I was recently asked to judge a Shark Tank style competition hosted by the entrepreneur club at the College of Holy Cross (my alma mater), probably one similar to the elevator pitch events hosted by GeekWire and other organizations in our startup community.
Budding young entrepreneurs – two individuals and three teams – pitched their concept, vying for a chance to win funding to bring it to reality. There were interesting ideas targeted to the college student lifestyle and demographic – dorm room delivery services, autodetailing and “optimizing” the tailgating experience.
But nearly every one of these competitors made the same mistake: They tried to do too much.
The ideas were overstuffed, and in their focus on making their business address as much as possible, they did not think through the supply chain requirements, number of hires, processes, systems and other less sexy requirements to make a business work.
The winner simply looked at a small and specific problem and developed a business plan around solving it. As time progresses, I’m sure he will be able to add complexity to the idea, but he wisely started with a very narrow focus. Imagine how many more companies, more jobs, and more technologies would be created if people just started simple.
More often than not, simplicity is the key to the best business ideas. Start-ups often forget this.
The difference between a successful company and the ones that never leave the ground is often the ability to cut through the clutter and express an idea simply.
If you take a look at some of the world’s top companies, you’ll find they all started with a simple idea. Amazon? Sell books online for less. Google? Povide a straightforward method for searching the web, without all the bells and whistles. YouTube? Create an online space for people to share their videos. McDonald’s? Get a burger and fries that taste exactly the same, no matter what part of the country you’re in.
Complexity comes with time and after you have a strong foothold. Amazon is now a dominant force in online data and commerce, and recent reports are telling us that it will be expanding its grocery business. YouTube is experimenting with customized channels. All of these successes started basic and expanded their reach, but only when it made sense to do so.
Some businesses start complicated, creating a single product or service that can address numerous problems – the Swiss Army Knife approach to entrepreneurialism, so to speak.
Sometimes it works. However, no matter how complicated it is beneath the surface, if your product or business can’t be broken down and described simply, the extra effort it takes for others to understand its value will likely doom it in the long run. If you consider it, the Swiss Army Knife itself is really just the compilation of a number of very simple tools that were successful on their own.
The art of the elevator pitch is too often forgotten among those launching businesses and start-ups. As an entrepreneur, you dream of getting a potential big funder stuck in an elevator with you, forced to listen to your idea. But too few are prepared for that sort of encounter, and wouldn’t be able to make a pitch that sticks quickly. If you can’t effectively break your idea down into a sentence or two, your chances for succeeding aren’t great.
To get philosophical, follow Occam’s Razor, which tells us that when series of competing theories is presented, the simplest one is usually best.
Another way to think about it, which is what I told the Holy Cross students, is this: To find a million dollar idea, find a way to make one dollar and then do it a million times.
Sound simple? Good.
Chris Stephenson is a partner and co-founder at strategy consulting firm ARRYVE. You can follow him on Twitter at @cjstevie and @arryve. Previously on GeekWire: Taking on telecommuting: Maybe Marissa Mayer was right