Ditching the Elevator Pitch
Want people to fall in love
with your company?
Don’t bother perfecting
that sound bite
The message this sends entrepreneurs is that
success depends on your reducing your company’s
complex story to a few data points and sound
bites. That’s why you so often hear “We’re the
Uber of this” or “the Warby Parker of that.” Those
are shortcuts leaning on people’s preconceived
notions of how some business in a diferent industry defnes yours. If you have your own company
but require another company to make your point,
you’re already headed in the wrong direction.
For years, I’ve struggled to come up with my
Basecamp elevator pitch—a succinct description of
our product, in standardized, universal terms. But
recently I asked myself: Do I actually need one?
When you struggle for so long with something,
it’s generally a good idea to question the purpose
of your struggle. Does it matter anyway?
Sure, in theory, the desire for a quick pitch
seems reasonable. Who knows whom you might
meet and how long you’ll have to make your case?
Now, play out some realistic scenarios. When
have you ever had to explain your whole business
in 20 seconds to someone who was truly motivated
to understand what you do? Certainly, there are
plenty of times when you are forced to bullet-point
your vision to someone who really doesn’t care, like
a distant relative or a cab driver. But those who are
genuinely curious about your business are willing
to listen. It shouldn’t take 10 minutes to explain
it, but you don’t need to jam your entire narrative
into a couple of quick breaths. The rush of time is a false constraint.
For me, context matters. Relying on a one-size-fts-all description of your business means
missing an opportunity to engage people rather than just speak at them. Instead of blasting out
your script, frst show that you’re curious about your audience. Ask them about themselves,
what they do, what they struggle with.
That’s my approach. If I think Basecamp can be helpful, I defne it in their context. I can
cherry-pick something they’ve told me and weave Basecamp in as a solution. People get what
your company does not because of what you tell them it does, but because of how they see it
ftting into their world and how it can beneft them personally.
On any given day, I might describe Basecamp a dozen ways. Business owners and project
managers have diferent needs for Basecamp. A freelancer with clients needs something
diferent from someone who just works on internal projects.
So ditch the elevator pitch. Taking time to understand someone can be much more powerful
than perfecting an overly concise spiel for that mystery person in that mystery elevator.
THERE’S NO SHORTAGE of lore about the impor- tance of the elevator pitch. There’s the 1850s version, in which inven- tor Elisha Otis’s dramatic demonstration of his innovation—a safety brake that keeps elevators from falling during a cable failure—set a new bar for colorful, efcient salesmanship. There’s the Hollywood version, in which writers pitching scripts have just 60 seconds to capture the imagination of producers.
And then there’s the rumored Jobsian one—if you worked for
Apple and unluckily found yourself standing next to Steve Jobs in an
elevator unable to describe your contributions to the company on
that brief trip, you might have been sent packing.
Today, the virtues of the elevator pitch have been codifed by Silicon
Valley. Get accepted to a startup accelerator and you’ll be drilled in
the art of the two-and-a-half-minute pitch—because that’s all the time
you’ll have to sell your life’s work to a potential investor.
Jason Fried is a co-founder
of Basecamp (formerly
37signals), a Chicago-based
INNOVATE 98 - INC. - APRIL 2017