As a founder, I spent countless hours refining my elevator pitch and practicing it every chance I got. I learned that "leading with the need" is an extremely effective way to position your product as solving an important problem for your customers.

It's a shame that most potential customers don't hear about my product from me. Like 50 percent of startup founders, I rely on word of mouth to promote my product. The catch is that my customers haven't learned my well-practiced elevator pitch. Worse still, they don't have a full 30 seconds to explain how the product works in detail--I'm lucky if they take more than three seconds to describe it.

How customers talk about your product

Your product will only come up in conversations when it's perceived as being relevant to that conversation. Here's a typical word-of-mouth scenario:

  1. Something triggers your customer to remember your product. For example, perhaps somebody has described the need that your product addresses.
  2. Your customer will introduce your product tentatively with a question, "Have you heard about product X?"
  3. Without much setup, your customer jumps head-first into a simplified description of how it works--typically in a single sentence.
  4. If the description resonates, great. If not, your customer will justify why they think it's relevant to the conversation and move on.

I wanted to know why some one-sentence descriptions sound like a genius idea and others flop. As I researched how the founders of successful startups presented their products before they were well-known, I discovered something interesting.

Viral products tend to have a "lead feature"

In this early interview before Facebook's IPO, Mark Zuckerberg describes Facebook as:

"Something where you can type someone's name and find out a bunch of information about them."

Mark is describing one of Facebook's features--the ability to view profiles of real people. There is no talk of "social networks" or helping the world to connect to each other. Just a simple and practical description of a key feature of the product.

In 2011, Travis Kalanick described Uber (at the 21:15 mark) as a mobile app where

"You push a button and in five minutes a Mercedes picks you up and takes you where you want to go."

Travis doesn't lead with buzzwords like platform and marketplace. Instead, he focuses on just one button and uses vividly specific language to make the outcome extremely appealing. Today, Uber has further simplified it to "Tap a button, get a ride."

The format of both descriptions is the same: "You do X and Y happens." X is the input and Y is the output. This input-output pair matches our intuition about how software works. Simplifying the product as a straightforward input and desirable output creates the sense that it's an ingenious idea.

Facebook and Uber have thousands of features, yet Mark and Travis elevate a single feature above the others, making the product easy to understand, easy to remember, and, most importantly, easy to talk about.

How to promote a feature to lead feature

A product's features are usually highly interconnected, making it hard to know which one to choose. I've found it helpful to think through the user experience chronologically. Find the first, unique feature that's highly desirable to the user and describe it in terms of inputs and outcomes.

If you choose a feature without a clear input, you risk confusing the user. Presenting a feature that other products have invites the terror-inducing question of "why is it different from X?" For example, Facebook allows users to share photos with friends, but if Mark led with this feature, it would beg the question: "Why can't I just use email?"

I'd argue that even the most complex SaaS platforms can be simplified with an illustrative lead feature. But what if your product is the exception? In that case, it's not a good idea to rely on word of mouth to grow your business. If you find it hard to describe, imagine how hard it will be for your customers. In this case, a salesforce might be a more reliable channel.

Tactical or strategic?

It's easy to mistake a one-line description as just another communications tactic. However, crafting this sentence is one of the most strategic decisions a founder can make. If we want our product to be shared by word of mouth, then we must accept that it will likely pass from person to person as a single sentence.

Figuring out this sentence early in the process can focus our product development on the inputs and outputs that really matter and our marketing efforts on helping us enter the right conversations. Seize the opportunity to craft and test single sentences early--before you build something that's too hard to describe.