I had the pleasure of speaking about Project W and Startup Resources at the 11th New York I-Corps Annual Network Meeting & Innovation Showcase that took place on July 13 at CUNY John Jay in Manhattan. During the Q&A section of the talk, a question I hear all the time surfaced:
When you're building a business that can capture multiple markets – what is the best way to tell that story?
In my experience, when entrepreneurs start by saying "we can be everything to everyone," more often than not they elicit skepticism from investors. And because it is highly unlikely that a startup is going to be able to execute in multiple sectors all at once, in my opinion, that skepticism makes sense. No matter how talented an entrepreneur is, they cannot tackle every market simultaneously. It is difficult to do anything well – and it's really, really unlikely a founder will be able to do everything well, especially when starting out with limited resources.
So how can a founder tell the story of future potential in a believable way?
This is the recipe I have seen founders be successful with:
- We are starting here in this niche market we really understand.
- Here's this person.
- Here's why they care.
- Here's how we help them with what we're doing/building/making possible.
- Here's the traction that shows how fast we're growing already in this first focus area.
Oh, and by the way, once we do this, it opens up our ability to do this and do this, and this, and this.
When founders frame their pitch in this way – while they are telling the narrow-market story, they get the investor thinking of ideas for where the business could go. Because when the founder was talking just about that first use case, in their head they were starting to think, "Oh, I could see how this would be applicable here, and maybe also in this other area."
Entrepreneurs want an investor they're meeting with to be thinking about potential – generating ideas for how the business could expand – not being skeptical that the founding team can actually do everything they claim they can. As my fellow panelist, Abby Lyall of Tribeca Venture Partners pointed out, "Balancing your time and prioritization is definitely the most difficult challenge as an entrepreneur." It is imperative that founders tell their story of growth in a way that makes it clear they are making smart decisions about where they spend their time.
By starting off the narrative with a hyper clear customer segment, investors will be primed to believe you know your initial customer well. It grounds the story in something realistic and tangible and keeps the skepticism at bay. Once investors buy into why the first customer cares and the initial growth in that segment, we're able to extend the picture into seeing how a startup can expand and become a truly big opportunity.
Starting a pitch anchored in something believable – in a customer the founder clearly understands well – is the only thing that unlocks investors' ability to believe a founder is going to be able to collect the rest of the chips eventually.