The following is adapted from Navigate to the Lighthouse.
When I was at the company Boku, a payments executive said to me, “Your story was almost too good; we kept looking for something wrong with it.” This comment is hardly a compliment; I would’ve been disappointed if the story had been anything less than airtight. My team and I knew that a company’s story makes or breaks a business plan, so we worked on refining it from the very start.
Our story was concise: we had the technology that provided the best customer experience, the broadest global coverage, a price on par with or better than other existing solutions, and a proven track record of servicing large clients. That’s a simple story to tell, albeit a demanding one to carry out.
Like ours, your product’s story should be simple and persuasive. Most people don’t remember more than two points after a meeting, so really home in on what sets you apart, and don’t worry if the lighthouse doesn’t remember everything. Do you know what’s even more succinct than that? Tell them what to remember.
Stories are the essentials of business development (BD). How you tell your story sets the tone for the entire relationship with your big lighthouse accounts (and prospects), not to mention the market.
To get a story as tight as ours was, you’ll need to create a story of unique value propositions and differentiators. What sets you apart? Why should the lighthouse place stock in you over your competitors? As you create a story that answers these questions, remember the one who tells the most believable story wins.
A Good Story Is a Conversation
Storytelling needs to come across as unrehearsed, but to deliver a story naturally, you’ll need to perfect its many moving parts. Splitting the story up does wonders, and once you’ve practiced it, you’re set for game time.
Your pitch should never be a “hard sell.” Formulaic stories full of false praise for potential customers are going to get metaphorical doors slammed in your face. The veteran players in the business have sat through the same sales tricks thousands of times, and any particularly harsh tactics just won’t work. However, by telling your company’s story, you’re not imposing but poking around for compatibility between you and your prospect. I can’t repeat it enough: treat it like a conversation.
To help you do this, create a presentation that balances your pitch with your customer’s business situation. Your entire pitch shouldn’t be just about your solution, advantages, and future. It should also include slides that bring up potential problems your customers face and synergistic scenarios between the two companies.
Inevitably, you’ll start out talking the most—ideally, about 75 percent. This percentage should shift to 50 percent during the meeting as you discuss your value and the other company’s situation. Formatting your slides appropriately will help you create a back-and-forth discussion.
Consistency is Crucial
Prioritizing a conversation is great, but what really seals the deal? Having the most believable story that is also consistent, impactful, and honest.
Consistency is something I hammered every time I met a customer. Any story you tell about your company needs to express its steadiness and sturdiness. The most transformative deals will be the long-term ones, and no company wants to get in bed with a startup that delivers its product less than 99.99 percent of the time. Over a long time, a low failure rate has added up.
Tell clients about the commitments you’ve fulfilled in the past. You can say, “In this deal, we promised our buyer we’d close this gap, and we did. Would you like to speak to them?” I remember telling one client, “We told you two months ago we’d deliver on this product feature that you said you wanted, and we did. Right on time. Do you trust what I’m telling you?” He signed right after that.
Calling attention to your startup’s consistent rate of evolution can also be an effective tactic. “You can see how our product has evolved in 12 months—much more than any of our competitors. Who do you want to work with as the best partner?” That’s always a valuable line. Of course, you better have a good track record before making this pitch.
Consistency is important, but so is impacting. Established companies are busy and don’t want to be bothered with petty deals. If you’re going to get them to move, you must have a compelling story that will impact their bottom line, give them a growth wave, or provide global expansion.
Your technology needs to have core intellectual property or provide something your prospect can’t do or execute within a reasonable time. It must fill a relatively large gap that they otherwise cannot do or that they don’t find core to their strategy.
To demonstrate this point, here’s what Mark Jacobstein (a serial entrepreneur with five exits) said in an interview: “To land large partnerships, you have to demonstrate that you’ll impact someone’s bottom line, for example, driving up to $100 million in revenues. To do this, a startup must bring substantial IP, an active user base, or some other costly and time-consuming asset to build. Otherwise, these companies may brush you off as a feature they can build themselves.”
Mark ran a mobile voice-over IP (VOIP) company called iSkoot (which later was acquired by Qualcomm) that worked with Skype and wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon. Although iSkoot’s technology was useful for a period, Skype and AT&T owned the customer and had a direct relationship with each other. Both communication companies deemed this as core to their strategy and squeezed out iSkoot, developing the software themselves. So do something they can’t or won’t do.
An intelligent customer will see right through any fast-talking and question your ability to close the gaps you identify. When it comes to sophisticated deals, be honest with the customer. Admit any shortcomings, missteps, or inconsistencies you might have in tandem with what you are doing to improve. Telling the truth is easier to remember as well. Being caught in a lie is not an easy thing to rectify.
My recommendation is to pick and choose your words so that they are correct statements and truthful. If you said that your product does X and it doesn’t do it, that’s a lie. But if you claimed your product does Y but didn’t talk about X, then that’s the truth. So tell the truth 100 percent of the time by being selective about what you say, and you’ll save yourself and your post-deal team headaches.
What if your competitor falsifies something? Call your competitor out. If you think the client has been sold a lie, tell them so. Ask the customer, “Do you know if they are telling the truth? Maybe you should ask for proof.” Do as much as you can to call their assertion into doubt.
Instead of twisting the truth, we won a handful of deals at Boku by being honest about our shortcomings while selling our strengths. When asked how we could outperform one of our competitors in their local market in Europe, I replied frankly, “We can’t. At best, we will be on par with them, but we will outperform them in all of the markets combined, i.e., our total sum will be higher.” The local market in Europe was only one slice of the pie. By being honest with our shortcomings, the company trusted us and bought into our strategy. That partnership was a big success all around.
For more advice on how to create a persuasive, powerful, and tight company story, you can find Navigate to the Lighthouse on Amazon.
Kurt Davis is a technology executive with over two decades of experience building tech startups throughout Silicon Valley, Europe, and Asia. From 2008–2017, he worked with a startup called Boku, where he led global business development, focusing on deals with Apple, Microsoft, Spotify, Sony, and more. His first book, Finding Soul: From Silicon Valley to Africa, was born on his journey in 2017, working at entrepreneurship centers in sub-Saharan Africa.