Are these common messages selling your startup short?

When you’re creating something new that didn’t exist before, it’s tough finding the right words to explain it.

If you’re a founder of an innovative product or business, you’ve probably explained it to people 10, 50, 100 different ways…and still haven’t found the one that feels right.

In a perfect world, the inherent awesomeness of your product would be enough to get people on board. But in the real world of your market — a noisy, crowded and inattentive cluster — you have to help people “get” your product in an instant.

You have to frame its value in a way that makes sense to your target customers. That’s what positioning is all about.

Positioning your startup has never been more critical. As the differences between competing solutions narrow, and more cutting-edge technology springs up, you have to be clear and specific about the value you offer.

Positioning is so powerful, it can make an inferior product look better than a superior one.

Whether you like it or not, the words you use to describe your startup are actively positioning your product. Here are examples of common startup language that may be weakening your positioning and making life harder.

“We’re reimagining x”

Sorry if you’re happily using this one. It sure sounds good — especially if your product is set to shake up the market — but the language isn’t serving you well.

For one, it’s a tired phrase in our age of rapid innovation. But the real problem is it forces the reader to do all the work. It’s on them to picture what your reimagined future for ride-sharing or cyber security looks like. And that’s way too much to ask of any prospect.

“Reimagination” is a vague abstraction. It’s a word you forget in seconds.

Chip and Dan Heath break it down in their seminal book, Made to Stick:

“Concrete language helps people, especially novices, understand new concepts. Abstraction is the luxury of experts. If you’ve got to teach an idea to a room full of people, and you aren’t certain what they know, concreteness is the only safe language.”

Assume your audience are novices. Play it safe and get concrete about your product. What is your most unique feature? How does it answer your ideal customer’s needs and desires or motivations? Sum it up in a sentence a 6th grader could understand.

Communicating that value with concreteness beats their reimagination any day.

“We’re not an X”

Salesforce made history with their positioning of “not software”. It not only helped people over the mental hurdle of cloud-based software but effectively compared itself to cumbersome software — and came out the winner.

Positioning your new solution against a well-known existing solution can be a great idea — but only if your product benefits from the comparison.

For example, I worked with a startup who offered a new online reading experience that removed many distractions, including ads. Some people thought they were an ad-blocker. The startup hated that comparison, so they defined themselves as “not an ad-blocker.”

This only cemented their positioning as a player in the ad-blocker space. People met them with ad-blocker expectations — like, they’re free. Well, this startup’s service wasn’t free, so they quickly lost the ad-blocker battle.

We reframed the product as a new reading experience — this jived better with their readability features — and positioned it against the cluttered, junky online reading experience we typically have to endure. Free of ad-blocker baggage, users were more willing to consider the value.

When you haven’t clearly positioned your product, you may find it getting lumped in with related types of products and this can cast a negative light on yours.

If you compare yourself to other solutions, make sure your product comes out on top.

“We’re the Uber of X”

This one is everywhere, including on the top of my s*** list. Not because it doesn’t work. Sometimes, it can be useful to quickly convey what your startup does by comparing it to a well-established player in another market.

But it never goes deeper than that. Has anyone ever gotten more than a “huh” out of someone with this statement? I doubt it.

This positioning is so ubiquitous that many startups waste time trying to fit themselves into a comparison that sells their real value and uniqueness short.

I worked with an amazing purpose-driven startup that helps companies connect with diverse candidates for their board seats. Their mission was to modernize board searches and promote gender diversity.

Their CEO was working on an investor deck and wrestling with a comparison to Expedia. It worked for the angle of “many different candidates at your fingertips” but it lacked their purpose and greater vision.

We took a deeper look at their value and realized they were opening access to a world that was traditionally behind closed doors — and very expensive.

The Expedia comparison missed all that important, differentiating goodness.

So rather than waste more than 15 minutes trying to find your comparison solution, try a freer way to associate the value of your product and what it can do.

Brainstorm as many analogies and metaphors for your product as possible. Think about how your product fits into your customers’ lives — the outcomes, benefits and overarching value.

  • Other types of tools (eg, the Swiss Army Knife for customer care)
  • What you’re against (eg, anti-cable clutter for wireless mirroring)
  • A made up thing (eg, the magic wand of meal planning)
  • A random metaphor (eg, sherpas of email list growth)

We’re a consumer subscription-based service / a peer-to-peer platform etc…

When you’re trying to explain something clearly, it makes sense to start at the beginning. So many startups introduce themselves with the technical basics:

  • A monthly subscription service that…
  • A peer-to-peer platform that…
  • A cloud-based application that…

Don’t waste your product’s first impression on the technical stuff. The nature of your platform or business model is how you deliver the value, but it’s not the value itself.

Your customers might not even know what a peer-to-peer platform is. On the other hand, you run the risk of people thinking: “oh great, just what the world needs — another monthly subscription service.”

These details can wait. First, tell people what you can do for them. If the value is compelling, they’ll stick around to learn more about your tech.

Positioning for the best chance of success

Being close to a product and knowing it inside-out can make positioning even harder.

Many founders start with a vision that puts their product in one place. And over time, it quietly develops into a new space that requires a new positioning.

Changing your positioning can feel emotional. But it doesn’t change your product — it merely changes its perception. That can be the difference between people getting pumped about your product or just scratching their head and moving on.

A new positioning is often a sign of growth. Embrace it with open arms.