High-concept pitches are not your friend

March 29, 2010 | Jason Cohen

a guest post by Jason Cohen

You already know the elevator pitch is critical to your business, not just for pitching but to crystallize the goals of the company in your own mind.

You might also have developed a one-line positioning statement — a single sentence that defines the company in a simple, clear, sentence.  Not one you’d use on customers, but rather something to tack on your wall, something that all marketing and communication should be working towards.

The Venture Hacks blog teaches us about something even smaller and tighter — the high-concept pitch. The idea is to boil your message down to a short phrase that references existing, successful products. Examples:

  • “YouTube is Flickr for video.”
  • “LinkedIn is Facebook for business.”
  • “Twitter is Blogger for Attention Deficit Disorder.”

I like brevity, but I don’t like the high-concept pitch. It leaves out so much it becomes ambiguous, possibly with unintended consequences.

Let’s make this concrete. Say I’ve invented a new compact, portable projector:

This projector weighs less than a pound and it’s the size of a cell phone. It uses bright LEDs so you never blow out a $100 bulb. Your sales guys don’t have to haul equipment or plug into projectors missing “yellow” that can’t run at their laptop’s resolution. This projector works 100% of the time and is small enough to get through airport security in your jacket pocket.

That’s my product pitch — contains all the details and reasons to buy it. Now for the positioning statement:

A compact, portable, rugged projector that eliminates surprise problems on the road.

Short and sweet, still including the primary features and benefits.

Now it’s time for the high-concept pitch. Here’s an idea, copied almost exactly from the Venture Hacks article:

iPhone for projectors

This sounds good at first blush. iPhones are known for being easy to use, pretty, coveted, and commercially successful. Also the analogy extends to size and portability. Good!

But these aren’t the only attributes of the iPhone. iPhones have a reputation of not working well with Microsoft Office, something particularly troubling for the traveling salesman. Readers of this blog are likely to use GMail and Open Office, but your typical salesman is on a strict diet of PowerPoint and Outlook. Just yesterday I spoke with a business traveler who has avoided the iPhone specifically because of its lack of integration with Exchange (now fixed).

iPhones are notoriously inflexible and not customizable. They bucket you in a culture. With the v2.0 software debacle, I could even include “buggy.”

When you use only three words and when you invoke something well-known and complicated, it’s not clear what message will be received. I’m brevity’s biggest fan, but there’s such a thing as “too brief.”

No, I’ll stick with Eric Sink’s definition of positioning statement as the fundamental particle in my marketing universe.

P.S. Another weird quote from that article is that “for investors, the product is nothing.” I get the point — that product != strategy, and product strategy is more interesting to investors than feature bullets. But still… “is nothing?” Perhaps intentionally exaggerated to make a point, but if you find an investor for whom this is literally true (and I have!), steer clear. Strategy with zero product understanding isn’t strategy.

P.P.S. Healthy disagreements notwithstanding, Venture Hacks is a must-read if you’re interested in funding or selling a company.

P.P.P.S. Someone should make that projector!

This post originally was published February 23, 2009 on Jason Cohen’s blog, “a smart bear.” Check there to see comments and more tips from his readers!

Jason Cohen founded Smart Bear Software, maker of Code Collaborator, a tool for peer code review and recent winner of the Jolt Award. He took Smart Bear from start to multiple millions in revenue and 50 percent profit margin without debt or VC, then sold it for cash. He also is a founding member of ITWatchdogs, another bootstrapped startup which became profitable and was sold. He’s also a mentor at Capital Factory (like TechStars or Y-Combinator in Austin). And, he’s the author of Best Kept Secrets of Peer Code Review, the most popular book (35,000 copies) on modern, lightweight methods for doing peer code review effectively without everyone hating life. He blogs at “a smart bear.” Email him: jason (at) asmartbear (dot) com

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