Why Your Startup One-Liner Might Kill You

Why Your Startup One-Liner Might Kill You

23-Jun-2016 by Fiona Maguire

Let’s start with a pretty open secret in consumer behaviour. It takes the average human only 7 seconds to make a decision on whether they are interested in something or not.

So the pressure is on to nail your startup one-liner.

The one-liner is nothing more than the hook for potential customers, investors, partners or hires to gain a snapshot about what you do and feel intrigued enough to spark a conversation to find out more. It is just a few phrases, but it holds serious weight. Get your one-liner wrong and you risk alienating each and every one of your audiences, from losing credibility before investors to simply seeing potential customers walk away through lack of understanding. Think of it as the one liner to open your pitch.

Think you can tell your startup’s mission in just one sentence?

This blog will take a quick look at some of the most common pitfalls to avoid and provide tips and tricks to help get you on the path to one liner glory.

One-liner ground zero.

Walking around the Top 100 startup zone at Echelon last week, I spoke with passionate entrepreneurs with big visions and some convincing numbers in FinTech to EdTech to (ahem) Adult Entertainment; however, after reading ‘online platform using big data and AI..’ for the 10th time, all the startups began sounding alike.

I chatted with an investor in the midst of this startup area and he quickly vented his frustration. “That founder wouldn’t stop talking AI and machine learning jargon.. They wouldn’t say what they actually DO” After trying to push aside the hot air to uncover the actual product with no success, he walked off.

Let’s take that in for a second… hot topics, machine learning and AI, actively caused the investor to walk away!

If they didn’t want to hear about your technology jargon in conversation, think they want to read about it in your one-liner? Get your startup one-liner right, the distilled, polished version of your value proposition, and you’ll have a solid foundation for your pitch and sales messaging. Get it wrong and you’ve killed your potential audience.

So, why do the majority of us still get the startup oneliner so horribly wrong?

Below are some of the main pitfalls observed from real startup one-liners read at Echelon. All startup names have been changed.

Leading with the technology rather than the value

“[MarkX] is a technology-based and market-driven verification system offering affordable…”

I walked past at least a dozen signs that began like the above, simply 10 words of jargon before we arrive at any element of value. We are not even at 7 seconds and this startup has lost their audience.

Getting sucked into the product rather than focusing on the solution is one of the most common weaknesses of founders. Leading with the technology in your one-liner is a clear example of this.

How to avoid the jargon? Stop writing what you think will be impressive, focus instead on what your customers say about you and tie this into your one-liner. The copy on the very best landing pages, for example, are written only by the language used by customers in testimonials. You will be surprised at how your customers distill out the jargon and focus on what really matters, the value you create!

Check out this useful post on Forbes about creating a great value proposition: it should simply explain what benefit you provide for who and how you do it uniquely well.

Unnecessary Words

“[HotPotato] is a double-sided marketplace that connects [farmers] with [restaurant owners]…”

This one-liner is fine. It begins by telling us the mechanics of the startups’ business model and sets up. But this one-liner can never be great. Why? Because ‘double-sided marketplace’ is unnecessary.

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” – William Strunk

Why include ‘Double-sided marketplace’ when you can directly say ‘HotPotato connects farmers to restaurant owners’?

Concise writing is not the same as a short sentence. So a short one-liner is not by default better than a wordy one. The key differentiator here is whether all of the words serve a value.

How to avoid extra words? Firstly, imagine you are writing to your grandma or a child (no insults to grandmas or children intended). This should strip out the fancy phrases and bring it back down to the core value. Secondly, systematically go through every word and ask yourself, what value does this serve? If the answer is ‘because it sounds impressive’ and that’s it… take it out! Thirdly, write it out 100 times, you will be able to easier identify which words are core and which you can remove.

Forgetting the customer

“[Cloudly] is an innovative cloud solution company that offers a unified and smart platform that can integrate across different hyperscale cloud services into a single platform.”

You have told me the problem and the technology you have built but who is your solution for? And, as a conclusion of this, what is your market size?

How to avoid this? Well, that’s obvious. Follow the points above and include your customer.

So there you have some key points of what NOT to do, now how to write startup one-liner? Let’s not reimagine the wheel in providing a ‘how-to’ structure to follow. Remember that investor? What he wanted to know was simple: what value are you creating, for who, how and why are you so special. Take a look at this video for an example of a solid startup one-liner structure.

p.s. enough Ubers, Tinders & Airbnbs’ of something already. Great infograph to show you why.

Fiona Maguire