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Pitch the future while building for now

On the eve of the 500 Startups demo day, I wanted to offer some thoughts on pitching versus product planning. In an effort to impress investors, we’ve all steered our products towards what we think is sexy or investable, versus what is most likely to work for consumers. I’ve come to believe that this is a kind of Silicon Valley disease, and we should try hard to avoid it.

The short-term/long-term dilemma
One of the hardest things for entrepreneurs is the struggle between two things:

  • Having a really big, really abstract goal for the future (“Connect everyone in the world!”, “Sell all the things!”)
  • Picking the headline on the landing page for current product you have (“Sign up for this college social network”, “Buy these books”)

It can be easy to confuse the role of the two.

Two failure cases:
If you let your big abstract goal take over day to day product development, then I’m convinced that you’ll end up building a really weird product. Consumers don’t care about your long-term strategy, they just want to scratch their itch now. They want to put you in a bucket with something else they recognize, and if they don’t get it, they’ll hit the back button in 5 seconds flat.

If you let your current product become the whole thing, then you’ll find it hard to recruit a team and find investors. They’ll think you’re just working on a toy, and especially if you don’t have breakout traction, you might get starved for money and talent.

So what’s the right balance?
I’ve come to believe that leading with the day-to-day product is definitely the way to go. Build a great product, even if it looks/sounds like a toy, and get the retention and engagement you need. Once you have that, make the big-picture story work.

That way, you’re focused on the most important thing- getting to product/market fit. That’s the hard part – making up a cool story is easy once you have some numbers.

So focus on the now, and build a great initial product for your customers. Then talk to someone who’s pitched to investors multiple times, and come up with a big, audacious story to wrap around that traction. I guarantee that’ll be easier than you think.

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