Can your Grandma explain your startup?

I’ve used this seemingly simple little exercise for years now. Can you explain your startup to your Grandma in a way where she can actually understand what the hell it is that you do?

I’m using Grandma here as a proxy for any sufficiently non-technical person, so that could very well be your dad, your neighbor, or that one hippie friend of yours who swore off all technology in 2004. It doesn’t matter, all that you need for this exercise is someone whose eyes glaze over approximately 5-10 words into a technical explanation of what your startup does.

There’s a lot of talk in the startup (and investment) word about your elevator pitch. Some call it a 30 second pitch. Whatever it’s dubbed, the premise is the same: Tell me what you do in the clearest way possible, using as few words as you can. You have a few seconds. Go.

Startup founders are inherently neurotic people. They could be doing any number of safer, sane things with their career, but they’ve decided to pursue a path with an irrational rate of failure. So oftentimes when you get one talking about what their startup does, they get so fucking excited that they might never stop.

So the industry has settled on the elevator pitch: Tell me what it is you do without boring me, whooshing right past me with jargon, and without rambling. It’s a great exercise to work through because it forces you to distill down your whole grand scheme into a few sentences. To trim the fat. To give it to me straight.

What I recommend you do is to imagine your Grandma listening to you make your pitch. Grandmas, even though they love you to death, don’t give a shit about nor understand 99% of the things it is you do as a tech startup founder. But they desperately want to hear all about it so they can brag to all of their friends at their next Bridge game (Grandmas are surprisingly feisty people who love to one up each other, so fuel her fire).

Here are some examples of how the big guys could be explained easily to your Grandma:

Facebook:

“Facebook is a website you can use to share pictures and stay connected with everyone you know.”

Spotify:

“Spotify is an app that lets you listen to any song you want instantly for free without having to download it.”

AirBNB:

“AirBNB is a place for you to rent out your home when you’re not there to other people who are traveling.”

All of the above are good examples of “The Gramma Pitch”. They mean something to Grandma. Grandma can brag about you with those explanations.

Of course, some people might get really excited if you tell them that your social networking app is powered by a “sharded graph database spanning multiple data-centers with full redundancy”. And when you’re talking to people like that, tell them all about it.

Some of you might think “but my startup is highly technical and targeted at a very niche audience, there’s no reason for me to ever explain it to a laymen”. Which, technically, you’re right about.

However, I’ll use myself as an example. For the last few years I’ve had an SEO keyword research tool product. When I first started working on it, I of course told my family about it. My Grandma was especially excited, but always started every conversation with “Now tell me about your company…first, what does it do again?”

After hearing that enough, I knew I needed to craft my Grandma Pitch. So I explained it to her thusly:

“Imagine a college campus with one giant bulletin board in the middle of it, that everyone uses to find out what’s going on nearby and to find out where to go and where to buy things. Everyone is free to post to the board, but there’s a group in charge of putting it in order and giving the best spots to the best postings. The only real way to figure out how to get your posting in the best spot is to watch the board carefully over time and see how everyone else is doing it, then use those techniques yourself.

My product helps people do that for their websites on Google.”

Obviously, this is a gross generalization of SEO and anyone who understands SEO is probably laughing at that description. But that description turned the light bulb on in my Grandma’s head from that day forward. She never again asked what it is I do.

And being able to break down what you do into a pure laymen’s explanation will be extremely important if you’re ever trying to reach out to a possible investor or are networking with someone who can connect you to the right people if only they could just understand what you do.

The VAST majority of people (I’m talking like 99%) don’t really care about the details of what it is you’re doing.

At all.

And even if what you’re doing is really impressive and you are proud of it and want to tell everyone, don’t. You’ll do yourself a disservice because when a laymen asks you what it is you do, they’re not expecting an overwhelming answer. They want it simple and concise. If they’re interested in hearing more, they’ll ask you specific questions. If not, what you told them is something they can easily repeat to someone else because you said it in plain English.

So if you’re stressing out about forming the perfect elevator pitch, pick up the phone and call Grandma.

The whole point of this exercise is to get you to practice explaining the true utility and value of your startup.

No one wants to know how your startup does what it does, what they care about is how it will help make their lives better.

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