The smartest people in the world don’t use old paradigms to describe new ones. Maybe I’m painting with a broad brush here, but I truly believe it. That’s something I’ve come to understand, the more I meet with and talk to startup founders. I get pitch emails all the time, people who want me to write about, tweet about, or give them feedback on their startup.
So many of them try to express their ideas by mashing up old ones. It’s like “Startup for X” has become a rallying call, and a fucking annoying one at that.
But it’s just using an old paradigm to describe something new, and when you do that, you’re tying the idea to all the weight and baggage that accompanied the old. You’re taking the lazy option, and instead of trying to communicate your new paradigm, you’re falling back on something that feels safe and comfortable.
It’s not just the “Uber for” products either. Whatever’s currently big, raising money, or being acquired, becomes a paradigm that new founders use to describe or assign value to whatever they’re building.
Right now, people don’t tell me they’re trying to build a great electrical scooter. They tell me they’re building “Tesla for scooters”. They’re not building a video chat app for teams. They’re building “Snapchat for Slack.”
If I was a charitable man, I’d say they just struggle to properly express themselves without falling back on that trope/clutch.
But it’s not the right move. Defining what you’re working on like that can only and will only hamper you. If you only define your product in the terms of another, you’re not explaining the crucial information. All you’re saying is, we copied some of this and some of that, and mixed it together. That’s a pretty meaningless proposition. It doesn’t tell me anything of value about the product.
And if it’s not the mashup answer, it’s a collection of ridiculous buzzwords and phrases. I’ve heard pitches that included IOT, Blockchain, Bitcoin and AI in a single run-on sentence. It made me want to denounce technology and become a Goddamn hermit.
It speaks to the bigger problem. Those founders try to sum themselves up in that way because they don’t know the answer to the 3 main talking points that every entrepreneur should be prepared for.
That’s the what, how and why — 3 questions you have to be able to answer succinctly and simply.
A friend of mine is in venture capital here in Australia, and he listens to a wide range of different pitches. Some of them are good, but the majority are tough to hear; this is because the founders can’t clearly explain to him what they’re doing. He’ll push them to go back to their first slide and express in a few sentences what they’re doing. He wants to hear the answers to the 3 questions. And if people can’t give him those answers, he’s not going to give them the time of day.
You should be able to, you need to be able to tell me what you’re building, in your own words. If it’s a better scooter, or a video game about lasagna, that’s fine. But express it as simply and carefully as you can. No buzzwords, no fancy talk. Just straight shooting. If you’re building a word processor with minimalist design, say that. Don’t call it a “distraction free content creation workspace.”
You have to be able to explain how. How are you approaching your product? What’s your methodology? Do you have something ready to go? Have you invested your own money in it?
Probably more crucially, why are you doing this? Have you been testing it before building it, have you researched it, do you know that there’s a market? Do you know people want it? Is there a need? Does it solve a problem? What does it do better than competing products, and is that enough?
These questions are going to be hard to answer. That’s a fact. I’d be worried if they weren’t. But being an entrepreneur isn’t about having a smooth, easy ride, and it’s sure as shit not about doing random crap without explaining yourself. That’s not going to work out for you.
If you can answer these questions, people are more likely to be interested in you. But even more importantly, you’ll have a handle on what you’re doing, and more of a clue about whether or not it’s a good idea.
Because just coming up with something isn’t important, coming up with something that has a point a purpose and person in mind is the hard part. And you won’t know whether or not your idea has legs until you try and answer What, How and Why.
I said before, If I was a charitable gal, I’d think these founders are only struggling to express what they do, because words are hard. But the fact is, I’m not that charitable. I’m kind of an ass.
So I think a lot of these founders have no idea what the fuck, why the fuck, or how the fuck they’re building anything, and all they’ve done is highlight a couple apps or products that work and mash ’em together in the hope of a payday. Am I being too cynical? Maybe.
But what else am I supposed to think, if you can’t tell me what you’re up to in your own words?
Learn how to explain what you do, learn how to answer those three questions, and then talk to people. Nobody cares about your product that just sounds topical or in vogue because you’ve mashed up a bunch of crap. And nobody cares about buzzwords. People want simple explanations.
I think we’re scared to make things sound simple. As though we’re not completely certain about our ideas or our passions, so we try to make them sound incredibly complex and nuanced (and fucking long) in order to make them seem more legitimate. That’s where 50 page marketing plans come from, when all you need is 1–5.
But simple is good. Simple answers are good. Simple doesn’t waste time and it doesn’t confuse the issue.
Simple is what makes the difference between me giving a shit and switching my brain off.
I’m more likely to write about, or be interested in, an average product with a great explanation and definition, than an amazing product that I can’t understand. It’s that straightforward.
Joan Westenberg is an award winning Australian contemporary writer, angel investor, communicator and creative director. She is the founder of branding and PR firm Studio Self. Her approach to messaging, communication and semiotics has built her reputation as a writer, and she has been named as one of the leading startup voices in Australia by SmartCompany.
Her writing has appeared in The SF Chronicle, Wired, The AFR, The Observer, ABC, Junkee, SBS, Crikey and over 40+ publications. Her regular work can be found on Pizza Party, a blog about creativity, culture and technology. Joan is the creator of Transgenderinclusion.com, an open-source workplace inclusion hack.