sam totally nailed it with me. He walked right up to me, I said “hi, what do you do” and he said “I buy dead magazines.” Tons of immediate linkages in my world.

  • Michael_RightSite

    Of course getting all this into a line or two is the challenge. And I don't hope to compete with the dead magazine guy — that's a great line. Anyway, here's v2.0:
    “I'm Michael Cole and I help to fill China's empty warehouses on the Internet. Before this I started and sold two media companies — one in Shanghai, and another in Vietnam.”
    (Pause)
    Not as puffed up as the first try but probably too boring

  • http://twitter.com/jasonkiesel Jason A. Kiesel

    Great post Mark. I'd like to give this exercise a try (although I know you've heard my pitch way too many times). I've got a few here, so I'd like your feedback on which one you like the best.

    “Hi. My name is Jason Kiesel, and I fill potholes.” Pause.

    “Hi. My name is Jason Kiesel, and I paint over disgusting graffiti.” Pause.

    “Hi. My name is Jason Kiesel, and I fix broken street lights.” Pause.

  • Agilandam

    Hi I am Kasi Agilandam, I take dead patents and make medical diagnostic equipments for third world economy…pause.

    What is your opinion?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    email me offline and I'll help you work on it in Sept.

  • http://twitter.com/SmartWoman Vicki Flaugher

    Thanks for sharing your insights – had to tweet it out to my fan base. Sometimes the “elevator pitch” comes off so fake and pushy but with a playful hook that plays the role of the quintessential tag line capturing the essence of what you do, it really tickles the imagination. I know I'd ask for more if someone told me that they buy dead magazines.

    You've inspired me to reexamine my own ES and improve it. Thanks much!

  • http://caterpillarcowboy.com dlifson

    I randomly met Sam when we were both waiting in the lobby of the same VC firm back in May. I got the same “dead magazines” line. Loved it.

    Sam is incredibly charismatic, and I think part of what makes someone charismatic is the ability to “sync” up with the person you are speaking with: tempo, body language relative to theirs, eye contact, etc. As you say, pitching is about listening while speaking.

  • http://blog.yourentwesplit.com Mike

    Mark, great post. As a relatively new entrepreneur myself I can say that your comment about “the ask” is spot on.

    During my first couple of meetings, I thought (ok hoped) that after I finished my “exceptional” elevator pitch, each person would know immediately who to put me in contact with and perhaps even setup a time to meet again. Now I've learned that knowing the right questions to ask, having the guts to ask them, and (as you say) understanding the art of it all is critical.

  • http://www.allaboutgeorge.com allaboutgeorge

    Dom Cobb: My name is Mr Charles, you remember me don't you? I'm the head of your security down here. I specialize in a very specific type of security. Subconscious security.
    Robert Fischer: You talking about dreams? You talking about em…extraction?
    Dom Cobb: I'm here to protect you…
    [Cobb see's his children playing in the hotel lobby, everyone in the bar suddenly turns to look at him]
    Dom Cobb: Mr Fischer, I'm here to protect you in the event that someone tries to access your mind through your dreams. You're not safe here, they're coming for you.

    *pause*

  • Guest
  • http://twitter.com/maxua Макс Ищенко

    Sounds better to me. ;)

  • guest

    How does including 'fuck' in this piece add to the presentation or professionalism of the message? We can do better no?

  • http://notesfromtheninjabunny.tumblr.com/ Emily Merkle

    Just as a joke (but with a kernel of truth) – At one time when I was in sales I'd say: My name is Emily and I get paid to separate people from their money in exchange for something that is intangible, without asking them for it, and they thank me and keep coming back to give me more.

    Of course I did not use this professionally. It's my stupid “haha” elevator intro. Icebreaker.

    About the ask – what do you have to lose? And on rejection – never take an unqualified “no” for an answer. I've been known to say: “No, call me next month?; No, check back with me in 6 months; or No, lose my number?”

  • Andrew

    A fun way to observe, appreciate and practice the “art of the pause.” And useful to lighten difficult situations. Comic timing. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comic_timing

  • http://twitter.com/jwtcaputo Nancy Caputo

    Great thoughts, to be successful in sales you must have the elevator speach nailed whether it is a cold call or meeting in person.

  • http://twitter.com/jwtcaputo Nancy Caputo

    Great article, in order to be successful in sales you must be able to nail the eleveator speech whether it is in person with a potential client or cold calling. It is truly a skill.

  • John Lettieri

    Mark,

    Excellent post. The art of the pause reminds me of a music analogy. Some musicians try to rip through as many notes as possible per minute (telling their life story). The genius of Miles Davis was that he knew how to play silence. Pausing can be more accentuating than playing louder. It pulls the audience in with anticipation.

  • http://www.teampages.com Mike Tan

    Great post Mark! Been loving your recent posts on the Art of the Quick Phone Call and Investing in Lines, not Dots.

    Thought I'd rewrite our elevator pitch based on Sam's example. Love to hear what you think.

    “I help kid athletes feel like they’re in the pros.

    I run a company called TeamPages.com and always had the dream of playing in the pros. But unfortunately I wasn’t tall enough to be a pro basketball player or big enough to make the NFL. So instead I thought, “hey wouldn’t it be great to help kids feel like they’re playing in the Pros.” We set up TeamPages to provide youth sports teams with websites and online communities that function and look like the websites of pro teams. Each website provides each kid with their own profile where they can keep track of their stats, photos, videos, and their fans (mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, and friends). So far we have over 125,000, no make that 125,026 kids, parents, an coaches :) using TeamPages regularly every week”

    Also, would you mind if next time I’m in LA I emailed you to see if you had 25 minutes for a coffee?

  • John Milburn

    No need for vulgar language

  • http://srcasm.com Jesse Middleton

    David, you're right, syncing up is the most important in my mind. Being able to read people and adjust your pitch is crucial. There are so many different types of people out there and it's easy to scare those at are a bit shy away and to lose interest from those that have high energy.