Can you sum up your business idea in three sentences?

The answer to this question is definitely ‘yes’. And more, you should sum up your business this way. If you can’t, you probably haven’t thought things through with enough rigour.

The three-sentence pitch is often called an elevator pitch, the idea being that you can pitch your idea to a potential stakeholder in the time it takes to ride an elevator (or a lift, if you’re in Britain). We’ve heard many such pitches that assume that the elevator gets stuck half way.

You should be able to write your pitch on the back of a beermat. Three simple, clear sentences: pain, premise and proof.

The first sentence, pain, does two jobs. It defines your customers and it says what pain you solve for them.

Defining customers is important – we often meet entrepreneurs who say their idea is for everyone. This is a danger signal – something for everyone usually ends up so general that it doesn’t appeal strongly to anyone, so misses out to more targeted offers. Yes, there are exceptions. Microsoft sought to ‘enable everyone to harness the power of personal computing’ and haven’t done too badly out of that. However most new businesses serve smaller niches, and a lot of their success comes from understanding exactly what niche they serve and exactly what the inhabitants of that niche need.

We say ‘need’, not ‘want’. A serial entrepreneur we met in America told us that his motto in looking for new business ideas was ‘Where’s the pain?’ This struck us as an infinitely superior approach to that espoused by many marketeers – ‘How can we sell this?’ We have seen too many businesses that are solutions looking for problems, and they usually falter.

We both come from a services background, so may be a little biased here. But even pure consumer offers are better off thinking of pain. JK Rowling didn’t sit down and think that the world had a desperate need for books about boy wizards. She thought people might enjoy such a book. But once the Harry Potter series took off, her fans did feel a real need for the next book in the series – and that was when the big bucks started flowing in.

So there’s your first sentence. An example: ‘We take away all the hassles of relocating offices for businesses in the South of England.’

Your second sentence is the premise. How, exactly, do you solve that pain? There’s no need to go into great technical detail – it’s only one sentence, after all – but a brief description of what you do is needed. If you can frame that as something unique, that’s even better. ‘We deal with all aspects of relocation, from transporting physical objects to helping staff find good houses and schools for their children – nobody else does this.’

If other people do offer a similar service, you should be thinking about how you differentiate, but don’t go crazy worrying about this. If you have a good sales team and provide genuinely good value, you can get business. A ‘USP’ will emerge once you start working with clients and problems emerge which you then solve on the hoof.

Proof is essential, because, sadly, people lie, so wise customers are wary. It is best quantified. ‘We have 120 customers, including XYZ PLC.’ ‘Jan Smith, from XYZ, said we saved them £100,000 on a move they had to make last year.’  If you have no numbers you can use, then a customer endorsement is good (though nothing really beats numbers). ‘Jan Smith, from XYZ, said we were the best relocation company she’d ever worked with’.

The thing not to do, at any point in the pitch, is to parrot a slogan. Slogans are for big companies trying to lodge their mass product in the mind of the busy, distracted public. ‘Should have gone to Specsavers’ is a current catchy current one. Esso told our dads to ‘put a tiger’ in their petrol tanks. But these say nothing about the actual nature of the business. Any other optician or petrol company could have come up with the same slogan. As a start-up, your pitch must be specific and full of information, designed to inform an individual whose attention you already have, even if only briefly.

Everyone in the business should know your pitch by heart and should be happy to repeat it at any time. It’s worth getting a professional in to train everyone to do this in a way that is natural, not stilted. They can then do it whenever anyone asks who they work for. They can do it at conferences. Even at events where there may be no potential customers, you still want people to know who you are (word gets around). They can even do it socially. Every employee is an ambassador for the business, and their first duty as such is to know the pitch and to be able to present it to the world when asked.

The pitch should also appear on your website header and in any relevant LinkedIn or Facebook profiles.

Being able to sum up your business in three sentences focuses your mind, and the minds of your people, on what it is you do. It impresses others, who will like the fact you know what you are about and are proud to tell the world. If you can’t do this right now, sit down with the team and word out what your three magic sentences are: pain, premise and proof. It will be time very well spent.

Article by Mike Southon and Chris West, authors of The Beermat Entrepreneur, published by Pearson, available now

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