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The Land of Simple

…lies beyond the Dark Valley of Complex. Here’s the guide.

Otto Pohl

May 9, 2023

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Make today the day that you simplify your business—or at least, how you talk about it.

This is one of my favorite charts:


(This is certainly true of my newspaper-reading habit!)

You could recaption it as follows:


Or:


I meet with a lot of founders, and I’d say half struggle to tell a clean story because they know too much and struggle to filter. For startups coming out of a university research setting, it’s closer to 9 out of 10.

I’ve been working with Markus Kett, co-founder and CEO of MicroStream. He’s building a fascinating business that slashes cloud costs by integrating database services directly into the cloud-native app layer as opposed to the traditional approach of using a remote database where every i/o operation requires transcription and depends on network latency.

Ok, I added the word “fascinating” to the previous sentence to lure you through the arid desert that is the rest of that sentence. And trust me, when you start getting into the weeds of programming languages, cloud storage, and database languages, it doesn’t get better.

So I tried a new way of describing his business.

“Imagine you run a BMW factory in Munich,” I told him. (MicroStream is one of the incredible cohort companies of the German Accelerator, a group that helps successful and high-growth German startups enter the US market.) “And every time a guy on the factory floor want to install a bolt on a car, he needs to write a request to the warehouse in China. That request needs to get translated and sent to Shanghai, where the part is sourced, packaged, and FedExed to Munich, where the bill of lading requires translation and interpretation to figure out which technician ordered it. Is that like how remote databases work today?”

“Yup,” Markus said.

“And you’re building a warehouse that’s integrated into the factory and speaks the same language as the workers?”

“That’s it!” Markus said. Analogies can be powerful.

Finalizing your product and strategy is also a process of simplifying. When you’re first starting a company, you’re in information acquisition mode. You do research, talk to people, and consider options. At some point you need to start pruning. Here’s what it looks like:


I call the widest point on the graph the Gulliver Moment, as you might feel like Gulliver when he was trapped by thousands of tiny Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels. Knowledge can have a paralyzing quality—every time you want to make a declarative statement, counterexamples and nuance crowd your thoughts. That’s where Markus, his pitch deck, and his US market entry strategy were.

Successful leaders always look for the simplicity amongst the chaos.

Consider the VCR. When it first came out it was a thicket of controls and options:


https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3325668

Late models were simpler:


https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51532711

Your business, and your story, needs to do the same. The BMW analogy might help hook investors, but it won’t save Markus from needing to explain all the technical details to potential customers. MicroStream, like most promising startups, has many options in terms of features, target audiences, customer acquisition strategies, and messaging. You need to retain awareness of the complexity of options while homing in on a simplified market entry strategy that is easy to explain. That’s why working on your communications is a strategic exercise.

As debilitating as the Gulliver Moment might be, you can’t skip it. The electronics industry couldn’t just have skipped straight to a late-model VCR. Technology evolved and customer preferences had to be clearly identified. You might need to talk to hundreds of investors to find the four that will write a check. You have to talk to an endless stream of customers to truly understand their needs and test your product or service to discover the most value-creating way to address those needs.

Whether you’re working on your pitch or tightening your company strategy, here are three ways to find the story gold trapped in a mountain of knowledge gravel:

  • The Listening Game. Tell your story to as many people as possible and really pay attention to reactions. Adjust and prune until you’ve sanded away every awkward and dull moment.

  • Half and Half Again. Start with your full pitch (for investors) or story (for customers). Now tell it in half the time. Cut it in half again. See how short you can make it.

  • The Headline Challenge. Pretend that all you could tell your target audience about your company was the headline. What would it be?

Block out some time today to clear the clutter. Keep the faith: The promised land of simple truly does lie beyond the dark valley of complex.

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Otto Pohl is a communications consultant who helps startups tell their story better. He works with deep tech, health tech, and climate tech leaders looking to create profound impact with customers, partners, and investors. He has taught entrepreneurial storytelling at USC Annenberg and at accelerators across the country.

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