A Guide to Nailing Your Startup's Narrative
December 3, 2021
Why This? Why Us? Why Now?
At Bonfire Ventures, as soon as we close on a new investment, we conduct a series of workshops with our founders to ensure we are all aligned in regards to understanding where the company is today (what is working and what is not) and the proper high-level path to chart for the next 18 to 24 months. This path focuses on the desired outputs (i.e. what is our story at our Series A raise and the metrics to support it) and the required inputs (i.e. product roadmap, operating model, hiring plan, etc). Along with the outputs and inputs, we ask our founders to define their vital few priorities for themselves and their team - these serve as great touchpoints for our weekly check-ins.
Where I like to actually spend the most time by far with our founders during these workshops is around their narrative and ensuring everyone is all-in and psyched around how we describe what it is we do and why this actually matters to their target buyers. Getting this right early is key - you must have a baseline message aimed at a target buyer before you start investing all your millions of seed funding into additional R&D and GTM resources. Otherwise, you may find yourself in product-market-fit hell for way too long. If however, you can make huge strides here - and clearly explain in as few words as possible the following, you will be on your way:
Why This: What do you enable your customer to do that is meaningful to them?
Why Us: How do you do that in a manner that others that others can not / do not?
Why Now: Why is this an urgent consideration/purchase for your customer?
These three questions are core to any startup's success - not just at the seed stage, but at every level of your company's growth.
This is especially true when you start adding significant marketing and sales resources because understanding where you are strong/weak in your “Whys” will enable you to decipher quickly any challenges in pipeline creation and/or conversion challenges:
- If your “Why This” is weak, you will likely not have enough qualified pipeline.
- If your “Why Us” needs work, you will likely have sup-bar win rates vis a vis competition.
- Finally if your “Why Now” is opaque, you will consistently miss forecasts as deals will slip.
The good news is that you do not need to be a Bonfire portfolio company to work through these messaging exercises. I have provided here the template any company can use for their own messaging iterations with some explanation / instructions below for each exercise.
Exercise 1 - What is Your Value Proposition?
“Do New, Do Better, Do More”
1) Before starting this exercise, read this piece.
2) As you fill out the table, do so for no more than two target personas - with ideally the first persona being your target and the second being an influencer to or budget holder for your persona.
3) When you fill out the table, do not write down your product features. Write down what you enable your buyers to do and use simple language with no BS bingo words. Do not be sad if a lot of your value prop is tied to “better” or “more” rows and not as much “new”. Everyone wants to offer ‘new’ but the reality is that’s pretty difficult. It’s also important to understand that if all of the value prop for your offering is new, you are entering category creation land - which, while exciting, is a trickier initial GTM motion to pull off.
4) Once you have completed the table, you must select your top five “do’s” and determine if these are easy for your competitor’s to copy.
5) This exercise is one you should constantly revisit - especially if most of your top “do’s” are more statements. In that case, you should constantly ask yourself “what would I need to build/offer to provide more “better” or “new” do’s to your buyers?”
Exercise 2 - What is your Competitive Differentiation
“Are Your Do’s Better than Others?”
Now that you have determined (in Exercise 1) what you best enable your buyer to do/achieve, let’s use that same lens to look at the competitive alternatives and options to your solution in the market.
1) Pick the top three competitive alternatives (these could be individual vendors or similar grouping of types of vendors) that are most obvious to your target buyer. For each of them, write down the pros and cons from your buyer’s perspectives - specifically - what do they enable the buyer to do and not do with those vendor’s solutions? You can also write down adjectives - i.e. they may enable the same thing as you but it could be far more expensive, far more resource-intensive, far longer to deploy, etc…
2) Next, let’s confirm your solution offers the top three pros that your competitors have but none of the cons/downsides. If you find this exercise difficult to complete in a manner that gives you confidence, consider what you would need to offer in your solution to have a stronger answer for this section.
If you have successfully concluded exercises 1 & 2 - congratulations! You should be able to much more easily make the following statement:
“My solution enables my buyer to do A, B, & C that the buyer cares about, unlike my competitor Y for the following reasons.”
Exercise 3 - Nail your Website’s Home Page Messaging
Three Simple Sentences to Hook your Visitors
With exercises 1 & 2 behind you, now the really hard work begins - primarily because words matter - a lot. It is now time to draft the main messaging for when someone lands on your website for the first time.
I have shared several examples of very successful software companies who have followed the same recipe for getting their wording correct- i.e. how do you quickly explain what you do and why someone should explore your solution now - rather than bounce out and move on to other things.
All of these websites follow the same simple messaging formula:
Headline: One phrase that speaks to what you provide / what you enable/unlock at an organization
Problem About Life (red): One phrase that captures a core problem your buyers face/deal with
Explanation of Your Solution (green): One phrase that explains what you do or what your solution lets users do
Why Life is Better (blue): One phrase that explains simply why life is better after using your solution
Take as much time as you need to write your headline and red/green/blues for your company and its solution. Iterate and iterate until you feel - “that’s it.” The true test is - if you did a press release announcing your seed fundraise and it drove a ton of website traffic, would you be proud of what your website said?
Exercise 4 - Define the Value Urgency of your Product
“What Happens if They Don’t Buy Your Product Now?”
The last exercise is all focused on you nailing the “why-now” part of your value proposition - i.e. why should your buyer feel a compelling need to buy your product sooner rather than later.
The key here is to be the much-needed “painkiller” and to avoid like the plague your buyer perceiving you as a “nice to have” vitamin they can always invest in later.
1) Read this great piece on understanding the proper matrix for business economic value for your buyer. It explains very succinctly the only two metrics that matter - revenue and expense - and your solution’s impact on them. For the record, growing new revenue and saving existing expenses, put you much closer in the painkiller realm.
2) Complete the “purchase urgency” exercise - completing the why this and why us sections first as they should be much easier to fill out based on all the cumulative work you have done in exercises 1-3. Then, complete the why now section in regards to business value impact. Strive to nail down 1 to 2 statements here. Anything more confuses the issue.
3) Conclude by asking yourself a simple question - what happens if your buyer chooses to not invest in your solution? If you have done yeoman’s work here, the answer should be a world of pain indeed!
Final Thoughts / Other Resources
Nailing your narrative will reap huge rewards for all of your company-building activities - including fundraising. Jason Kwok published a terrific piece on this topic and shares our view that “narrative distillation is a core part of company building.” First Round Review also recently published a great similar piece on finding “language/market fit” here.