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The elevator pitch: strategies from comms experts for startups

Published on February 12, 2024


Most companies have a great story to tell, but many lack the know-how to tell it well. Can you describe what your company does in less than 30 seconds, preferably in one sentence? If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track. However, that’s not the only thing you need to craft a story that resonates with all your stakeholders.

On a recent episode of Indonesia Digital Deconstructed, Leighton Cosseboom of AC Ventures looked into the art of strategic communication with ⁠Mike Amour, Founding Advisor and Director at ⁠Salamander Advisory⁠, and Harumi Supit⁠, Principal at ⁠Alur Communications⁠. Both Harumi and Mike are part of AC Ventures’ advisory community for the firm’s portfolio companies.

Comms practitioners will tell you that one of the challenges associated with storytelling is keeping it simple. Particularly, in the tech industry, companies tend to focus on how their product works rather than what it does. While founders are often passionate about technical details, investors and customers seek the bigger picture – understanding how the product addresses their everyday challenges. This is where a communication gap often arises.

A startup’s story should articulate what problems the company solves and the uniqueness of offered solutions.  But it’s not enough to nail this once, as a startup’s narrative is usually evolving rapidly in the early days. Mike pointed out that even big tech players like Microsoft and Apple tend to “lose their way” at times. He said that without a clear narrative, it is difficult, if not impossible, to build a consistent strategy and ensure that the company is heading in the right direction.

More than “Just Do It”

A seasoned advertising and comms professional, Mike worked closely with Nike in the 1990s as the company was entering a phase of hyper-growth. At that time, Nike’s core mission could be summed up in three words, but when Mike surveyed many individuals, the common response was “Just Do It.”

Mike clarified that “Just Do It” was actually just a single tagline representing the broader goal of Improved Athletic Performance, which was the foundation of all the company’s actions. It defined the athletes Nike recruited and the way it reached out to partners.

⁠Harumi chimed in, stressing that for founders who wear many hats, it can be challenging to find time to focus on communication and craft a consistent message. Communication professionals can help define how the company fits into the tech ecosystem, and what its points of strength and differentiators are. “Every company’s got a great story,” she said. But discovering it takes time and effort.

Crafting the elevator pitch

Mastering the elevator pitch — a brief description of a company that communicates its purpose — is the first step to success. Mike and Harumi emphasized that a pitch should be simple enough for even a child to understand, and remain consistent.

⁠Surprisingly, a lack of agreement between company leaders on the purpose of their business is a common issue. Harumi recalled a conversation with two co-founders where one was explaining the company’s vision. “He got that part down and the other guy turns to him and he goes, ‘That’s not it!’ There’s this moment of stunned silence,” she said. Luckily, both started laughing. However, if this happened in front of employees, it would not necessarily be as funny.

Mike revealed that sometimes the job of a comms professional is to remind founders why they started their business in the first place and what problem they are trying to solve. “Figuring this out is often a great sort of ‘Aha’ moment,” he said.

Focusing on the core message

Tailoring the communication to the audience type is another challenge. According to Mike, although the communication strategy may shift based on the audience, a core message should be consistent.

“In simple terms, any presentation that you start with, any of your literature, anything on your website, anything on your LinkedIn page, there should be a consistent statement,” Mike said. “Whether you present to investors, new clients, or prospects, the first two or three slides you show should be identical.”

He emphasized that conversing with tech-savvy customers requires a different approach than communicating with investors who may lack knowledge of the category and prefer simpler language. But the starting point should be the same.

For anyone who wants to master storytelling, Mike recommended watching Steve Jobs’ presentation of the iPhone in 2007 at MacWorld. “The first 15 minutes are a masterclass in strategic narrative,” he said, adding that according to his source inside Apple, it took months to get the message right. Nevertheless, the results have proven the effort worthwhile.

Finally, Harumi emphasized the importance of founders being engaged in the process of creating the company’s purpose. She compared companies to founders’ babies, but said that “the way you think about your baby is not the way other people are looking at your baby.” This is why it can be helpful to engage an external adviser to build a cohesive comms strategy.

Harumi Supit and Mike Amour are available for strategic consultations with ACV’s portfolio companies via the value creation team. 

Get the full episode on Spotify, Apple, and Google.