We all think that people make decisions based on rational numbers, but that’s not how humans work. How can you find a way to tap into the emotional side and deliver clean messaging that is memorable? In this episode, John Livesay, aka The Pitch Whisperer, talks to actor-turned-experienced startup founder, investor, and speaker Scott Brown. Scott reveals how he helps founders sound human and effectively deliver their message to their audience, may it be investors, employees, or customers. He touches on the challenges of building a company and how the founder of a startup is not the hero. Scott also discusses how trying to solve a problem and being able to communicate your solution is at the core of the game.
Listen To The Episode Here:
(C)lean Messaging With Scott Brown
Our guest is Scott Brown. Scott Brown is a former actor turned entrepreneur, having started eight companies over the past years. From topical analgesics to bounced emails, Scott’s background is diverse, to say the least. Scott is the Executive Director of UpRamp, which leads ventures and startup engagement for the global connectivity industry in Boulder. He has the dubious honor of spending $2.5 million on the 21st worst Super Bowl ad in history. As an active advisor, investor and author, Scott shares his unique blend of startup, grit, technology and clean messages with startups around the world. He’s also credited with inventing the world’s first bacon-wrapped tot. Scott, welcome to the show.
John, thanks so much. This is going to be a lot of fun.
It is indeed. I like to ask my guests to take us back to their own story of origin. For you, it can be childhood or college, whatever it was. You were a former actor, that might be an interesting place to start, then we want to know how that pivot became an entrepreneur experience.
It’s a funny story. I was in beautiful Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the early ‘90s. I had come in to do I think Henry V. I’m there and I got invited to this fabulous dinner party. I’m hanging out and we’re drinking and talking and I met this guy who had invented a new topical analgesic, this pain-relieving gel made out of red peppers. I’m talking to this guy and we’re drinking, laughing and having a great time. About 2:00 in the morning, he says, “Scott, I think you could help me sell this.” I’m like, “Yeah.” Lo and behold, the next day he calls me and says, “I was serious.” I’m like, “All right.” We wrote this little deal on the back of a napkin and it turned out the previous summer, I did a season at another Shakespeare festival and one of the board members happened to be the CEO of a large pharmaceutical company. Six months later, we sold the patent rights and now this thing is in every Walgreens in the world. I went from being an actor to an entrepreneur through dumb luck and happenstance.
It’s fascinating to me because I love to double click on this concept that following our passions will lead to success, even if we don’t have an exact step-by-step roadmap of how it’s going to happen. Being in the right place at the right time is something we’ve been taught as kids but there’s something besides dumb luck involved. It has to do with energy, purpose and alignment. Can you speak about that?
There’s something about the magic of happenstance, those happy accidents that happen in your life. When I look back, all of the amazing and great things that have happened to me are all attributed to leaning into those happy accidents. When that happens, great things can come about. That’s how I met my beautiful bride. It’s how I started my companies. Everything falls from moving into those opportunities as they appear.
I have to ask about creating a bacon-wrapped tot. I know what a tater tot is. I’ve seen bacon wrapped around little hotdogs sometimes in the Midwest where I’m from as well. That was considered fancy appetizers in my day. Tell us how you created this.
The bacon-wrapped tot is the culmination of human cuisine. Bacon and a tater tot, it’s the most perfect thing ever. It happened at a random restaurant here in Colorado. I was out with a number of startup founders. We were trying to come up with the best food ever and I stumbled on the bacon-wrapped tot. I convinced the restaurant to make it right there, they did and it’s on their menu as The Scott.
Going back a little bit to the Shakespeare launching you into the entrepreneur thing, you’ve got some food named after you. You’ve also been called Hamlet, the entrepreneur, I’m assuming that ties in somehow to your Shakespeare background?
There are amazing stories in Hamlet. It’s probably one of the greatest works of art ever written in the English language. I probably go back and read it once a year. One of the things that I found in that, is that most of the lessons we need as entrepreneurs as startup founders, as business people, it’s all buried inside that text. We could do an hour on Hamlet as entrepreneur.
Let’s talk about this whole concept, especially for people in the tech world, I love this phrase, “What if your message was as clean as your code?” You created something called (C)lean Messaging, but you put the letter C in parentheses. You’re trying to separate the word clean and lean, I’m guessing. Tell us how you came up with (C)lean Messaging while also using that double play on words.
I’ve spent the last years building my own company, as an advisor, investor and mentor to a number of startup founders around the world and one of the things we found is that the tools we have developed to figure out what to build, have changed the dynamic. The Lean Startup methodology that Eric Ries put out, build, measure, iterate, all of that stuff. It helped us figure out the what, then we had great tools to figure out who the value prop canvas to help us figure out who we’re building this thing for.
What I found in talking to these entrepreneurs is that they would get through that phase and then stop. They would have this brilliant idea, they knew what they were building, who they were building for. They’d go out to the market and try to sell it or try to find investors and then complain twelve months later that there was no market for their product. 42% of founders after the fact, say they shut down their company because there was no market but how could that be true? Nobody starts a business knowing there are no customers. We all do the work, we do that customer discovery.
What I figured out was that these founders were taking all of the information they gathered in those amazing customer discovery conversations and interviews. Repeating it back to random people, to customers or potential customers and all of that great data they got about the what, ends up hurting them when it comes to the why. That’s why I built (C)lean Messaging, it’s a framework that helps startup founders talk to humans. It’s the next evolution of that lean startup methodology, the what, the who, and now this is the why.
Can you give us a little story of how someone you worked with has used (C)lean Messaging?
I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of interesting founders but there’s a group in New York City, a young startup company called Mutable. These guys have the most incredible technology, some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. They’ve done good work to figure out how to take all of these data centers that exist around the world and put little computers inside of them to run hyperlocal low latency edge compute and when they sat down and told me that, I thought, “That’s cool.” Except, nobody understands what that means.
We got together with the founders of Mutable and worked through their product to try to figure out how to talk about this to real people. What we found is that first, I had an amazing origin story about the way the company was founded and how their team grew. Origin stories are great when you’re talking to investors who want to join your journey, but they start to fall down a little bit when you’re talking to customers. When these guys talk to customers, they talk about the experience that other people have after using their product, rather than talking about themselves. They talk about how webpages load 30% faster when they’re running on the system. They talk about how large service providers are generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, rather than paying the taxes and the rent on the data centers they own.What if your message was as clean as your code? The goal of a pitch is to be memorable. It is about the listener not about you. Click To Tweet
One of the mistakes that I see founders make when they make a pitch is treating an investor like a customer and they’re pitching them as if they want them to buy the service or start using it, thinking somehow that’s going to make them want to invest. Do you see that often? If so, how do you help them change that?
It’s subtle. Because an investor and I’m one, we want to understand how the product works and we want to see that founder as if they’re talking to a real human being, contrary to popular belief, most investors are also human beings. There is something cool about seeing a great pitch from a great founder talking as if they’re talking to a real customer and observing that in process. At the same time, an investor, they’re looking for slightly different things but they’re going to make that decision the same way that a customer makes the decision. We’ve got to move that elephant first, we’ve got to hit them in the gut, change their intuition first and let that lead to judgment. Eventually, lead them to the data or the words to help them describe why they’ve made that decision.
A lot of people say, “You get ten minutes to pitch an Angel group or an investor.” I tell people, “You have 90 seconds. You need to grab them at the beginning.” Do you have a favorite pitch that you’ve heard that said, “The minute that founder opened their mouth, I was in?”
There are so many good ones out there.
You only have ten minutes, and every word has to earn its spot. Do not waste time with cliché openings like, “Thanks for this opportunity. I’m excited to be here.”
Anytime I see a pitch that starts with, “Hi, I’m Bill. I’m the CEO and Founder of X.” Shoot me in the head. You’ve wasted the first 30 seconds of the conversation and that was the most critical. What I tell people is that the best way to start, the best way to lead in is to lead with the listener. Start with the person that you’re talking to and then follow up with how you can change their life rather than saying, “I’m Scott and this is what I do.” You could start with, “There are people like you who have this big problem and I’ve invented a way to fix it.”
Do you specialize in a particular industry that you’d like to invest in? I’ve had a lot of investors like, “I want to do mobile. I only do artificial intelligence.”
Most of the work that I do as an investor is around B2B. I’ve figured out after failing miserably at Super Bowl ads that I’m good at enterprise deals and how to talk to businesses and how to find solutions that solve big problems for companies. There’s something that I look for in a business like that, it’s a little different, and it’s not just about a product that you’re going to sell to other businesses. What I like to invest in companies that have figured out something about humans that nobody else knows, it could be in the buying process, it could be a problem or a challenge that a human has that nobody else has identified yet. I look for that human element in a B2B business.
You referenced the Super Bowl commercial. Everyone watches those commercials. Tell us the story there, I’m sure it’s a good one and any lessons learned?
That was my first venture-backed company and at that time, I believed what all of our venture investors said. This was 1999, in those heavy times, we believed that it was all about getting users and we could worry about revenue later.
Facebook was like that, right?
There are businesses that do work that way. Most companies are a lemonade stand, build something that people want and sell it for more than it cost to make and then do that over and over, that’s how it should work. At the time in ‘99, we thought if we get a lot of eyeballs, we get a lot of users, then money will come later or we’ll IPO before there’s a real revenue. We went hard at it and built a large company, 150 people, raised a bunch of venture capital. We had a tough decision to make in that winter of ‘99. We had an opportunity to do a Super Bowl ad and we pulled together the ad and the money. We had a big board meeting and all agreed that we were going to do it.
In the fourth quarter of that Super Bowl, February of 2000, if you recall, that was the Titans and the St. Louis Rams at the time. The game was close and they’re in that fourth quarter. There were still people watching the game and therefore watching the commercials. Our commercial hit and you had a huge spike of users and people signed up. It was successful by those standards, but of course nobody gave us a dime. Within a couple of months, we had to shut the business down and had to move on. I am on a list now. It is known as the 21st worst Super Bowl ad in history, and at least I got that going for me.
You made the top 30. You also travel the country speaking. Who is your ideal audience and what takeaways do you give them?
There are two groups that I talk to a lot, the first obviously are startup founders. For those founders out there could be around an accelerator or offense targeting startup founders, it’s about how do you find that message? How do you talk about what you’ve built in a way that will help people understand it and buy? It’s tactical, oftentimes about the (C)lean Messaging framework that we bring out there. I’ve been doing a lot more talking to innovation experts and government, strangely enough.
I happened to do a presentation in the beautiful Sunshine Coast in Australia. I was doing a whole session on messaging and afterward, this lovely gentleman came up to me and he said, “I’m the local representative on the council here in the Sunshine Coast.” This messaging idea, this idea of (C)lean Messaging, not only applies to startup founders and entrepreneurship but I bet we could use this to help figure out how to talk about the new initiatives we’re trying to help our region with.
I’m thinking you would be ideal in front of anybody caring about green messaging. If you’re talking about a clean environment and green, clean messaging and the problems because many people feel like, “That’s going to be expensive and you want me to get rid of all these products under my kitchen sink that might be toxic.” If anybody needs help with clean messaging about a clean product, it’s that industry. I know you like to play with words as I do with lean and clean. To me, that seems like a nice fit to help.
I’m all in, ScottBrown.co.
We’ve talked about what makes a good opening. Closing your pitch is as important as a good opening. I can’t tell you how many people will end their pitch with, “That’s all we got. Any questions?” I want to cry. What do you recommend people say at the end of their pitch?
It varies for every single pitch. For me, it’s important to remember that the goal of a great pitch, at least in my mind, obviously you have content you need to deliver but more importantly, it’s about being remembered. Somehow a decision is going to be made. If you’re talking to an investor, that investor has a partner meeting seven days from now, on a Monday afternoon partner meeting. If they don’t remember what it is you were talking about or what your business does, then it doesn’t matter. It’s the same thing with a customer. They’re going to have all of this great stuff and take all of your printouts and your pieces of paper, set them on their desk and they will not read them. Your job, in those meetings, conversations and opportunities, is to help that person remember you. If you can find short, easy, clean ways of communicating your message that are accurate also memorable, then you’ve won.
I tell people if you tug at people’s heartstrings, you can get them to open their purse strings.
It’s like, “What if your message was as clean as your code?” For a technical founder, they strive every day to polish that rock and make their code as perfect as possible. They don’t think about how they message or talk about their company. Something like that, message is clean as your code, goes right into that long-term memory for a startup founder.
The other thing is sense of urgency. I feel that when people are pitching, they have to answer two questions which are, why are they uniquely qualified to execute the idea and why is now the perfect time to do it? Do you have any thoughts around that?Nobody starts a business knowing there are no customers. Click To Tweet
That’s right on but you’ve got to lead with that. Too often, people put that stuff at the end, “Here’s all of the stuff. Here’s the history of the internet. Here’s the thing I’ve built,” then after they get through a bunch of other stuff, “Here’s a little bit about the team.” Especially in a seed stage funding opportunity, it’s about the team first and then the problem or the market that you’re trying to solve for and then about the product. As founders, we spent so much time building the product that we want to talk about and we forget that the decision is going to be based on, are you the right people to fill a need in this big market and do you have something interesting to do? That something interesting is further down the road.
What’s the one takeaway you want people to get from reading your book, (C)lean Messaging?
The thing I tell people often is that building a company is hard. It’s difficult and we have to invest a lot of time, energy, blood, sweat and tears to figure out what to build, but once you go out into the world, sadly, nobody cares. You have to remember as a startup founder that when you are talking to other people, it’s about them and not about you. Your message, the story that you tell, the big interesting clean messages that you build have to be focused on the listener. They will then imagine what their life is like after using your product.
I’m constantly telling people, “When you tell a story, you’re not the hero of the story, your client is.” You might be a Sherpa and someone climbing on a mountain or Yoda in Star Wars, but it’s not all about you, which is why we’re on the same page, from the same mom.
Brothers from another mother. There is something cool about this, this idea that you’re not the hero. That is absolutely true, especially when you’re talking to customers. There is an opportunity where you are the hero and that’s when you start to get into a deeper conversation with investors or potential employees. There, you want those listeners to join your journey, to join the journey of your company. You’ve got to be mindful of the duality of this.
Scott, how can people follow you? ScottBrown.co, standing for Colorado, which is where you live. Is that right?
That’s right, John. Beautiful Boulder, Colorado.
Any last thoughts? A book to recommend, a quote you like that you want to share with us?
If nothing else, if we remember that it’s about the listener and not about you. That’s going to be a big thing. I would love to chat with anybody about how to help build that clean message. There’s an opportunity here to help startup founders take all of the great work they’ve done and figuring out the what and now help communicate the why. John, I bet between you and I, we can solve this problem of all of these startups that only last eighteen months. Let’s do that together.
I would love that, Scott. Thanks for being such a great guest and sharing your passion, your humor and your wisdom.
- (C)lean Messaging: A Framework to Help Startup Founders Talk to Humans
- (C)lean Messaging
- The Lean Startup
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