Get to the Point, Will Ya?
Waste of any kind really irritates me. So, if you've got good news to share about your startup, don't take the scenic route to tell me about it. And make sure you answer these three fundamental questions.
By Howard Tullman Executive director, Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship, Illinois Institute of Technology @tullman
I got a note recently from a colleague who had written a short email commenting on my last INC. column. He shared a simple phrase that his father often used ("Take responsibility and do the right thing.") to describe a situation similar to the one I had written about. When I didn't promptly respond to his missive, he followed up with another note, saying that he hoped that his brief note and comments hadn't offended me.
I was reminded of the 17th century French mathematician Blaise Pascal's phrase: "I only made this letter longer because I didn't have the leisure to make it shorter." Or, in today's parlance, "If I had more time, I'd be briefer." I wrote my colleague that I actually appreciated his taking the time to react to what I had written. And I assured him that - with my exceedingly thick skin - well-meaning criticism doesn't offend me. The only thing that really offends me is waste.
Wastes of words, time, resources, opportunities, and especially wastes of breath-- like apologies without coincident changes in behavior-- or basically anyone wasting their time and mine in trying to make cheap excuses. Explanations and investigations are fine, but make no mistake, there's no such thing as a good excuse. You learn early on in the startup world that you can have results, or you can have excuses, but rarely both.
Honestly, I never mind anyone who does me the favor of getting right to the point and telling it like it is. In a world of blowhards and BSers, this is a joy and a relief. Frankly, what you can't say in 10 minutes about your business, your problem, or your idea probably isn't worth saying. We're all time-starved and in a hurry, so feel free to make it short and sweet.
Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to tell a simple story. If it's a pitch, make sure I can tell right away whether what you're saying makes sense, whether it's a real business or opportunity, where the warts and the pitfalls are likely to be, and whether you're the right one with the requisite passion, persistence and smarts to make it happen.
If there's a problem, it's a slightly different challenge. In the pursuit of pithiness, you still need to make sure that you tell me the whole tale and the whole truth. And, if you're bringing me bad news, make it the headline so we can get right into it; there's always plenty of time down the line to pat yourself on the back. But assuming that you've got good news to share, don't hide your light under a bushel basket-- especially if you're looking for money. Do everything you can to make it easy to say "yes." Too many new entrepreneurs make it easy to turn them down because they're so unprepared to take their best shot in the moment when the opportunity is there and because they don't really understand how to make the most of that short window of time.
As we used to say when I was in the music industry, it's really easy to tell when a song is bad, but only the public will ultimately decide what sells. Note that I said "what sells," not necessarily what's good. The music business today is all about making money, not making great music. Always has been; always will be.
And it's the same situation when you're describing a new business. If you're all over the place; if you're trying to be all things to too many people; if your story is so complicated that it's hard to even follow; or if you've got a solution in search of a problem, it's going to be pretty easy to say "thanks, but no thanks." You've got one shot, one moment, and one opportunity to get right to the heart of the matter and the most crucial part of the entire process is simplifying the story.
How simple? Your story should answer three basic questions about your company which, by the way, are the very same questions that will inform and guide your company for its entire existence. These answers are also every bit as significant for each and every employee as they are for any investors.
So, it's pretty important to get the answers right at the outset. The answers might change over time, but the fundamental questions never do. Here they are:
Who are We?
Management and team members' relevant experience and credentials
Where are We Going?
Short and long-term objectives and goals--abbreviated milestones-- and a realistic timeframe.
What problem is being addressed and solved-- time, money, productivity, status.
Short, sweet and to the point. You've got to be a ruthless editor and there's no question that the toughest choices are about what to leave out, not what to include. You need to think of detail and elaboration as forms of pollution. Cut to the quick. And stick to your story.
Tell the story you need to tell, be relentless, stay on point, keep it short, and make the limited time that you have count. Everything else can come later.
Bottom line: don't waste my time or yours-- tell a simple story.