Every startup begins as an idea, and success requires translating that idea into a great product and a great sales pitch. But which should come first? Should you wait until you’ve built and launched your product before you begin hyping your concept?
The answer depends on who you’re pitching to. Start selling to customers long before your product is complete, because that allows you to incorporate their feedback and create something you know they’ll want to buy. Investors, on the other hand, will be much more receptive to a pitch if you have something tangible to show them.
This is a delicate balance to walk, because you may need funding from investors to finish your product. But the closer you can get it to the finish line beforehand, the better your pitch will go over. Yes, that means you should bootstrap it as far as you can before looking for outside capital.
No matter how strongly you believe in the concept behind your startup, trying to sell something that doesn’t exist yet feels awkward.
You might have a detailed, realistic business plan. You may have identified a clear pain point and come up with a fantastic solution. You might have a stellar team with the know-how to build a seamless product.
And yet still, when you try to tell people how great it’s going to be, part of you feels like the monorail guy from The Simpsons.
So lots of founders assume it’s always easier to pitch a product once it’s finished. In reality, it depends on who you’re selling to.
It can actually be much easier to get your prospective customers excited about an idea before it exists in the real world.
Present people with a concept that aims to solve a real problem they’re experiencing, and they’ll be eager to offer suggestions about what they’d like to see from your product. And they’ll happily point out flaws you’ve overlooked.
You can incorporate those suggestions and concerns into your pitch, and realign your vision on the fly to match what customers actually want.
Once you launch, though, you have to sell people on the product as it is. If they don’t like something about it, you need to convince them they actually love it.
Or else you have to go back and change something you’ve already sunk time and money into.
It’s also harder to get honest feedback when people are looking at a finished product.
Ever go to see a terrible student film one of your friends made?
If so, you probably felt hesitant to give a harsh critique. After all, it took them months of hard work to shoot and edit! If they’d showed you the script beforehand, you might have felt more comfortable giving notes.
The same principle applies when pitching to customers.
This all points back to something we’ve emphasized over and over in these posts: talk to the people you’re expecting to buy your product, as often and as early as you can.
The first version of your idea is almost never the one that will strike a chord. So figure out early on what you need to revise.
The opposite advice applies when it comes to investors. You’re asking them to put their money on the line, not just make suggestions. That’s much easier to do when they can see what they’re paying for.
When you come to investors with something that’s already built, launched, and attracting customers, it’s like you’re asking them to chip in gas money in exchange for a ride. All that’s left to discuss is how much fuel you need and how far you can get with it.
But when you’re pitching an idea alone, you’re asking for the money to build the car before they can get where they want to go. That’s a tougher sell.
Create as much of the product as possible before seeking investment. A prototype, a partially functional demo, or even a basic mockup will be much better than just a concept.
Of course, sometimes you really do need to look for funding based just on your inspiration.
In that case, you’ll need to emphasize your expertise, your market research, and your passion for the idea. Convince investors that you’re motivated and prepared to create something great with their money.
There’s another kind of pitch that doesn’t get talked about as much in startup circles: the conversations with people in your personal circle about what you’re working on.
These usually aren’t pitches in the traditional sense, but they’re a real part of any entrepreneur’s life. When you’re struggling to make your dream a reality, the support and encouragement of those close to you can make a real difference.
As a startup founder, chances are you’re an idea person, always coming up with possibilities for new ventures. Your family and friends have probably seen you get excited about lots of past projects, many of which haven’t worked out.
So when you mention your latest brainwave, they may not be as excited as you are. And that can be demoralizing. Those conversations will go much better if you’ve actually made something beforehand.
Does that mean you shouldn’t talk to anyone you know about what you’re working on until it’s finished?
No. But you may want to keep it within your inner circle until you’re a bit farther along in the process.
And consider waiting a little while before discussing any new idea, even with those closest to you. Let the first rush of enthusiasm wear off before you say anything.
If your inspiration is still strong a few weeks later, you might have something real on your hands.
Ultimately, it will always feel easier to pitch a complete product than a concept. Don’t let that stop you from reaching out to potential customers in the early stages.
Get feedback. Generate buzz. And bootstrap as much as you can before going to investors.
That will give your idea the best possible shot at becoming a reality.