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For as long as I’ve been in business we‘ve been talking about refining the elevator pitch. That idea that an entrepreneur might serendipitously find themselves in a lift with a potential benefactor and a race against the clock to introduce themself, land a compelling message and secure a follow on before they reach the heady heights of the executive floor.
There’s a lot in this that doesn’t work for me; the uncomfortable ‘one shot’ serendipity, the power dynamic, the urgent desperation, and studying the traditional training, you see that it’s not an environment that works well for entrepreneurs either. It puts them in sell mode, they aren’t communicating as an equal, and they start by talking about themselves.
Some entrepreneurs may have got away with it in a corporate environment where politeness rules, but try the “Hi, my name is… and I want to tell you about…” in the pub with friends family over dinner or at an investor networking event and you’ll see the eyes glaze over. I’ve been there and it can be brutal. Worse, you’re in danger of getting a reputation as the person to avoid at parties.
What I’ve learned over the years of working with startups is that it doesn’t need to be like this. You can find a way to share what you are working on, and secure support from friends, family, investors, customers and other founders without damaging your social capital.
Even if the person you are talking to doesn’t want to get involved, they’ll likely refer you on, provided you’re someone they’d like to get behind, not avoid.
So, rather than practice your elevator pitch, practice good chat.
Good chat as an entrepreneur is extremely difficult.
You are working on your project for all your waking hours. It’s extremely important to you and you see your business EVERYWHERE. On top of that, you likely aren’t getting out and about as much as you should and you’re frankly ‘socially rusty’. Finally, you’re aware that a lot of your content may have been seen on social media – you don’t know what this person knows about you. None of this is comfortable terrain for good chat.
Here’s your six-step guide to get through informal pitch situations with your reputation intact and maybe even a few hot leads.
Step 1 – Never lead with you
Perhaps you know the individual or you don’t. Either way, find questions to learn more about them.
“What brings you here?” “What shall we chat about?” “I’ve seen you on LinkedIn – what have you been up to recently?” are all great ways to learn more. Put off introducing yourself until you’ve established this connection. Never lead with you.
Step 2 – Tell them about your mission, not your solution
Your chatting partner will likely ask what you do. Don’t fall into the trap of telling them about your business and losing them forever. Instead keep this high level. “I’m working to close the finance gap for small businesses” or “I’m working to close the gender health gap”. Be humble – and point out that you are one of many working on this tricky issue. See if they have any experience of this problem. Mission, not solution makes good chat.
Step 3 – Conversational call and response
If you’ve set it up right, they’ll likely have something interesting to say on this topic. They might have seen some of your competitors, experienced the pain first-hand or be working on something themself. Make sure you listen to what they know before you start to fill in the gaps. Again, don’t talk about your business here. Just establish a shared view of the frustrations that are being felt. Conversational call and response to establish rapport.
Step 4 – Explain your motivations
At this point it might feel right to explain how your business has been set up to address some of these issues. Do they bite on that? If not, don’t bother telling them more! If they do bite, ask what they think of it “how does that land with you?”, “gut reaction?” are great ways of encouraging some honest feedback. If they aren’t into it, don’t push it, just let it go. Move the conversation on and go find a more open door somewhere else.
Step 5 – Find a next step
If they are broadly supportive of what you’ve said, be humble, recognising that you know you can’t do this alone. Perhaps ask them for advice, “what should I do next do you think?”, “want to be involved in some capacity?” “I’d love to have you on board”. All great ways to prompt a next step.
Step 6 – Try to be the first to move the conversation on
“That’s enough business, shall we go find the drinks table?” works a treat.
Follow up via Linked In the next day prompting a further chat, or simply recognise that you enjoyed the time together, and you’ll look forward to seeing them again another day. The generosity of this last message you send on Linked In will make the difference when you approach them again in the future.
For the traditionalists amongst you who do insist on hanging out in elevators. Here’s the same advice in that format:
“Hi, how fortuitous to be in this lift with you! Through my LinkedIn stalking, I think you might be interested in something I’m working on at the moment – SME access to finance? The gender health gap? I’m sure we share a view that it’s a huge opportunity, but it’s a tough space too – many have tried and not got there. I think I know why and I’ve built a business to address those frustrations. I’d love some time with you to compare notes and get your feedback. Would you be up for that? Great – I’ll drop you a note on Linked In and we can find somewhere a little more conducive to chat further!”
If you want to work on your startup pitch to prepare for investor meetings, enhance your customer relationships or to help you cope at networking events, check out SETsquared Bristol.
Anna-Lisa Wesley is one of four Entrepreneurs in Residence at SETsquared Bristol that support technology founders to grow global businesses out of Bristol.
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