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Perspectives May 21, 2013

Passing the 10 Second Test

The Elevator Pitch

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*This article was originally posted on Joseph Ansanelli’s blog.

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Having founded a few startups, I know that starting a company is hard. It’s hard building a great team and dreaming up a 10x better and amazing idea. And you will be surprised how hard it is explaining what you do to more people more times than you can imagine. For that reason, it’s really important that any good startup pass the 10-second test.

Today as a partner at Greylock, the importance is even more apparent as I now spend a surprising amount of time reading business plans and listening to presentations simply trying to figure out what new startups actually do.

Take, for example, a business plan I received that promised to “revolutionize telecommunications.” A little vague, sure, but it sounded intriguing. It turned out that they were simply selling phone cards on Facebook. Putting aside whether or not it’s a good business idea, it would have been much better if they’d simply said what they did.

What’s the 10-second test?

When we started Vontu, a security company, we could easily explain what we did on a technical level to security nerds. However, explaining it to everyone else was really difficult – especially when we only had a short email or phone call, or a chance opportunity, to pitch the idea. With so much at stake, we knew it was important to communicate our startup’s value in 10 seconds or less.

To share our challenge, here’s the technical description that we had to figure out how to explain to non technical people.

Vontu is security software installed on a multi-core server that connects to a network switch or tap, captures all the packets off the network at wireline speeds, “cracks” all the documents, and does a full-text fuzzy search against structured database content looking for sensitive data in the unstructured format. It then calculates the amount of confidential content being sent out in a single message to determine severity and security risk.
Yikes! That’s not something a customer wants to slog through.

So we went over it again and again, eventually arriving at a concise description we thought would hit the most important points. Here’s what we came up with after several iterations:

Vontu helps prevent the loss of sensitive customer information from inside of your company network.
Eventually, we even established a new security category called “data loss prevention.” Pretty easy to understand. Who wouldn’t want to prevent the loss of confidential data?

Why it matters

Doing this for a nerdy security product is really hard, but it’s worth it. Our answer wasn’t perfect, but it opened the door to conversations with CIOs, CEOs, investors and employees that let us explain more about why what we did was important, how we were better than the competition, and why they should work with us.

I remember a chance meeting with the Chief Security Officer of a very large bank. She was reluctant to meet with “yet another security startup” and started by telling me she was only speaking with us as a favor to someone I had asked (begged!) to help arrange a meeting. I thought this was going to be an unmitigated disaster of a meeting, but simply asked her if she was worried about the loss of sensitive customer information from inside of the bank? She said she was actually quite concerned and the bank soon became our first customer.

Studying for the test

It may sound easy to sum up your company in a short phrase, but it often takes focused, strategic thinking to pass the 10-second test. At Vontu, it took us days and weeks to get it right.

A great way to get started is by using the outline that Geoffrey Moore writes about in his book Crossing The Chasm, which stems from his days at historic Silicon Valley tech PR firm Regis McKenna.

For [target customer]

Who wants/needs [compelling reason to buy]

The [product name] is a [product category]

That provides [key benefit].

Unlike [main competitor],

The [product name] [key differentiation]

For example, in the case of Vontu it looked something like this:

For Fortune 1000 companies with lots of customer data, Who want to ensure that it does not get sent out over their network, Vontu Monitor is a data-loss prevention solution that accurately finds customer data in outbound network traffic. Unlike [various competitors], Vontu Monitor is proven to be the most scalable and accurate solution for the Fortune 1000.

From there we came up with our 10-second description. And once we had the audience hooked, we could give more details about why we were better and offer lots of brand-name customer references.

But wait, my idea is really big!

One thing about the 10-second test is that it will (and should) evolve over time as your company and products change and grow. It should be something that you consistently revisit and evolve, keeping in mind all the different audiences for what you do.

Over time, we focused on protecting source code, and design documents and all kinds of sensitive information in a range of industries. But we had to have our initial focus which clearly explains what we did.

That way, whether you’re selling phone cards on Facebook or, even better, building the next Facebook, you’ll be able to clearly explain what your company does, and why people should care.

Let me know what you think.

(Credits: Editing by Rachel, Tom, as well as thanks to Maureen, Jenny, Kit, Steve and so many who endured the positioning workshops to pass the 10 second test! Real Stopwatch photo Some rights reserved by josterpi)

“One thing about the 10-second test is that it will (and should) evolve over time as your company and products change and grow.”