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When a reporter mangles your elevator pitch
Posted on: 2009-06-01 18:00:30

If a reporter asks you about your new startup company, be careful what you say.

  1. The statement that sounds best will be quoted.
  2. Some of what you say will be re-ordered or deleted.
  3. Long, rambling descriptions will be paraphrased and condensed.

Here is a pitch from a new startup company, taken from an article in The KW Record on Wednesday, April 1st, 2009:

"We are positioning ourselves to disrupt the entire computing experience," said Ted Livingston, co-founder of Unsynced, an emerging company that won free patent-filing services from law firm Miller Thomson LLP at yesterday's competition for the students from the VeloCity residence...

The initial software will let people keep all of their music files on their BlackBerry and also be able to manage those tunes from any computer without having to download an application like Apple's iTunes.

"All of your music can be on your BlackBerry, but if you want to play it on a computer anywhere in the world, you just plug it in," said Livingston, a third year engineering student.

This pitch starts with a generic, ho-hum opening, the kind that makes my eyes skip down a couple of paragraphs. The reporter is only going to give you a few sentences, so use them wisely, and don't throw them away with verbal fluff about "disrupting the entire computer experience."

The pitch fails to differentiate itself from existing solutions. This is no different from a $5 USB key. You can keep your music files on it. When you stick it in your computer a player appears and starts playing your music. In fact, the BlackBerry already has mass storage support, so when you plug it in your files appear without any special software.

To be fair, perhaps Livingston couldn't give too much away, if he is going to use his new, free patent filing services.

The pitch below did get me excited:

Remember how you struggled to not show your disappointment at Christmas, when your Aunt May gave you a gift card to a book store but you really wanted the cash toward your new cellphone?

Giftah.com will replace that disappointment with smiles by helping people sell those unwanted gift cards, said co-founder Nick Belyaev, a fourth year UW math student.

I want to use this web site now. Unfortunately, the ideas that sound best may not always be the most successful in practice. According to Joel Spolksy, the ideas that work sound the dumbest:

If you explain it, and everyone says "Oh yeah, that would work, I'm surprised that's not being done," then it is being done. However, if you explain it and they say, "That wouldn't work, because of blah. It could never possibly work. You could never have auctions on the Internet because people are untrustworthy and they will use it to steal your money by pretending to sell you a laptop and not sending you the laptop, so you can't have auctions on the web." But as it turns out, you can have auctions on the web.

Whatever the idea is, it has to have a fatal flaw at first glance -- or has to sound like a terrible idea. You have to believe in it for some reason, which you just have trouble explaining to anyone except your brother-in-law who joins you in your startup, or your college roommate who doesn't really get it. Because you do need someone to join you, but the idea has to be not obvious and it has to sound bad. Otherwise it's getting done.

If you have a company, and a reporter asked you to explain it, what would you say?

Update in 2011 Ted recently donated $1M to the University of Waterloo. So it seems he has improved his elevator pitch in the past two years!

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2009-06-01 23:15:38
As someone intimately familiar with the first project mentioned in this post, it does indeed sound like a glorified USB key at first glance. This was my first impression when it was pitched to me. However, after seeing the demos, its true use dawns on you.

Ted Livingston

2009-06-02 02:30:56
Great feedback, I'm glad someone pointed me this way! You are right, we couldn't give away too much, but I did butcher it quite a bit (the TV interview was even worse).

The pitch on the new app, launching very soon? "Finally, music on your BlackBerry" Again, not too much, but at least more to the point.


Henry Finn

2009-06-03 09:50:57
Thanks for mentioning Giftah. What your saying is very true, the media has misreported so many things about our site. Luckily they have not done too much damage yet.

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