My Golden Rule for Pitching Your Startup or Product

There's a simple rule I use when pitching a product or even a company to someone. I call it "No Ands."

The "No Ands" rule is simple: You have to be able to describe your idea in a single sentence without using the word "and."

I believe "ands" are crutches -- they add confusion and show you don't really understand your value proposition.

The reason I've used this crutch in the past is probably the same reason that you've used it: I'm so excited about how big an idea can be that I want to share my excitement with everyone I talk to. I never want someone to walk away from a pitch unimpressed. I want them to see the same big idea that I see. So I try to convince them with lots of "ands."

But the problem with using "ands" is that they often confuse ideas instead of clarifying them. What's a better way to describe Amazon.com?

a. The largest online store on the planet for almost any product you'd want to buy.
b. An ecommerce store and a maker of hardware devices (Kindle, etc) and also a cloud computing provider and a marketplace where you can sell goods (digital and physical) and ...

As ridiculous as that example may seem, it's not far off from the pitches I've heard from entrepreneurs describing their company or someone describing the product they are building.

The "No Ands" rule is a simple constraint that you can use to focus your pitch. Constraints in my opinion are a critical ingredient for innovation and creativity. Try introducing this constraint the next time you pitch an idea to someone. I think it will teach you to clarify your positioning and, hopefully, result in fewer glazed-over eyes and confused recipients.

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Should Entrepreneurs Get an MBA? Hell No.

Today I am attending a great event on rethinking education and the potential startup opportunities in that space. While I am personally obsessed with lifelong learning I am not a fan of our higher education (or primary/secondary) system, actually I hate it. I am a big fan of self directed learning, primarily by doing (no surprise to readers of this blog). All of this made me think of a blog post I had written earlier this year for Boston.com  but never cross-posted on my own blog.

Should you get an MBA before founding a startup?

Hell no.

If you intend to found a tech startup I believe that an MBA is a complete waste of money.

There is one exception to that rule. An MBA from Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Wharton, and maybe 1 or 2 other schools in the entire world might be somewhat useful. An MBA from one of these schools may be useful not for what you learned at those schools but because of the social connections you made with some of your fellow students and professors. If you’re lucky you might make some alumni connections to people not in the startup world but working at potential acquirers and partners during your time at one of these schools.

If the possibility of making a couple of interesting alumni connections is worth enough to you that you’re willing to spend two years of your life and accumulating an average of $88,000 in debt, go nuts. It isn’t to me, nor I have I seen it payoff for anyone I’ve encountered during the last 15 years.

Coming out of school with a ton of debt would make anyone more risk-averse. That’s not a quality you want in a startup founder. I recommend that you try everything in your power to be entirely debt-free before founding a startup. It’s hard enough to sleep at night as a startup founder without being in personal debt, don’t add any unnecessary pressure on yourself.

Wait, isn’t it easier to raise capital if you learned how-to analyze spreadsheets and dissect a business case at school? Nope.

As an angel investor I’ve never given any advantage to a start-up because one of its founders had an MBA. Recruiting a talented engineering team is far harder, and more impressive, than recruiting a building full of MBAs.

What if none of the founders are MBAs. Should they hire any MBAs into their companies?

For me an MBA wanting to join a startup has always been a worrisome sign. I guess this is because when I see this happening it makes me feel that MBAs are starting to think there’s a short-term possibility that joining a startup is going to make them rich. If you’re interested in making money then please don’t start or join a startup. Anyone who has started a business will tell you there are far easier ways to make money in this world than founding a startup. Despite the urban legends you hear about very, very few startup founders ever make any money let alone get rich from their startup.

Marc Andreessen, a superstar entrepreneur and startup investor, says that when MBA graduating classes start wanting to go into tech startups we’re seeing a leading indicator of a bubble forming.

If you’re a seasoned entrepreneur, were lucky enough to make some money, and you feel like going back to school to get your MBA for fun, go for it. I have many friends who have done just that. But these friends were already successful entrepreneurs, they never rested their hopes on an MBA helping them found a business and neither should you.

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"You can't learn in school what the world is going to do next year." - Henry Ford

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Customer (not Competitor) Focused

I was recently speaking with an entrepreneur whose company is in the same space as my previous company, Performable (which was acquired by Hubspot). He was asking how I thought they should compete with a particular competitor. This competitor is good at producing software quickly and extremely adept at copying its competitors -- they went as far as copying much of Performable's copy and product names after we were acquired.

The situation this entrepreneur is in is not unique -- this happens to most companies in competitive markets every single day. If you are doing something worthwhile, others are going to try to do it too.

At HubSpot we have competitors who copy-n-paste our copy and messaging daily. But the thing that none of these cloners understand is the thought that goes into each message and product -- the reasoning behind why we use the words we used and why we built the features that we built.

It's the why that is important, and it is the why that they are missing.

The why comes from genuine interest in solving your customers problems. Not knowing why is something you can't fake for long. Sooner or later, customers catch on and move out.

My advice to this entrepreneur was the same advice I gave my team every day at Performable: "Focus on customers, not competitors. If we do that, we'll win.” Writing software is the how, not the why.

Always focus on that why. Always focus on solving customer pain and good things will follow.

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