Almost all young people and at least 80% of the first-time entrepreneurs I’ve met have deep misconceptions that keep them from being successful because they don’t know how to make their new ideas resonate with other people. During college and my first job afterward, I was no exception. For me to make my projects make sense consistently to new audiences, it took myriad discussions with my mentor and supervisor of the time, Todd Hughes, before we could put an effective process to words:
Sell the problem, not the solution.
The aspiring technology leader’s tendency is to do this backward, in part since in academia maximum emphasis is placed on solutions in the way homework and publications are written. In the real world however, the priorities are reversed, and this can be surprising even to those with expert training in the art of making convincing arguments. Todd had a PhD in Philosophy. Loving logic and rational reasoning, he went on to work for infamously-less-successful-than-everyone-hoped company called Cycorp to join their vision “to create the world’s first true artificial intelligence, having both common sense and the ability to reason with it” via lots and lots of hand-written logical rules. Cyc was supposed to be a do-anything machine, which led to the question, so what does it do… that is of value? I don’t have an answer, nor does anyone else in any long-term sense, it seems. What I learned from Todd, years after he left CyCorp, is that something is wrong with your project if people can’t internalize what you’re saying and why it matters, in a concrete way, with no hand waiving. When you love your idea, it’s hard to admit you’re facing this issue… and even harder to think your way out of it alone.
Like many technologists, we first realized that it is easier to find a customer if you can start with a “problem” and then work backward to a technology. For example, pretend it’s a couple hundred years ago, and someone comes up to you saying one of these two things:
- I’ve got this box that compresses fluids in a heat exchange cycle with the environment so as to become cold inside the box. You can chill anything with it, and there’s nothing else like it.
- You know how food spoils when left at room temperature? But how in the cold of winter, it keeps longer? I’ve got this box that keeps food cold as winter, all year around, and it fits in your kitchen.
If the first statement is more appealing to you than the second, then you’re an “innovator” in the parlance of the book Crossing the Chasm. Such people are a tiny fraction of the total potential market for a product, but most scientists, engineers, and specialists of every sort are trained to think and speak like that in school about their core expertise. In an attempt to force persons trained as such to “speak to the rest of us” more like the second bullet, a former director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency put together a list of questions that came to be called the Heilmeyer Catechism. They’re basically what you need to answer to write an elevator pitch.
Todd first had the idea to put these questions into a table 8 years ago, and I use this technique to this day. Write them as column headings in a spreadsheet, then give each aspect of your project or or nugget of your technology a name on a row. If you are really careful to answer the questions of such a ‘Heilmeyer Table’ as they are intended (don’t repeat yourself eight times in a row!), you’ll be amazed at how clearly you can explain every aspect of your project… and how easily you can construct statements like the second one above. Part of the reason for the clarity is that separating your thoughts out into rows and columns relieves your brain of keeping track of all the details. Part of the reason is that you have to learn to speak different ways to respond properly to each question. And the final part of the reason is that empty cells in the table expose important areas of your project you haven’t thought about, yet. I have used such spreadsheets to write 60 page project proposals in short amounts of time (a week or two) that are precisely clear and coherent in and between every section by simply explaining the relationships between the cells of spreadsheet in every paragraph. (If you want help learning how to construct a good table and using it to write funding proposals or business plans, contact me via the tab, above.)
But Also Be Irrational
Great, so now you’ve got a logical description of all aspects of your project, and you know to explain the problem in order to interest people in your solution. There’s a catch. In Todd’s words, “Sometimes presenting a rational idea is a nonstarter because people don’t always think rationally.” When selling a new idea, a good leader understands the biases of his audience about views on the problem and of how they expect people to talk about it. For preserving food, maybe it’s more about reducing waste or reducing trips to the market or getting sick from mold or an issue of speaking with enthusiasm or being someone they trust. In my experience, you’re better off pitching to the one of these biases (again, not the solution!) your audiences cares the most about than explaining all the other problems you can solve, too. It’s hard to let that supporting evidence go, but if you are speaking to multiple problems, it can be as confusing to the audience as not explaining any problem you’ve solved at all (think again about the way I didn’t explain Cyc, and neither does the Wikipedia entry on it, either).
When I say “be irrational”, I mean take psychology into account. For example, when explaining a problem in order to solicit ideas from your team, be careful about explaining it in a way that only leaves one conclusion, yours. People have little choice but to conform in such situations, so either do this on purpose to get them to go along with you or go back to the fully rational approach of just putting the situation in front of them so that they can draw their own conclusions. Also, understand that people make illogical choices even when they have full information, as best explained in recent books like “How We Decide” and “The Invisible Gorilla”. One needs to understand how people are systematically illogical in their decision making in order to craft winning messages.
And Then Both
No one likes to wait for you to get the point, so the best situation is the one where you can explain that you understand a problem to a decision maker who already cares about this problem. This brings up two final issues on the topic of making your idea make sense to people,
- 1. Again in Todd’s words, “Strive to be rational, but understand that others not.” We all start out with misconceptions about our ideas and how to present them. This is why we have to talk to lots of people and have thick skin.
2. Sometimes, even all of this still won’t always be enough. Every problem has a solution, but sometimes that’s to deny the problem. In other words, you can’t sell every idea to every person, so the rational solution is not about them, it’s about you: either find a different idea or sell it to different people.
These two points are the part that was the most counter-intuitive to me as I emerged from the worlds of academia and engineering. It’s easiest to launch a company by starting with figuring out a market you know you how to reach. Markets don’t just happen by accident. Understand, step-by-step, how you will reach actual individuals, and don’t assume you’ll be able to just hire some magic marketing person to do it for you. Then find the problem they share. Then figure out the technology that solves it. Todd agrees: some of his associates’ companies have great technologies but equally great difficulty in making business of their businesses because they can’t relate their solutions to the underlying, biased desires of a reachable audience.
So if you’ve got a great technical idea, figure out how to say the problem rationally, then irrationally, perhaps in a table that lets you compare doing so for one reachable group versus another. And remember, in the words of J.C. Herz, “when you share information, you don’t lose power, you gain leverage.” You can talk to people about your wording of a “problem” without giving away any proprietary or patentable information about how you’ll solve it (see again the second bullet about the cold box, above). When you can easily find people who resonate consistently with the way you put it, you’ll feel great because you can rest assured your solution is actually valuable to more people than just yourself. Revel in that moment, and good luck!