If you’ve got two startups doing the same thing, at the same time, the one who’ll fare better will be the one with the clearest, most succinct messaging. Every time.
The journey from idea to product to business requires you to craft a message to different audiences at different times, and to refine that message along the way. You’re constantly trying to convince people—first to invest, then to try your product, then to pay for it at increasing price levels. I used to run a meetup for startup founders and, along the way, listening to pitches, I learned to interrupt—and often. I’m not trying to derail anyone; I just want to hear you talk on your feet and explain what you do in your own words.
Messaging cannot be underestimated as you get started, and it can be really easy to confuse the message that you use when you raise money with the message you take out to the market.
Pitching to investors
What you don’t want is an echo chamber. If there are too many people around you who think everything you do is great, you’re definitely not doing something right. It’s important to find at least a few people who aren’t that interested in what you’re doing and then try to convince them of your product’s value. By running a meetup with other startup founders, I actively engaged with people who were skeptical about my ideas, and people whose ideas or methodologies I was skeptical about, too. But that process of rolling a boulder uphill helped me learn the language that works. If you can convince a skeptic that your idea is a real opportunity, it will be much easier to talk to everyone else. Once you get a pitch that’s successful at raising money, you have to remember that these are the words that are working with VCs. Investors are looking for opportunities, and customers are looking for value.
It's important to find at least a few people who aren't that interested in what you're doing and then try to convince them of your product's value.
Taking your product to market
It’s a big mistake to think that marketing doesn’t matter. Your product, however good it is, won’t sell itself. People need to understand what it is and the value it offers them. It’s important to spend a significant amount of time thinking about this and getting that message right. You should be able to walk up to anyone and explain what you do. It’s okay if not everyone’s into it—but they should understand what it is you do.
A lot of people feel like they can only test things against their co-founders or spouses, but that’s just not going to get you all the way there. You have to backfill what you’re trying to test—which is the succinctness of the message you’re conveying. You have to get out there and talk to your customers. Listen to them, take their wants and needs to heart, but then interpret those needs. A customer will tell you what they’d like to pay, for example, but they’ll never tell you what they’re actually willing to pay. You can end up chasing your own tail if you give them every feature they request instead of looking at the overall picture. That said, if you can move a person from having only an inkling of the value you can create for them to a place where they’re like, “You’ve changed my life,” then you’ve solved a real problem and, more importantly, you learned how to message the solution.
Setting expectations for employees
Recruiting, hiring, and culture-building are all hard things to do, and also easy to take for granted. As founders, you go from being a couple people locked in a room to this company that’s suddenly growing. And I think we, as founders, are often not well-equipped for this. Part of my job has been to fire myself on a regular basis. As we grew at Chute, I constantly replaced my responsibilities and learned to delegate. It’s tough to relinquish control and to trust people to succeed—especially because sometimes success to them looks like failure to me. They’re maybe doing a job I was just doing, and they did it differently than I did or would have. But then I have to think about it from their context and remember that it’s up to me to set the correct expectations.
As founders, you go from being a couple people locked in a room to this company that's suddenly growing. And I think we, as founders, are often not well-equipped for this. Part of my job has been to fire myself on a regular basis.
Your teams need to know how you are going to measure the success or effectiveness of anything they’re doing. If you haven’t communicated this, then their failure is your failure. It becomes very easy, as a founder, to forget just how much influence you have. As our teams have grown, I’ll brainstorm or think out loud and someone will think, ‘Oh, that’s what I should be doing.’ Sometimes it works out, but sometimes a person will work on something that actually wasn’t a very good idea. You have to be careful with that because it’s all messaging. What you convey to your employees, when and how, matters as much as what you’re telling your customers.
This is a reprint from a series of contributed blog posts from Zendesk customers and startup founders, each sharing lessons they've learned along the way.
Gregarious Narain is now a partner at Before Alpha, an innovation partnership that works closely with executives and business leaders to maximize efforts for transformation and innovation. Previously he was co-founder and CTO of Chute and VP of Product at Klout. Follow his blog at http://gregario.us or on Twitter @gregarious.