This article is written by Josh Burwick, managing partner at Sand Hill East Ventures. You can check out his blog here.
I have sat through countless presentations given by really smart entrepreneurs only to walk away wondering what exactly it is that they do and why I (or potential customers or potential investors) should care. Too often these messages all sound very similar and the unique and/or differentiated value does not surface. The solutions do not sound different from the numerous competitive offers with seemingly similar purpose. Is the issue that I just didn’t understand storage or drones? Why would these really smart people quit their big paying jobs at big companies to start or work for this company? After reading “Made To Stick," I understood that the ineffective communication of the value is likely attributable to the founders’ “Curse of Knowledge.”
The curse of knowledge is affecting many companies in the technology industry. Founders are so immersed in their industry, living it 24/7, that they fail to consider more appropriately their audience. Investors, on the other hand, live in a world where they are shown multiple companies across a multitude of industries. One day the technology may be drones and robots while the next day it is companies with messaging platforms, artificial intelligence or enterprise software.
So how do you make sure your startup isn’t stricken with the curse?
One antidote is to use the same strategy you do communicating with a 4-year-old – when preparing for an investor meeting, ask yourself “Why?” repeatedly until it’s completely obvious. I have three young boys so I get to practice this technique, or be on the receiving end of it from my boys, frequently. Asking why has the power to continue a conversation or a process. So as an example, when my 4-year -old asks why he can’t buy more Pokémon cards, I explain that it’s a treat and they cost money. He responds with, “Why?” Well, the makers of Pokémon need to make money and that’s why they charge for the cards instead of giving them away. And another, “Why?” Well, companies are places where moms and dads work and they need to make money. You get the point, right?
The main point is the power of why.
So, how does the curse of knowledge fit in to this? The curse affects many founders when they pitch investors who aren’t experts in their field, which is the vast majority of the time. Answers to why are likely not absent, but resident inside the head of the presenter and erroneously taken for granted as general knowledge. The key, however, is to remember the audience that you are speaking to doesn’t spend all day focused on the same sector and as such, they do not make the leap that a founder entrenched in the technology easily makes.
When you prepare for a presentation, imagine a 4-year-old kid asking “why” does it matter? Then why again. In their excellent book, “Made to Stick,” the authors suggest “Three Whys” to get to concrete associations that resonate emotionally with their audience. It’s worth checking out the book if you have time! My takeaway: use the power of asking why relentlessly until your unique value is completely obvious.
Don’t fall victim to the curse of knowledge. Make sure that your audience walks away completely armed with and blown away by your answer to “Why?”