Saturday, November 27, 2021

Keep it simple. Keep it short.

 I had a great coaching call with an entrepreneur yesterday. As he talked about some changes he's making in his business, I began to worry that he hadn't thought his new plan entirely through. So I asked him a question about how he intends to reach his new target market.

I wasn't interested in his detailed marketing plan. I mainly wanted to know if he discerned the same big differences that I did between his former target market and his new market. I feared that retooling his marketing strategy and messaging would be a bigger, more expensive chore than he was planning for.

But it took me a long time to make that point. Because the entrepreneur mistook my question about his marketing plan as a request for more details about the plan. I tried to interrupt a couple of times when he was too deep into the weeds, but he was just getting started and didn't want to stop.

Eventually I just had to say "Whoa." 

You're missing the point, I said. By going into such detail and never once pausing for breath, I said, he was missing a really important learning opportunity.

In all future business conversations, I suggested he start using a trusty best-practice sales tactic: when a prospect asks you a question, don't set off on a long explanation. Give the shortest, simplest explanation you can, and then say, "Can I keep going? Is it okay if I tell you more?"

That's the only way to be sure you're meeting your prospects' needs. Monitor their interest in what you're saying by asking for permission to tell them more. If you're off track, they now have a chance to say so (without seeming rude).  And that gives you a second, better chance to engage them and make sure you're answering their most important questions.

Every entrepreneur knows time is a resource. Few prospects ever give you enough time to say all you want. In fact, the bigger and more important they are, the less time they will likely have for you. So you have an obligation, to yourself and to your prospect/client/
potential ally, to keep your messages as short, clear and simple as possible. 

When you're talking, you're not listening. And the most important part of any sales conversation is what your prospect wants to tell you about their problem or your solution.

Keeping it short - and asking permission to keep going, if you truly think your answer deserves more explanation and context -- is the best way to make sure you address all your prospects' questions and concerns in the short time you have together. 

I've been on both sides of the sales dynamic, as seller and buyer, when the pitchers run out of time. It's always awkward. Prospects get frustrated because they haven't had a chance to express all their questions or concerns. Pitcher find themselves trying to save the situation by either suggesting a follow-up meeting or attempting to close too soon. Such blunders rarely result in successful deals. Mainly, they call into question the professionalism of pitchers who prefer hearing their own voice over that of their customer.

Keep it simple. Keep it short. Check in often to make sure you're on the right track. Ask questions like, "Is this the sort of information you're looking for?" "Can I keep going and tell you more about this, or do you have other issues you'd prefer to discuss?" Questions like these, that ensure you're having a conversation rather than presenting a pre-packaged pitch, inspire confidence and build trust.

My entrepreneur friend was taken aback when I called him out on for excess talking. I had interrupted our pleasant conversation to pull rank and point out where his chatter went off the rails. At first I think he was shocked that I was being so tough on him. But he was professional enough to realize I was trying to refocus him for his own good.

So I was quickly able to steer our conversation back to my main concern: the difficulties of adopting the entrepreneur's new marketing strategy. This time he gave me a concise, professional description of the potential pitfalls. And then, to my delight, he said, "Can I tell you more about how we're going to address these issues?"

Maybe listening isn't a lost art after all.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Social Skills are the Root of Business Success

I was once asked: Why should students learn social skills?

I just rediscovered my answer. It's still worth reading, I think. Especially in these days as more and more people hide behind their phones and Covid has turned going out and meeting people into a lost art.  

Social skills are essential to anyone who believes that interacting with others will be important to their personal or financial futures - which is just about everybody (except maybe lighthouse-keepers).

I define social skills as the behaviours and attitudes that help people interact with each other. This includes showing interest in other people, knowing how to conduct pleasant (and productive) conversations, and understanding social norms (e.g., don't talk with your mouth full, hold the door open for people coming in behind you).

It also includes body language (smile more, slouch less), adapting your behaviour to your setting (e.g., you likely act differently at a business meeting than at the bar with friends), making people feel valued, and finding congenial ways to express your opinions or disagree with others without eroding your personal relationships.

Social skills are essential to success in your career and your personal life. If you go around being rude or missing social cues, you can't expect many friends to hang around. If you are good at getting along with a wide variety of people – colleagues, bosses, subordinates, customers, suppliers, etc. – then you can expect to thrive in most professions.

Indeed, those who master social skills are likely to find themselves more popular and more successful than those who practice these skills half-heartedly. It’s the thoughtful gestures – offering to help someone, sending a thank-you note, or making people feel welcome in new environments – that get you noticed as a leader.

Based on old Hollywood movies, you might think that most business leaders succeed through greed and cunning. In truth, most people advance to the top by displaying social skills – acknowledging individuals’ contributions, making people feel part of a team, and continually extending their network of contacts.

Social skills alone won't get you to the top. But you’ll never get there without demonstrating empathy and respect for others.

Open your eyes, open your heart, and always open doors for other people.

(See also: "Every person is an adventure")

Thursday, August 12, 2021

How to be entrepreneurial

Entrepreneurs aren't just business owners. They actively seek out opportunities to create something better. That might be a new pizzeria, an innovative product line, or a new digital service that will save time and money. Entrepreneurs are society’s most positive change makers.

In fact, social progress depends on entrepreneurs. It wasn’t a corporation or university that developed the telephone, but inventor Alexander Graham Bell. A century later, neither Bell, Kodak nor IBM developed a digital platform for exchanging personal photographs – but a few energetic Harvard undergrads built an online student directory called Facebook.

Going forward, the world will need even more entrepreneurs. They are essential problem-solvers. 
A century ago, cars, airplanes, mines, steel mills, chemicals and expressways became essential elements of daily life. Now we know many of these systems to be toxic. We must swear off of high carbon fuels, unsustainable lifestyles, and unhealthy foods. We need new solutions fast. Big businesses can fund it, big government can regulate it, but only entrepreneurs can come up with speedy solutions at scale.

And not just business needs entrepreneurs. Science, medicine, education, governments, communities and non-profits all face huge challenges today. They all need entrepreneurial leaders who can boost efficiency and develop creative solutions to common problems. Those that embrace innovation will thrive.

Whether you're a leader or a worker, a teacher, student or volunteer, you can contribute more by embracing entrepreneurial approaches. 

How do you start? 

Here are five ways to hone your entrepreneurial edge.

1.    Be curious. Notice how things work. Track the things that irk you and your friends/coworkers. Things that frustrate and peeve are opportunities in disguise. Consider Pierre Omidyar, who wanted a more efficient way to sell his old Pez dispensers, and created eBay.

Flaws in service and product quality may be your best business opportunities. Start with the question, “What if we could…?”

2.    Practice a pro-active mindset. Entrepreneurs are notorious for tackling problems with gusto. (An old joke says that the entrepreneur’s motto is “Ready. Fire. Aim!”) By all means, plan your work before you begin, but chase your ideas with energy and tenacity. If it’s just a side hustle, find time to work on it every day. If you're not sure what to do next, just roll up your sleeves and start doing; a path will emerge. Develop a bias for action: no problem can survive an all-out assault. 

3.    Be a research fiend. If you think you spot an opportunity, don't just start building a new product or service. Research the heck out of your idea first. Find people who are likely prospects for your innovation, and relentlessly ask them how they feel about the current conditions/marketplace. What bothers them most? What would make them buy something new? How much would they pay? How often will they buy? What other solutions would you be competing against? 

Like any good researchers, don't just pay attention to positive evidence. Listen carefully when people pour cold water on your idea. Keep asking what they would buy. Chances are, your first idea won't be the best solution. Winning innovations evolve, over time, based on evolving experience and market feedback. When the research points you to a new path, follow where it leads. 

4.    Build your network. No entrepreneur succeeds alone. Engage with other people to find friends, partners, allies, resources, prospects. Share your ideas with everyone you meet. (Secrets are for the weak). Seek mountains of feedback. 

      Socialize with active, dynamic people who appreciate your passion and energize you with their own. Stay in touch – never let valuable contacts lapse. Create ongoing value for the people in your network – often, the best way to do that is to introduce them to each other. You never know what will result.

Business is primarily about people – and success comes from hanging with the right ones. 

5.    Think bigger. It takes no more energy to pursue a big dream than a small one. Today’s information technology makes it possible for individual and small groups to tackle huge problems. Once you have an idea, "embiggen" it. How can you boost its impact? Look for ways to tweak your innovation, add new features, serve new audiences, and otherwise expand its reach. If you face direct competition, the winner will be the group that scales it ideas to help the most people and create the most value.

 As author, poet and statesman Goethe has said: “Dream no small dreams – for they have no power to move the hearts of men.”

 Good luck in your entrepreneurial pursuits. Let me know how they go.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

How to cut through the fog and deliver a winning pitch

This week I was asked by an entrepreneur friend to review a recording of his pitch, along with his PowerPoint deck. I thought his presentation was terrific. But it could have been better.

 When you’re pitching to raise funds or attract customers and supporters to your dream business – one that can benefit many, many people – only the best will do.

So I thought I would share my comments with you. I don't have the entrepreneur’s permission to disclose his details, so I revised my notes to speak to generalities rather than specifics. I hope you will find them useful the next time you go out on a limb to present your dream offer, venture or opportunity.

1.    You rushed right into the presentation without introducing yourself properly. Don't just give us your first name – give us your full name. (Maybe someone in the audience will know your cousin. Bingo! You have a new contact.)

 2.    Most important, tell me more about you. Why are you here, why do you identify with this business or opportunity? Start telling a story. And the story should start with why this project is the most important thing in the world to you right now.

3.    Start early to build your audience’s confidence and trust. As part of your intro, let us know a little more about your background, skills and experiences. Keep it short – but prove to me why you are the ideal person to be promoting the product/project.

4. Be very clear about the problem you're solving. Who will benefit from your solution, and how will it benefit ME? (My friend was actually very good at this. I just added this note now, because it’s such a common problem. 

5.    Can you explain your revenue model better? What is your price point, and how many customers/how much market share will it take for you to break even, or start making a profit?

6.   You mention some quite diverse customer segments. How have you tested these markets to suss out their potential? If you haven't done those tests yet, why do you think this will work? Are there similar products/solutions that your target market already supports? There should be no untested theses in a pitch like this! No one cares about your guesses.

7.    You mention you will be launching in a specific test market. Please explain why you chose this market, and what makes it the best place to start. I want to know you’ve put a lot of thought into this plan.

8.    What is your plan for expanding beyond that first-mover market? When, where, how? (This demonstrates your confidence, as well as good planning skills.)

9.    You briefly mentioned the names of some potential partners. The names alone mean nothing to me, and likely nothing to most of the people you are pitching to. Please give us a few words about each of them to explain why they would be such valuable partners.

10. Plus, tell us how these talks are going. Even if it’s just, “They seem very eager to work with us, as they see that we have the same goals and offer very complementary services.” Not telling us something like this makes me think your negotiations are not going well – or haven't even started. If you haven't begun talking with these partners yet, why are you pitching now? Start building those relationships, then pitch – when you have something other than hopes to go on!

11. You mentioned the names of some important advisors/supporters. You didn’t have time to tell us who they are and why they matter – so why tell us at all? Every aspect of your pitch should add value or position you as a winner who works with other winners. Please give us a few words that show why these people deserve my respect.

12. I think I get what you do and why you're doing it. But I sure would like to have heard a short, punchy mission statement that sums it all up in 10 words or less. Not only does it demonstrate your marketing savvy, it will cut through the clutter like a hot knife through butter.

13. You communicated a lot of good information in just a few minutes. But one thing I missed was “the voice of the customer.” Give us some idea of the feedback you've received so far. (It turns out my entrepreneur friend has done lots of interviews and collected some great quotes. Hopefully he will incorporate them into his next pitch. A solid testimonial is gold. Commitments to buy are even better.

14. (The presentation I saw was recorded on video, with a voice-over by the entrepreneur. Because Covid presents us from meeting in person. But it also puts an additional barrier between you and your audience. So this was my final note:)

Finally: in future videos or presentations, please work on putting more animation into your voice. You're a strong, passionate person, with a big heart. This video is very good, but it doesn't reveal the real you. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse! And smile more often while you’re speaking. Even if people can't see you, they can still hear your smile.

Feel free to share your best pitching tips in the comments below.

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

PitchSolutions: Your source for pithy pitching advice

Does your startup have just too much information to jam into one short pitch? Let me help you nail it!

That's not really an ad. It's the premise of my new focused Twitter channel, PitchSolutions. (Which Twitter of course decided to call @SolutionsPitch.)

Follow PitchSolutions for regular content on developing your startup pitch: who you are, why your business exists, what it's trying to do, how it's gonna get there, who's helping you, and why you are all going to win.  That's a lot of stuff to cram into a five- or 10-minute pitch, but as a lifelong writer and editor (I was  helping my mom mark high-school English papers when I was 13), I know you can get it done.

My tweets draw on my own experience as well as popular experts, book and articles to bring you the most useful intel. To get you fully up to speed, here are some of PitchSolutions' pithiest tweets since its launch last month:

9 Top Pitching Errors 1 Have no plan. What will you do by when? 2 Exaggerate financials 3 Forecast growth without evidence 4 Say you have no competitors 5 Ignore gaps on your management team 6 Focus only on positives 7 Dwell on problems 8 Read your slides 9 Care only about money

An elevator pitch is a longer, multi-sentence version of your basic short value proposition. Seth Godin: "The purpose of an elevator pitch is to describe a situation or solution so compelling that the person you're with wants to hear more even after the elevator ride is over."

Solid thread on getting your positioning right. Read it all. "Your positioning should clearly define your differentiated value and your best-fit customers. Once you know that, you know how to frame the problem your product solves better than anyone else, for your ideal prospects."
Quote Tweet
April Dunford
Sometimes weak messaging comes from a poor framing of the problem you solve. If your definition of the problem isn't rooted in your differentiated value, then you are likely framing the problem incorrectly and could be playing directly to the strengths of your competitors. 1/

One of the most challenging parts of pitch-writing is clarity. Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, emphasizes the importance of clarity: "If I can't get to an investment statement that's statable in 3-7 bullets, usually I won't invest."

From The Startup Pitch, by Chris Lipp

“Build a strong foundation for your presentation by asking three simple questions," says startup guru Guy Kawasaki.

* How much time do I have for my pitch?

* What are the three most important things I can explain?

* Can we hold all questions till the end?


"Impress potential investors by coming well-armed with details about: * exactly how their money will be spent; * a complete budget of expenses; * and projections that include not only what return they can expect, but over what timeframe."

Be thorough.
Be rigorous. "The more you’re able to show you have a very well-thought-out business plan, the greater your chances of success."


How to Pitch a Startup, by Martin Jones Keep your pitch simple Manage the timing of your pitch Tell your story Stay focused Convey the unique value of your startup’s product or service Let potential investors experience your product first-hand (Part 1)

How to Pitch a Startup (part 2 of 3) Be clear on who your target audience is and why Know your numbers Be prepared to support any claims Be passionate and enthusiastic about your startup opportunity Make sure you have a strong close Present a solid startup pitch deck
How to Pitch a Startup (part 3 of 3): Understand how to market your startup’s social value Build a strong support team Practice, practice, practice Hire a professional to help you refine your startup pitch and presentation

The most effective pitches begin long before you start talking. Start by knowing everything you can about your prospect.

Who are they, what are t

heir goals, how fast and how boldly do they move? What kinds of questions do 

they ask? 
If you don't know all this, you're not ready.

PitchSolutions Retweeted
Fundraising? Make a doc for investors, organized by how VCs "de-risk" startups. In each section, derisk your startup! -Founder Risk -Market Risk -Competition Risk -Timing Risk -Financing Risk -Marketing Risk -Distribution Risk -Technology Risk -Product Risk -Hiring Risk

When pitching your startup, be truthful. Sometimes the questions from investors or juries are to assess your credibility, integrity and not your skill or product. Don’t lie. Even on what might seems like very small stuff.

The seven elements of a great pitch: * A plan. * An attention-getting introduction. * A story. * A testimonial. * A surprise! * A call to action. * A memorable finish. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right.

You have just one chance to make a great first impression.