First Impressions

We spend a lot of time (rightly) on the capabilities of our products – identifying valuable problems and compelling solutions.  This focus is ideal for addressing the needs of our users.  But what if people abandon our products before trying them?  First impressions matter – both for buyers and users.

SXSW BizSpark Accelerator

Microsoft sponsored the BizSpark Accelerator at SXSW this year, where several startups competed by giving a 2 minute presentation of their products / companies.  The panel of judges emceed by Guy Kawasaki and Brad King.  The contestents were the top 20 from 200 submissions.

First Impressions

I was lucky to attend part of the event, focusing on the eight finalists in the Innovative Web Technologies area.  I recorded the presentations, but the camera shakes so badly in my hand that watching them is like trying to listen to a lecture while riding a rollercoaster.

Two minutes is barely enough time to make a first impression.  Each presenter had 15 minutes of Q&A with the panel, where they could get into more details and provide feedback to the entrepreneurs.  First impressions, however, are made by the very first thing you say.  Here’s the first sentance from each of the presenting finalists:

  • klout.net – Hi everyone, I’m Joe.  At klout, we measure influence across the social web.
  • OtherInbox - Thanks everybody, my name is Josh Baer, and I’m here to tell you about OtherInbox, which helps you save your real inbox for real people.
  • Piryx - The idea is that you want to wake up, create an account, run for public office, and change the world. [Note - I lost the first sentance when recording, but this is the first substantive sentance]
  • Ribbit.com – My name is David Lee, I am the director of strategy and business development for Ribbit Corporation. Ribbit is a cloud service for enabling communications innovation, bringing together the internet, voice, and data.
  • Ringlight - I’m here to talk to you about my company, Ringlight.  My name is Brandon Wiley, I’ve been working in peer-to-peer for a decade, from the first peer-to-peer application, freenet, to the most popular peer-to-peer application in the world, bittorrent.
  • Thrive - My name is Avi Karnani from Thrive.  I’m going to show you a new feature we’re about to launch called behavioral budgeting.
  • YouData - Let’s talk about internet advertising.  [something garbled as the speaker had trouble speaking clearly into the microphone]
  • Zoomorama - Hello, my name is Franklin, and I’m president of Zoomorama.  Zoomorama comes from panorama, the wide open space, and indeed zooming is not just about details, it is mostly about space. [Note that in parallel with the speaker, the display was showing some compelling image zooming technologies]

Every one of these presenters made a first impression.  klout, OtherInbox, and Zoomorama (and maybe Piryx) tell you what their products do in the opening sentance.  Ringlight and YouData both set the tone by identifying an existing space.  Thrive lets us know that whatever it is, we haven’t heard of it before, and Ribbit shared a lot of jargon words.

Elevator Pitch

When I was in presales, I learned how to craft an elevator pitch.  What I had not heard of before this year’s conference was the one-floor/two-floor pitch. 

An elevator pitch is a presentation of what your product (or company) does, that is short enough to be delivered while conveniently riding on an elevator with the really important person you want to hear your pitch.  It is a powerful image, used to remind us that people will usually give us a brief opportunity to get their attention.  To get more time, we have to earn additional attention.

The one-floor elevator pitch is a variation of the elevator pitch, but imagine your audience gets off the elevator after one floor.  You really only have time to get out a sentance or two – just like the above quotes.  

Which of the eight presenters, after giving the quotes above, would get invited to follow their listener down the hall, and which would have to stay on the elevator?

I saw the full presentations, and one of the presenters is a client, so I won’t share an opinion.  Would love to hear yours.

As a product manager, what would you have wanted the presenter to say for the one-floor elevator pitch?

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This article was published on Wednesday, March 18th, 2009 at 3:37 pm and is filed under Communication, Presentation, Product Management, Slightly off-topic.
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14 Comments

  1. Thanks for covering Accelerator, Tyner. This was a very interesting presentation format and we actually have trouble deciding exactly how to spin it: for those that weren’t there, it was based on a two-minute format (which is admittedly longer than an elevator floor), followed by a ten-minute Q&A. As the behavioral psychologist at Thrive, I have what may be a non-traditional approach to this sort of pitch, which is: never make it.

    That is, the true elevator pitch for Thrive is “we’re a website that gives free financial advice to people that need it”. Anything after that is entirely based on their reactions: if they are interested, you keep talking, and you gauge their interest in specific features, which you either gloss over if they glaze over, or go in-depth if they want to know. A good pitch is a conversation, and Bizspark had very little of that.

    Thaat’s actually why we chose to take the opportunity just to show off one new feature, without even mentioning the overall thrust of our product. Why? Because we didn’t see this as a pitching space. This was Accelerator’s first year and so you saw presentations that varied widely, because we all had different ideas about what we were actually being asked to do. Next year, I expect, will be much better.

    • @matt: Thanks (it’s Scott, btw – Tyner Blain is the name of the company). I really appreciate your explanation of the pitch and your strategy for the BizSpark venue. The one question I would ask is in terms of the true elevator pitch you gave “…to people that need it.” It seems like that may not be focused enough. Everyone “needs” financial advice – even a financial planner / expert. What seemed compelling to me is two things: 1. That you’re getting insight one step closer to action, in terms of presentation of the information in the context of existing spending patterns. 2. That you’re using “automated advice” which is better than “no advice”, but not necessarily as good as “professional advice.” This is definitely valuable to people who get “no advice” today, because they don’t have access to “professional advice.”

      When describing Thrive to other people, I have said “Thrive provides actionable, free financial advice to people who can’t or won’t spend the money for professional advice.”

      Let me know if that’s off the mark. Fwiw, “actionable” and “can’t spend…” both worked really well as conversation starters. From a product management perspective, it probably helps to make sure you’re not designing features for people with portfolio managers…

  2. I like Matt’s true elevator pitch opening above, and had this brief statement been added to the actual statement made about behavioral budgeting, I would have been totally intrigued. All of them state somewhat of a solution, but to what problem? I know the answer but not the question.

    A good elevator pitch will describe who has what problem and how you solve it better than others. It seems like the one floor pitch should focus on the problem that exists, and what my solution focuses on. I then know the question and the answer and can decide if it’s relevant to me to keep listening or say adios.

    Don Vendetti

    • @Don: Thanks for the comment! I like it too, but feel like there is additional focus at Thrive (both in terms of market segment and “financial advice”) that would resonate and help differentiate them. I offered my interpretation in the previous comment, but regardless, I think their description still only covers “what we do” and not “why I care.”

  3. I love the concept behind this contest. Elevator pitches are something I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about lately. From the list above only klout.net (and to a certain extend Ribbit.net and OtherInbox) give an easily understood description of what they do.
    Elevator pitches are really, really hard to come up with. It’s a challenge for companies that have been around for years and are working in established markets. For new companies selling really innovative products, creating a really compelling short description of what you do takes a real focused effort.
    April

    • @April: Completely agree – this stuff is really hard. I know the OtherInbox CEO pulled the entire team into a conference room for a couple hours as he went over the pitch again and again, getting feedback and making changes. It also helped assure that all of us were on the same page at SXSW and not giving weak or mixed messages on the conference floor. Every conference floor conversation starts (and sometimes ends, as Matt mentions) with the elevator pitch.

  4. Emotions sell, specifics justify. Since I want to sell, I’ll ask you what problem you have today. Then, we’ll talk about how peer-to-peer, model exchange solves the problem. I’d rather hear your visualization than mine.If I pollute the visualization, I’m leading the market. I want to follow the market.

    As for challenging existing companies, does the person you are talking to have a problem they haven’t solved. Ask them about that.

    An elevator pitch seems like standard, continous-innovation marketing to me. Since we are discontinuous, I don’t want to be constrained. It’s not like we don’t write positioning statements. I just know I’ve hooked people with questions.

    • @David: When I’m consulting at a client and doing discovery, I’ll often take a similar approach. I think the elevator pitch, at least in this forum, makes a lot more sense. The panelist’s problem is really “I have money to invest in something, but I need to find a good vehicle for investment.”

  5. It seems to me there are at least three components to an effective elevator pitch for a product:

    1. Concise description of the problem the product solves.
    2. Concise description of the person for whom the product solves the problem.
    3. Concise description of what the product does to solve it.

    It’s challenging enough to include all three components in a single pitch. Yet it’s even more challenging – but in many cases even more effective – to package the pitch (and the three components therein) in a story. As Seth Godin has repeatedly pointed out, people are much more able to identify with, and take interest in, a story.

  6. It depends on who you’re pitching to. It should answer the question: “What’s in it for you?”

    Meanwhile, just the one-liner on these Startups has me intrigued. I may have to go turn them on to Sun’s Startup Essentials program: sun.com/startup

  7. Scott, Tyner, whatever. =] Thanks for clarifying: that was my first visit (though not my last) and I was moving fast.

    The thing about “to anyone that needs it” is precisely the point that you immediately came up with: it leads into a conversation about who needs it, and how, and why. I always think elevator pitches should end on that “conversation starter” note, and I love the “who needs advice” hook, because inevitably it is revealed that everyone does and that Thrive is working on ways to serve them all (allows me to mention, for example, the idea of live advisors over the phone with access to your Thrive account, etc.)

    Great discussion…always interesting to see what guidelines people use in trying to communicate effectively in moments!

    • Good points, and thanks for following up. I definitely get what you’re saying now about presenting a single feature (versus a product pitch) now too. I didn’t come away with the impression that Thrive was also providing live advisors – definitely allows you to serve additional market segments. I look forward to hearing from you on other articles too, glad to have you in the discussions.

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