Thursday, July 14, 2005

Commandment #6: Explain Your New Idea by Analogy To, or Contrast With, Old Ideas

Commandment #6: Explain Your New Idea by Analogy To, or Contrast With, Old Ideas

To date, I’ve tried to couch the ideas in the “Ten Commandments” as objectively as possible. No doubt, I’ve only partly succeeded, but in this post I’m admitting upfront that the following advice is likely to be idiosyncratic to me, and may not apply to every VC you ever pitch to. So, use it only if it feels good in your own “voice”.

In Commandment # 6, I urged entrepreneurs to describe the “It” early (and explained why). I suggested that a way to do this was frame the description as an answer to the question: “What problem are you trying to solve?”. Commandment #6 is, sort of, the next step in that process of making clear to the audience how your “It” solves the problem.

One way to describe “It” quickly and cogently, I find, is to analogize to, or contrast your “It” with, the other, existing “It’s” out there. Sometimes (most likely, the “contrast” situation), the other “It” is a product or service that you’re going to kill off, replace, compete with, complement, or relate to in some direct way because your “It” and the other “It’s” are solving problems in the same or similar markets.

Sometimes, however, it’s useful to analogize your “It” to an “It” from an unrelated market. This works best when the other “It” is a popular “social artifact” – such as Blog, Google, TiVo, Podcast, etc. (good way to tell this is when the “social artifact” formerly just a noun, has morphed into a verb due to its popularity).

An example: One of my companies, Pluck ( has a very interesting set of capabilities, in some ways structured around the core application of an RSS newsreader. Among a bunch of other features and functionality, Pluck enables (I promise this advertisement will be brief) users to save, store and file web content in ways that allow groups of collaborators to access, over extended periods, the data stored in a collectively accessible place. This, plus the other features of the product, is a complex set of capabilities to explain quickly. When the team pitched Mayfield on their deal, they described this unique ability to “time shift” access by groups to stored web content as “Tivo for the Web”, and that phrase turned out to be a great way to initially place Pluck in an already understood mental category for my partners and me.

Needless to say, “TiVo for the Web” is not a complete description of Pluck, and, like all figures of speech that seek to explain by emphasizing analogies between otherwise different things, you can push it too far. Care should also be taken not to fall into, what I call, the “Hollywood trap”. According to friends in the film business, the spoofs of Hollywood in which the principal way of pitching a new movie idea is to describe it as the mélange of two (or more) earlier films (e.g., “Son of Dracula meets Bride of Frankenstein”) is actually fairly accurate. As the foregoing parenthetical shows, it’s easy for this to slide downhill into farce, so use discretion.

Think about this technique, however, as a potentially useful way to help you get to the point fast. I recently met with a startup that pitched their wares as: “podcasting for cell phones”. For a bunch of reasons, I didn’t think the business was a good one, but, nevertheless, I immediately had a sense for what they were trying to do.

Another interesting application of this that I recently saw was described as “eBay meets CNN”, a sort of “a news site (portal) for amateur (newsworthy) videos where viewers rate the videos to move them up or down in the popularity queue”. Here, the entrepreneur (a Mayfield EIR) decided for various reasons not to pursue the idea, but it was easy to quickly see what he had in mind – and start to frame some of the due diligence questions one would want to ask.

I’d actually be interested in hearing from readers other examples of this type of thing – and whether they find it useful as either an “elevator pitch” technique (if they’re entrepreneurs) or as a quick way to categorize the new “It” (if they’re VC’s).