A look back at early interviews with Facebook and Uber CEOs illustrates an ingenious way to communicate hard-to-describe products.
As a founder, I spend countless hours refining my elevator pitch and practising it every chance I got. I learned that ‘leading with the need’ is an extremely effective way to position your product, by showing how it solves an important problem for your customers.
It’s a shame that most customers don’t hear about my product from me. Like50 percent of startup founders, I rely on word of mouth to promote my product. The catch is that my potential customers don’t hear my well-practiced elevator pitch. Worse still, those who’ve tried — and liked — the product don’t have a full 30 seconds to explain how the product works in detail to those who haven’t. I’m lucky if they take more than three seconds to describe it.
Your product will only come up in conversations when it’s perceived as being relevant to that conversation. Here’s a typical word-of-mouth scenario:
I wanted to know why some one-sentence descriptions sound like genius ideas while others flop. As I researched how successful founders presented their products before they were well-known, I discovered something interesting.
In this early interview, before Facebook’s IPO, Mark Zuckerberg describes Facebook as:
‘Something where you can type someone’s name and find out a bunch of information about them.’
Mark is simply describing one of Facebook’s features — the ability to view the profiles of real people. There is no talk of ‘social networks’ or helping the world to connect to each other. Just a simple and practical description of a key product feature.
In 2011, Travis Kalanick described Uber (at the 21:15 mark) as a mobile app where:
‘You push a button and in five minutes a Mercedes picks you up and takes you where you want to go.’
Travis doesn’t lead with buzzwords like platform and marketplace. Instead, hefocuses on just one button and uses vividly specific language to make the outcome extremely appealing. Today, Uber has simplified it even further, to: ‘Tap a button, get a ride.’
The format of both descriptions is the same: “You do X and Y happens.” X is the input and Y is the output. This input-output pair matches our intuition about how software works.
Simplifying the product to a straightforward input and desirable output creates the sense that it’s an ingenious idea.
Facebook and Uber have many features, yet Mark and Travis elevate a single feature above the others, making the product easy to understand, easy to remember, and, most importantly, easy to talk about.
A product’s features are often highly interconnected, making it hard to know which one to choose. I’ve found it helpful to think through the user experience chronologically. Find the first unique feature that’s highly desirable to the user, and describe it in terms of inputs and outputs.
If you choose a feature without a clear input, you risk confusing the user.Focusing on a feature that other products also have invites the terror-inducing question of, ‘Why is it different from X?’ For example, Facebook allows users to share photos with friends, but if Mark led with this feature, it would beg the question: ‘Why can’t I just use email?’
I’d argue that even the most complex SaaS platforms can be simplified with an illustrative lead feature. But what if your product is the exception?
In that case, it’s not a good idea to rely on word of mouth to grow your business. If you find it hard to describe your product, imagine how hard it will be for your customers. If this happens, a salesforce might be a more reliable channel.
It’s easy to mistake a one-line description as just another communications tactic. However, crafting this sentence is one of the most strategic decisions a founder can make. If you want your product to be shared by word of mouth, then you must accept that it will likely pass from person to person as a single sentence.
Figuring out this sentence can focus your product development on the inputs and outputs that really matter. Seize the opportunity to craft and test single sentences early — before you build something that’s too hard to describe.
Thoughtful essays on growing teams, building products and raising money by Serial Entrepreneur and Investor, David Bailey.