The value of diagrams

I’m surprised at how few diagrams I see in presentations. Perhaps this is an artifact of PowerPoint – it’s so easy to import a few photos and punch in a bunch of bullet points. I realized this recently when mentoring an MIT electrical engineer who was describing his product concept, which is very visual in nature and has a very definite process flow. Why talk about it when you can show me with a diagram or flow chart?

So much in business and especially startups is dynamic – not static. A flow chart or diagram that illustrates, for example, your product roadmap, is much more powerful than a stack of bulleted text. It can be marked up, annotated, kept as a historical record, used in a patent application, etc.  Even consider doing it an an oversize sheet of paper, like 11″ x 14″ or bigger so it can be laid out on a table and presented to a group that way. You can always photograph it to get it into your smartphone or laptop.

Diagrams can represent connections, relationships, details, and highlight what’s most important. Diagrams can be walked through with a laser pointer or even a finger.

Don’t be afraid to do these by hand. One of the most successful entrepreneurs I know, Bill Warner, founder of Avid Technology and Wildfire, and prominent angel investor, hated PowerPoint and did his presentations by hand. This was some years ago, but I remember two things, no one would mistake Bill for an art school graduate and the drawings ended up on the computer in a presentation program, regardless of how they were drawn.

So don’t be afraid to sketch out your ideas with pencil and paper and scan your final result into Keynote or PowerPoint or Google Docs or whatever you use to present or communicate your ideas.  And maybe try to make friends with an art student who can turn your sketch into a more polished drawing if that’s what you need for an important presentation.

And don’t forget real time diagramming – white boarding. Again, I’m very surprised by how few whiteboards I see in some entrepreneurs’ offices and how rare it is for entrepreneurs to leave their chair in the middle of a mentoring session to get up and draw on the white board.

Way back in the last century, well before mainframe computers were even common, I had to take mechanical drawing in public school. I really think art and drawing need to be
re-introduced into education, even if the drawing skill ends up being applied to commerce, not art.

Vision and Mission

Back in the late 1980’s when I co-founded my first company there was a trend that companies not only had “missions”, they also had “visions.”

I still remember the vision and mission of Microsoft!

Vision: There will be a PC on every desk and in every home

Mission: To have Microsoft software running on every one of those PCs

Those were great until mobile arrived and perhaps that mission was even a contributor to Microsoft missing out on the move to mobile and smartphones.

So at the suggestion of our CFO, George Pilla, we created both a vision and a mission for Course Technology, Inc., an educational publishing company.  It’s been 27 years since then, so my memory of both is rather foggy, but the vision was something like:

Technology will have a major beneficial impact on higher education. 

Our mission was something like:

To publish technology-based products that help teachers teach and students learn more effectively.

I’ve found the idea of vision has gone away, but startups – both for-profit and especially NPOs – are still fixated on having a mission. I have no problems with missions, but I have one simple test: you should be able to call and wake up anyone in your company at 3 a.m. and ask them to recite the mission. If they can’t do it – usually because it’s too long and complicated – go back to the whiteboard. When I joined Thomson, now Thomson Reuters, their mission went on for pages. I doubt anyone could even recite the first paragraph.

I have a formula that I like to see in mission statements:

The mission of ABC Corp. is to help [your customers] to achieve [solve the problem or seize the opportunity your company was created for in the first place.] by [providing whatever distinguishes your product or service.]

I see to many mission statements that are missing people altogether! These inward-facing mission statements are going to inhibit the company from developing its customer base.

So what good does having a mission do? It can be the first step in creating the corporate culture and help define the company to stakeholders: staff, Board, advisors, partners, etc. It may well be necessary, but it’s far from sufficient. More about corporate culture in another post.

Why you?

The three most important elements in presenting a company are: what problem are you solving for whom? What is your solution? and Why are you the person or team to do it?

I’m finding, especially with the non-profits organizations (NPOs) that I’m just starting to mentor that they often tend to forget question three.

As a social impact or benefit entrepreneur your bio is a very important part of any marking communications: from LinkedIn, to a one-page executive summary, to a full blown pitch deck. Don’t sell yourself short. As my mother used to tell me, if you won’t toot your own horn, who will?  (Actually I played the trumpet in those days so ..) The key, as it is in many contexts is relevancy. Where you went to school is not likely to be relevant unless you are head of a healthcare NPO and you went to medical school. Most important are:

  1. your accomplishments
  2. your expertise
  3. your experience
  4. why you are passionate about this project

Bios short be short profiles, not resumes. Just the highlights. The goal is to make it clear that if the audience buys into the problem, buys into your solution, they then buy into you. Otherwise they may say thanks, great idea but we don’t think you’re quite the right person for it and they go find someone else who they think is.

Capture their imaginations …

and their wallets will follow. Another variation on this theme is capture their hearts and minds and their wallets will follow. I think I first heard a version of this from Frank Ingari, then a Lotus Development executive.

I’m convinced that most audiences – investors included – decide with their guts and then use their minds to justify/rationalize their decisions. So I urge entrepreneurs to focus not so much on such business concepts such as TAM (Total Addressable Market) and the lifetime value of a customer, but what it is that they are doing and how that will capture the imaginations of their audience. Then follow up with the numbers and the hard facts that back up your business case. But lead with that stuff, you’ll lose your audience’s attention.

Operational definitions

I find that entrepreneurs often use very vague techy terms in their communications, like “vertically integrated software.” What does that mean?

When I run across an example like that I suggest that when communicating about your product, use operational definitions: a process or operation whose end result can be measured.

For example, “we plan to provide an open API to our application” or “our application will be based in the cloud, using Amazon, Google or Microsoft.”

Wikipedia goes much further, but I’d say my definition is simpler, and agree that yes, the procedure or process “should be repeatable by anyone or at least peers.” That’s a key component of the scientific method, of course.

An operational definition is a result of the process of operationalization and is used to define something (e.g. a variable, term, or object) in terms of a process (or set of validation tests) needed to determine its existence, duration, and quantity.[1][2] Since the degree of operationalization can vary itself, it can result in a more or less operational definition.[3] The procedures included in definitions should be repeatable by anyone or at least by peers.

The name game

1. You can get away almost with anything IF you are a consumer facing company. But if you are  B2B and you want to be taken seriously, having a weird name like Flooozze might hurt you.
2. There are several ways to get a name:
– buy a good one. Not an option for most startups, as good names are expensive.
-compound two words, ideally at least one of which is evocative of what you do: SnapChat, WealthFront, NerdWallet, Instagram, VenPrax, etc.  It seems like one of the most common techniques.
-misspell an existing word, e.g. “Google”
-make up a word, like eBay
-use prefixes like “i”, “e” “x” with a real word.
3. Add one of the many standard high tech suffixes to a word or word stem, like “works”, “sphere”, “kick”, “scape”, etc.
There are probably many other techniques.
My suggested criteria for a good name are:
1. Short – this name will be typed thousands of times by staff, customers, prospects, analysts, etc.. – you don’t want people getting typos and having their email bounce or getting a “page not found” error in their browser
2. Easy to pronounce – though this gets broken all the time, e.g. “Drync”  which I assume is pronounced like “drink” but I have no idea
3. Easy to spell – see #1
4. Available as a url/domain
5. Can be trademarked OR at least does not infringe on an existing trademark
6. Does not get confused with an existing company. Mainspring continually got confused with “Mindspring” an Atlanta ISP. (Mindspring was a good name, so was Mainspring…)
7. Does not have a bad connotation in common foreign languages (you can’t check every one obviously). Classic example is the Chevy Nova, “No va” meaning “doesn’t go” in Spanish.
8. Helps if it has some connotation about what you do: Amazon, worlds’ biggest river; Google, googol – very, very large number; Facebook was the name of the printed directory of Harvard freshmen.
9. Memorable – word of mouth is the best form of promotion so if people can remember your name, pronounce it correctly, and it’s easy to spell that really helps
10. Avoid totally descriptive names like “Software Publishing Company” for at least two reasons; one, most startups change what they do as they grow, you don’t want a name that no longer reflects your main business, and two, generic names are useless for search optimization.
11. Does not get confused with another, similar word. A lot of people thought my fourth VC-backed company was “Thoughtline”, not Throughline. Throughline was NOT a good name. These naming guidelines have been learned the hard way!
So how do you get a name when all the good ones are gone?
1. Hold a few brainstorming sessions where you list tons or terms that are evocative of what you do or maybe just sound good. Then you start mixing and matching pre-fixes and suffixes. Breaking up words, respelling them, mashing them up and so on.
2. Go through a very long list of existing companies, like the TechCrunch database and see if you can modify an existing name to conform to the above criteria. Or just to get inspired.
3. Testing! It’s very, very important that whatever you choose you run by a lot of people who are NOT your friends! Because it is strangers you are trying to reach and friends want to like what you are doing and won’t tell you that your name sucks.
At the end of the day plenty of companies with odd  or boring names, like eBay or Borland Software, were very successful. You’ll make the name valuable, not the other way around.
If  you believe you need a name before creating a legal entity, I recommend you start with a working title, that could simply be your name and what you do “Smith Data Visualization Software.” Even after you incorporate you can change the name or do a DBA (Doing Business As.”

“…kind of a breakthrough…”

I just watched on YouTube a successful entrepreneur, who I’m sure is a very experienced presenter, speak at TechCrunch.

It surprised me when he characterized his product as “kind of a breakthrough.”

Be wary of modifiers! Your product is either a breakthrough or it isn’t. One would hope the developer would both think it is and say that it is.

Very unique” is one of my pet peeves. “Unique” is a binary state, like “pregnant”  – you are or you aren’t. No such thing as “very pregnant, somewhat pregnant”, etc. Something is unique, or it isn’t.



being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else:

I was told by two entrepreneurs that the other mentor and I were very sensitive about language – this after watching their presentation and giving them feedback. And they were right, we were and I am. Much of what entrepreneurs do involves communications and much of communications is language. So when you review your presentation, don’t just review every slide, review every word. Because every word counts. Every word needs to justify its existence in your presentation.