Why your product pitch sucks and how to fix it

27 July 2017 / / By Gene Chien

If you’re a founder actively pitching your startup, or just in passing conversation with a VC buddy, I’m sure you’ve heard this one before…

“That sounds like solution in search of a problem.”

Translation: “they have some cool technology, but haven’t found a practical use case,” or, “it is unclear to me why their startup exists.” Unfortunately, we’ve experienced this before as well. At Orange Fab, we’ve met with hundreds of startups over the past 4 years. To date, we’ve accelerated about 50 startups that have raised in excess of $100M. Not all startups are viable and have a picture book ending, but the ones we work with know how to talk about their business. James Foody, CEO of Thalman Health, joined Orange Fab in 2015. When pitching his business, he says:

“People remember impressions more vividly than words. Pitch a narrative — not a business plan.”

Instead of a product pitch, how about trying a “problem pitch?” The ground rules are simple. Talk about the problem your startup solves for five minutes without once mentioning your product, intellectual property, amazing team, or TAM numbers. File them away for later.

Does this sound difficult? Maybe this will help. Try your explanation in 3 Acts:


Act 1: How bad & how big

I see you reaching for that industry report with the big numbers; drop it. Those numbers are good for financial models, but by themselves are too abstract for the level of explanatory power you need to get through this.

Think of “how bad & how big” as a qualitative and quantitative measure, respectively. Really, it’s the basics of describing a problem. If you can’t convince them of the basics, no amount of product features will save you. Let’s use a silly illustrative example and a more ‘business-y’ one:

How bad:

  • Ex 1: This disease has a 100% mortality rate. Qualitatively, this is a very bad disease.
  • Ex 2: Insecure IT infrastructure lead to data breaches, and loss of personal customer data can lead to expensive lawsuits and loss of consumer trust.

How big:

  • Ex 1: The virus is airborne and, unfortunately, humans like oxygen. Quantitatively, this disease has the potential to be widespread.
  • Ex 2: Fortune 1000 IT infrastructure follows industry standards that are outdated. This is further compounded by the exponentially increasing volume of consumer data these businesses hold.

his might seem basic, but what is obvious to you might not be obvious to your audience. If you can establish common ground, you are halfway there.


Act 2: Use an example

Of course use an example. “You remember Rick? Caught the virus, totally died.” Too morbid? Probably, but it gets the point across. An example brings the problem to life and contextualizes the value of your product. Most importantly, it demonstrates you know your customer inside and out.

The Sony and Target security breaches were brand damaging events that brought to light the need for change. Change, more specifically, in the form of implementing better data governance and security measures. Examples demonstrate a clear need for a better way of doing things. Your audience will be able to personally interpret the value of the problem you are trying to solve. Your product being faster, better, and cheaper only describes why your solution is effective, not why your business is valuable.

Keep in mind, at this point in the conversation you still haven’t mentioned what your company does. So far you’ve explained the depth and breadth of the problem and have provided a tangible instance of the issue. Assuming you and your audience are now on the same page the next question naturally is, “why hasn’t anyone done something about this?” Finally, a hero emerges.


Act 3: Enter stage right

The stage has been set, the plot has thickened, and now there needs to be resolution. Think of every reason why your startup is special. All of those things you were excited to talk about at the beginning matter now. The strength of your team, unique IP, and innovative business model are now framed within the context of a real world opportunity for change. Don’t lead with your strengths — close with them.

  • My team is made up of cyber security experts from the Fortune 500 with over 50 years of cumulative experience.
  • Our intellectual property is fully patented and our CTO is a renowned expert on data security and governance.
  • We are in active pilots with both Sony and Target, and have a pipeline of customers as long as a CVS receipt.

Yes, I know this is obvious and I know you’ve heard all of this before, but try this mental exercise: imagine your pitch in reverse. Put yourselves in the shoes of the victim:

Person A:
“My team is the best.”
“We have amazing, never-before-seen technology.”
“We have a ton of customers.”

Person B:
“…what are we talking about again?”

Listening to someone drone on about why their business is special is not only uninformative, it’s borderline annoying. Person B has literally not been given a reason to care. Accolades and awards only matter if the audience cares about the competition. Winning a medal in the nose picking competition, unsurprisingly, isn’t that impressive (I’m still proud of mine, though).

Strengths and solutions only make sense in the context of conflict. It’s the depth and nature of the conflict that people derive a sense of value from. VCs certainly fund solutions and businesses certainly buy products, but that is only after everyone agrees there is a problem worth solving.

At Orange Fab, I manage strategic partnerships to support our community of founders. I’d love to hear your stories. If you have any thoughts, questions, or recommendations for entrepreneurs on their personal startup journey please give me a shout.

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