Only those who do nothing…make no mistakes.
– Joseph Conrad
As I have said multiple times before in this book, one way to
make sure that people understand –- and more importantly
remember –- your message is to be redundant. That means
telling the audience what you are going to tell them, telling
them, and then telling them what you told them. Toward that
end, let me reiterate some of the key points of this book, in
the form of the mistakes I most frequently see people make, in
the hope that they will stick with you.
BURYING THE LEDE
As I said earlier on in this book, many newspapers structure
their stories in the form of an inverted pyramid. In order to
enable people to quickly get the gist of the story and determine
whether it’s relevant to them or not, they try to answer
the Who, What, Where, When, and Why questions in the first
paragraph, if not the first sentence, of the story.
Using the same basic approach will tend to make an elevator
pitch easier to understand and remember. Unfortunately, in too
many of the elevator pitches that I hear, the really important
information –- WHAT the Solution is, WHY people will adopt
it, and WHORU –- is buried amidst a mass of far less
important information. This is a problem because, like the
readers of a newspaper, the audience for an elevator pitch
will often decide in the first few seconds whether the pitch
is relevant to them and their interests and whether they should
pay attention to it or not.
If you don’t quickly let the audience know how your
pitch relates to their interests and concerns, then they may
just tune you out.
For this reason, I am not a fan of leading elevator pitches
off with questions, stories, or jokes because they use up
precious time that could be better spent establishing the
WHAT, WHY, and WHORU of your Solution. However, the bigger
problem with including questions, stories, or jokes in an
elevator pitch is that they lengthen the time it takes you
to establish your relevance to that audience. For that reason,
if you insist on including a question, story, or joke in your
elevator pitch, then I suggest that you place it after your
summary sentence. That way your summary sentence will explain
to the audience where you are going and make them more likely
to pay attention to your entire pitch.
NOT ESTABLISHING YOUR CREDIBILITY
It is a well-established fact that between 75 and 90 percent
of new businesses and new products fail. While that sometimes
happens due to poor timing or bad luck, in most cases new
business and products fail because they are fatally flawed;
because they fail to take into account some basic and subtle,
but critically important, truth about the marketplace.
One way that venture capitalists and executives try to
manage this risk is by backing individuals and teams more
than specific Solutions. They know that few plans survive
the initial contact with the enemy, or the marketplace, and
that an experienced team will know how to make the adjustments
that are necessary to be successful.
As a result, when delivering your elevator pitch it isn’t
enough to establish that your Solution will be successful. You
must also establish that you know how to be successful.
Unfortunately, many people are so focused on explaining their
Solution that they forget to establish their own credibility.
MERELY SOLVING A PROBLEM
If you know me, then you know that I am all for solving
problems. However, if you want to increase your odds of being
successful, you have to remember that merely solving a problem
is not enough.
Instead, you have to solve a problem that is causing
Only the existence of significant amounts of physical or
psychic pain will provide the customer with the incentive
they need to abandon their existing Solution and change and
adopt your Solution.
IGNORING THE CUSTOMER
When it comes to products developed by engineers and
other technologists, in many cases they are so focused
on their Solution that they completely ignore the customer.
This is a problem because spending all of your time talking
about your Solution can make it look like what you are
selling is a Solution In Search Of A Problem (SISOAP).
As I have learned from personal experience, the problem
with a SISOAP is that finding a good problem can be an
extremely time-consuming and expensive process. While
large companies sometimes succeed in selling a SISOAP,
they tend to be the exception that proves the rule. Most
people do not have the time, and the money, it takes to
find a problem that needs solving.
IGNORING THE COMPETITION
Ignoring the competition in your elevator pitch can
be deadly if the audience is actually familiar with
I once heard a pitch in which an entrepreneur discussed
a product that would target a market with which I was
extremely familiar. During his pitch he laid out a plan
to do pretty much exactly what another company was doing.
The entrepreneur gave no hint that he knew the competition
existed, which undermined his credibility because it made
me wonder if he had done his homework and really understood
the market he was targeting.
People frequently ignore the competition in their elevator
pitches because they are afraid that it will make their
Solution look weaker when the opposite is actually true.
The existence of competition can be good, because it proves
that a market actually exists.
I believe one reason I had trouble getting literary
agents and publishers interested in this book was the
lack of direct competition. There were literally no
other books that focused on creating an elevator pitch.
I am sure that made some people wonder whether this was
a viable market; whether enough people were interested
in the subject.
In the SalesLogix elevator pitch, rather than
ignoring the competition, we took on the competition
directly by explaining exactly what was wrong with
the state of the art...
SalesLogix is a software company
and has developed a Customer Relationship Management
(CRM) system that is both easier to use and more
powerful than existing solutions like Act and Siebel.
SalesLogix is targeting mid-sized
companies that have outgrown contact managers like Act
but can’t afford the cost and complexity of
high-end CRM products like Siebel.
The problem with existing CRM solutions is that they
fall into one of two categories. On the one hand, you
have contact managers like Act that salespeople love
but that do not allow people to share information
across a large organization. On the other hand you
have high-end CRM systems like Siebel that scale to
support the needs of hundreds or thousands of users
but that salespeople refuse to use. The result is that
too many organizations are unable to...
• Coordinate their sales and customer service teams.
• Obtain a holistic picture of the customer.
• Maximize the revenue gained from each customer.
By talking about the competition and their
limitations in our elevator pitch, we did two things.
First, we established that we were intimately familiar
with the market. Second, we explained why people would
be interested in buying our product. Third, we
positioned ourselves in the marketplace relative
to the competition.
NOT STARTING YOUR BEST PITCHER
When it comes to the big games, baseball managers
want to give the ball to their best pitcher, to their
ace. They know that while that won’t guarantee
them a win, it will put them in the best position to
win. The same thing should be true when it comes to
elevator pitches, but too often it isn’t.
On multiple occasions, I have worked with teams
who had a Solution that stood a good chance of succeeding
but who were undermined by the unwillingness of the
leader of the team to delegate the delivery of the
pitch to the member of the team (often the marketing
person) who could best deliver the pitch. Instead,
the leader of the team insisted that he (and in many
cases it is a “he”) be the one to deliver
In a couple of cases, this hurt the team’s
efforts because the leader of the team was a technologist
who didn’t understand that most people weren’t
as interested in the HOW of his Solution as he was. In
another couple of cases, the leader of the team, due to
a fear of public speaking or some other anxiety, simply
could not deliver the pitch in front of a large
number of people.
Instead, he would absolutely lock up and end up
literally not saying anything coherent.
The problem with not starting your best pitcher is
that it says two things to potential investors and
backers, neither of which is good. On the one hand,
it says you don’t understand the importance of
marketing. On the other hand, it says that you
don’t know how to delegate.
Of course, any successful venture capitalist or
management expert will tell you that understanding
the importance of marketing and an ability to delegate
are often the things that distinguish successful
entrepreneurs from unsuccessful entrepreneurs.
As a result, if you are the leader of a team and
are not a good public speaker, you have to either
delegate your pitch to another member of your team
or put your Solution on hold while you improve your
public speaking skills.
There is this idea going around that the only way to get the
attention of a venture capitalist, angel investor,
or senior executive is to characterize the opportunity
for your Solution as enormous (e.g. $50 million plus).
While there is some truth to that notion, in many
cases people take things too far.
In one case I was listening to a series of pitches
at Washington University when someone got up in front
of the audience and said, “Every man, woman, and
child six years old and up is in need of our
technology.” Another plan I once read
said, “The market size for this opportunity is
huge. Currently there are roughly 7 billion people on
The problem with making statements like this is
that they can damage your credibility by making you
look at least un-focused and in the worst case naďve.
Even the largest companies do not target every person
on the face of the earth right out of the gate. Instead,
they target specific demographic or geographic market
segments and then expand to other market segments
Rather than focusing on the Theoretical Market,
which is the number of people who could possibly
use your product, it is better to focus on the
Addressable Market, which is the number of people
who definitely need your product. This is because
when delivering your elevator pitch it is better
for your credibility if you look focused and let
the audience come to their own conclusions about
the size of the Theoretical Market.
We took this tactic when selling SalesLogix.
Rather than focusing on the entire CRM market, we
instead focused on the middle market. Yes, we
believed that SalesLogix could compete in both
the high end and the low end of the market, but
we thought it was more important that we put forth
a plan that targeted the market segment that most
obviously needed our product due to its being ignored
by both our high-end and low-end competitors. Once we
established ourselves in that market segment, we could
then move up or down-market.
NOT SOLVING A PERSONAL PROBLEM
Over the years I have heard a number of people
position their Solution in the context of broader
societal trends and/or problems. Obesity and healthcare
are two of the more popular ones. While this can
sometimes be good, the problem is that people generally
don’t buy things to solve the problems of society.
Instead, people buy things to solve their own problems.
The ugly truth is that most people are generally
selfish and self-centered. As a result, it rarely
pays to try to solve society’s problems. Instead,
a much better (and more profitable) approach is to try
to solve the problems of specific individuals.
If society benefits as a result, then great.
Similarly, with a few exceptions (e.g. social
entrepreneurship and other non-profit ventures)
investors generally don’t invest in companies
to solve society’s problems. Instead, they
invest to make money. As a result, when positioning
your Solution, it is usually best to do so in the
context of a specific problem that is creating a
specific cost (or pain) for a specific individual
or set of individuals.
CONTEMPT FOR THE AUDIENCE
Once, when reviewing a
pitch that I was writing, a programmer expressed
frustration with what he perceived were my efforts
to "dumb down" our message. Rather impoliticly,
he told me, "If they are too stupid to understand
what we're doing, then I don't want to talk to them."
As I told him at the time, the problem with this
attitude -– which is unfortunately all too
common among engineers and other technical people –-
is that it ignores reality. Most venture capitalists,
angel investors, and senior executives are no longer,
or never were, very technical. They have people who
handle the low level technical details for them.
What they focus on is the general concept.
As a result, when writing your elevator pitch you
must not treat the audience with contempt. Instead,
you need to think like a trial lawyer. A trial lawyer
cannot pick their audience. Rather, they have to take
what they are given. They have to get their message
across to a jury that is made up of pretty much
randomly chosen people.
With very few exceptions, when
I look at the one-paragraph, 100-word summaries that
many entrepreneurs produce, they do not address the
issue of credibility. This is a mistake because you
never know how someone will first encounter your
Solution. As a result, the same basic message should
be conveyed, and the same topics should be addressed,
in all of your marketing materials. That includes your
one-paragraph summary, one-page summary, business plan,
and marketing materials. I know that it can be hard and
time-consuming to keep all of these documents in sync,
but in my experience it is necessary because at a
minimum it helps you look organized and professional.
TRYING TO CLOSE THE DEAL DURING YOUR PITCH
One reason why elevator pitches get long, and why
people have a hard time cutting things out of their
elevator pitches, is that people too often try to
close the deal during their elevator pitch.
However, the truth is that few deals are closed
without the team and the backer meeting multiple
times and for many hours, during which they discuss
every possible aspect of the Solution.
As a result, during your elevator pitch you should
just focus on establishing WHAT you are doing, WHY
you are doing it, and WHO you are. If you do that
properly, and you are speaking to the correct audience,
then more likely than not you will get to the next step,
which is a longer, more detailed discussion of your Solution.
In national polls of the things we fear, public
speaking regularly ranks up there with things like
death. That’s because it’s incredibly
hard to stand up in front of a big group of people.
I can relate to this fear because I used to feel
it as well.
What I have found that helps me is being prepared
and then rehearsing the heck out of my elevator pitch
to the point that I can pretty much deliver it in my
sleep. Before I deliver an elevator pitch to a large
group of people, I have usually delivered it 25 times
to an empty room and then another 75 times to individuals
or small groups, which helps it become second-nature
and thus builds up my confidence.
TALKING ABOUT YOUR FINANCIAL PROJECTIONS
In all my years of listening to elevator pitches,
I have yet to hear someone say that they are never
going to make money. As a result, in my opinion
it’s a waste of precious time to include
things like your expected Return On Investment
(ROI) or break-even point in your pitch. Instead,
I believe the things you should focus on in your
elevator pitch are your distinguishing factors;
the things that are actually unique about you
and your Solution. Experienced investors will
know that your financial projections will tend
to be overly positive, overly optimistic, and
generally wrong. As a result, at some later point
in the process they will get into the details of,
and usually tear apart, your financial model.
INTRODUCING EACH TEAM MEMBER BY NAME
Quite frequently, presenters will introduce
each member of their team during the course of
their pitch. In most cases, I find this to be a
waste of precious time because the people who are
mentioned don’t bring anything special or
unique to the team. Instead, they are just playing
a role (e.g. the marketing guy or the finance person).
A good rule of thumb to follow is that unless a
person has a significant amount of extremely relevant
experience, there is usually no need to introduce
them during your elevator pitch. Instead, it is
enough to just mention how much total relevant
experience you have among the team as a whole.
That is the approach we took with the
SalesLogix elevator pitch...
The SalesLogix team has
over 75 years of combined experience in the
industry and is led by Pat Sullivan, the co-founder
and former CEO of Contact Software International,
the original developer of Act.
We mentioned Pat Sullivan by name because he
was the leader of the team and had significant
credibility as a result of his past accomplishments.
We just lumped together everyone else’s
experience and only named names during our investor
presentation and in our business plan.
This document is
copyright © 2009 Chris O'Leary and the LIMB Press LLC. It
is licensed for personal use only. Any organizational or
institutional use must be approved by Chris O'Leary.