Planning, Startups, Stories


Tim Berry on business planning, starting and growing your business, and having a life in the meantime.

Elevator Speech Part 1: The Market Story

(Part 1 of a series)

Can you describe your business in 60 seconds? In grad-level venture contests, and in startup groups and the startup eco-system, they call it “the elevator speech.” It’s a formal event in many business plan competitions, but aside from that specialty use, do you agree with me that every business owner should be able to do it? What do you say when the person sitting next to you asks about your business? What do you say at a conference, or a local event, when your business comes up. Microphone

I was at a grad-level business plan competition, not long ago, watching the elevator speeches. Each startup got one minute – measured by a big ticking clock – to describe the business. The moderator challenged the crowd, trying to point out how hard it is to give that speech, “would you like to do it?” And I thought, silently, “I’d love to.” Give me a crowd and a microphone and I’m delighted to speak, even if limited to just one minute. I’ve been ready to do that elevator speech every day for the last 20 years.

If you’re a business owner, and you can’t describe your business in 60 seconds, you have a problem. Your strategy isn’t clear enough. I don’t think its academic. I think it’s important. I think it’s a great exercise that everybody in business should be able to do. Let’s get simple, let’s get focused, let’s get powerful.

I’ve been writing lately about simple business strategy. What better way to condense it than in a quick elevator speech. If you can’t do it, worry.

Start your elevator speech with a person (or business, or organization) in a situation. Personalize. Identify clearly. For example:

  • John Jones doesn’t particularly care about clothes but he knows he has to look good. He sees clients every day in the office, and he lives in a ritzy suburb, where he often sees clients by accident on weekends. But he hates to shop for clothes.
  • Jane Smith wants to do her own business plan. She knows her business and what she wants to do, but wants help organizing the plan and getting the right pieces together. The plan needs to look professional because she’s promised to show it to her bank as part of the merchant account process.
  • Paul and Milena live in a beautiful apartment in Manhattan, with their two kids. Paul has a great job in Soho, Milena works from home, and neither has time for food shopping.
  • Acme Consulting has five people managing several shared email addresses: info@acme.com, sales@acme.com, and admin@acme.com. The five of them have trouble not stepping on each other. Sometimes a single email gets answered three or four times, with different answers. Sometimes an email goes unanswered for days, because everybody thinks somebody else answered it.

Notice that in each of these examples I could be much more general. The first targets mainly men who don’t like to shop but need to dress well, and have enough money to pay for the service. The second is for the do-it-yourselfer who wants good business planning. The third is simply fresh food delivery in the city. The fourth is for companies managing shared email addresses like sales@ or info@. But instead of generally describing a market, I’ve made it personal.

Sometimes you can get away with generalizing. “Farmers in the Willamette Valley,” for example, or “parents of gifted children.” It’s an easy way to slide into describing a market. However, I suspect that you’re almost always better off starting with a more readily imaginable single person, and let that person stand for your target market.

What you do, in this part, is establish a defining market story. It’s also called the problem in the set of problem and solution. And it’s a core element of strategy. And it’s a good place to start your elevator speech.

(To be continued)