I've recently been giving two start-ups pro-bono advice on branding, marketing, and public relations. Both start-ups are in the retail sector. But that's where their similarities end. One aspires to provide after-school tutoring to middle school children. The other is a rock-climbing gym with a heavy emphasis on bouldering.

Since I've counseled countless start-ups over the years (note: my son is part of the rock-climbing  gym team), I've devised a five-part, interactive program intended to make sure each new company's strategy is totally bulletproof when it first turn on the lights.

1. Really nail your 10-word elevator speech. If you can't tell me what sets you apart in 10 words or fewer, you've lost me. The single best elevator speech I've ever read was crafted by Ted Birkhahn, a Peppercomm colleague of mine. Seeking to separate a small consulting firm from the likes of Bain, Booz-Allen, and McKinsey, Ted devised: "Disrupt your company before someone else does it for you."

In one swoop, Ted identified:

  1. The problem: Too many organizations are complacent and prone to having their business model disrupted.
  2. The solution: his client specialized in creating disruptive business models that could help any organization beat the competition to the punch.

The elevator pitch was so well received that reporters at the Associated Press, Bloomberg and Reuters used it as the headline of their feature stories about the client. It simply doesn't get any better than that. So, when crafting your elevator speech, think less about you and more about the benefit you'll provide and the philosophy you embrace. At my strategic communications firm, our elevator speech is three words in length: “Listen. Engage. Repeat.” It tells clients as well as prospective clients and employees exactly what differentiates us from others AND what we'll do for them.

2. Use a problem-solution set-up. Start-ups exist to fill a need. So, tell me what it is. Quantify, and qualify, it for me first. Then, tell me your unique solution to the problem or issue. So, in the case of the after-school tutoring service, it might be this, "Seventy-seven percent of moms say they're worried about their sixth grader's science scores. HooverVille (fictitious name) is the only after-school solution that combines the fun of an amusement park with the rigor of a classroom." At my firm, we often cite a recent IBM Consulting Services survey of 1,500 global chief marketing officers that says CMOs are positively drowning in data, and need help to determine what is, and isn't important. By providing a qualitative, one-on-one overlay to the existing data, we're able to provide a solution (and, bring our elevator speech to life, thank you very much): "We'll listen to your audiences, figure out exactly how, and when, you should engage with them and continue to do so moving forward."

3. Master the art of storytelling.  Most start-ups don't understand how to tell their story. It isn't about how three young men sat around in a dorm room late one night, and came up with a variation on an existing algorithm. That story's been told to death. Instead, the media, investors and everyone else wants to hear your story told through the end user's eyes: "Cindy is a 40-something mom who has tried every exercise routine known to man, but finds working out at a gym to be an onerous, time-consuming chore. She's desperately in need of something new that will help her lose weight and entertain her teenaged kids. Rock My World (real name) was the answer to her dreams. Now, she and her kids, boulder three times a week and have become a fitter, happier family as a result."

4. Pinpoint how to reach your audience. I'm thrilled to know you have three distinct target audiences: teens, college kids, and working moms. But, that's not nearly enough to get me to fund your enterprise or, if I'm a reporter, to write about it. Tell me how you intend to reach those audiences. Will you leverage various social-media channels frequented by teens to start a buzz? Or, will you provide free, after-school training for the first two days after opening? Will you use different techniques to reach college kids? Maybe a special discount during rush week? And, what about working moms? Should you drop off flyers at hair salons and supermarkets to reach them? Whatever it is, I really need to know the how. That's why, at Peppercom, we'll use different channels, trade industry media and in-person events to reach very senior prospective clients, as well as those just entering the field (but who could influence a purchase decision).

5. Use a push-pull strategy. I cannot think of a single business that doesn't market to a primary and secondary audience. Most consumer product companies target the mom (since she controls the family purse strings). But, they make sure their messages resonate with the dad (who needs to be comfortable with any decision) and the kids (who need to enjoy, or benefit, from mom's purchase. Marketers call this a push-pull strategy. So, while it's important the climbing gym connects with the primary teen target group, the message also has to resonate with their parents (who provide Johnny and Janie with extra spending money). The same holds true for the after-school science start-up. They'll need to reach moms first, and foremost, to convince them today's investment in their child's knowledge base will pay off in tomorrow's success. But, and it's a huge BUT, their messaging also has to convince kids that an after-school science experience will be cool, hip and worth sharing with their buds on social networks.

One final caveat to any budding entrepreneur: Live La Vida Loca. By that I mean, fully embrace the wonderful world of entrepreneurship. The entrepreneur's road to success is more congested than ever and filled with hazards. And, while there are no guarantees of success, I do guarantee that, by following my five steps, you'll be at least a step--maybe two!--ahead of your competition.