Ditch the elevator pitch
If there’s true interest, there’s no rush — take your time to listen first and explain second
There’s no shortage of lore about the importance of the elevator pitch.
There’s the 1850s version, in which inventor Elisha Otis’s dramatic demonstration of his innovation — a safety brake that keeps elevators from falling during a cable failure — set a new bar for colorful, efficient salesmanship.
There’s the Hollywood version, in which writers pitching scripts have just 60 seconds to capture the imagination of producers.
And then there’s the rumored Jobsian one — if you worked for Apple and unluckily found yourself standing next to Steve Jobs in an elevator unable to describe your contributions to the company on that brief trip, you might have been sent packing.
Today, the virtues of the elevator pitch have been codified by Silicon Valley. Get accepted to a startup accelerator and you’ll be drilled in the art of the two-and-a-half-minute pitch — because that’s all the time you’ll have to sell your life’s work to a potential investor. That’s fucking ridiculous.
The message this sends entrepreneurs is that success depends on your reducing your company’s complex story to a few data points and sound bites. That’s why you so often hear “We’re the Uber of this” or “the Warby Parker of that.” Those are shortcuts leaning on people’s preconceived notions of how some business in a different industry defines yours. If you have your own company but require another company to make your point, you’re already headed in the wrong direction.
For years, I’ve struggled to come up with my Basecamp elevator pitch — a succinct description of our product, in standardized, universal terms. But recently I asked myself: Do I actually need one? When you struggle for so long with something, it’s generally a good idea to question the purpose of your struggle. Does it matter anyway?
Sure, in theory, the desire for a quick pitch seems reasonable. Who knows whom you might meet and how long you’ll have to make your case?
Now, play out some realistic scenarios. When have you ever had to explain your whole business in 20 seconds to someone who was truly motivated to understand what you do? Certainly, there are plenty of times when you are forced to bullet-point your vision to someone who really doesn’t care, like a distant relative or a cab driver. But those who are genuinely curious about your business are willing to listen. It shouldn’t take 10 minutes to explain it, but you don’t need to jam your entire narrative into a couple of quick breaths. The rush of time is a false constraint.
For me, context matters. Relying on a one-size-fits-all description of your business means missing an opportunity to engage people rather than just speak at them. Instead of blasting out your script, first show that you’re curious about your audience. Ask them about themselves, what they do, what they struggle with.
That’s my approach. If I think Basecamp can be helpful, I define it in their context. I can cherry-pick something they’ve told me and weave Basecamp in as a solution. People get what your company does not because of what you tell them it does, but because of how they see it fitting into their world and how it can benefit them personally.
On any given day, I might describe Basecamp a dozen ways. Business owners and project managers have different needs for Basecamp. A freelancer with clients needs something different from someone who just works on internal projects.
So ditch the elevator pitch. Taking time to understand someone can be much more powerful than perfecting an overly concise spiel for that mystery person in that mystery elevator.
This article also appears in the April 2017 issue of Inc. Magazine.