Starting a business, first step — 1. What does your product actually DO?

This post is part of a series for new entrepreneurs looking to get their first business idea off the ground. Don’t get investors or build the prototype just yet, sit down and answer some basic questions. All it takes is a pen and paper. Looking for the entire First Step Q&A?

1. What does your product actually DO?

Put your idea down on paper. If it takes more than a few lines to succinctly define, you need to refine your description or the idea itself. Remember, the ultimate goal is to get someone to buy something, which means you need the would-be customer to understand exactly what you’re selling as fast as possible. Long, drawn out explanations feel unreliable because you’ve crammed so much new information into the message, leaving the recipient in a daze going, “Wait, what was that again?”

The reality is that no matter what you’re selling, from elephants to electronics, you have to immediately hook a customer before going into greater detail. Therefore you’re answer doesn’t have to cover every feature, function, and benefit. Think “cornerstones,” the core of your product. Answering Question #1 for a car might look something like this:

My product is a personal vehicle that can comfortably carry several people across great distances faster than walking.

Note all the stuff I’m NOT discussing: seat colors, the size of the trunk (or even what a “trunk” is), gas mileage, the shape of the vehicle. They’re all details superfluous to the core product, which is a mode of personal transportation. Hook them on the core idea, then sell them on details once you have their attention.

If you are selling a radically new idea, take extra care to ground your it within current experience. Back to our car example: what if the automobile hadn’t been invented yet, and I had come up with the idea? Most people would respond to me by saying, “But I already have horses.” That’s why the car was initially called a “horseless carriage,” it immediately drew to mind the benefits over the horse and buggy.

Trouble on Question #1 comes in two forms: either it’s way too long, or way too short. In either case, it’s likely that your idea is not refined enough. In the web sector, I see a lot of ideas laid out in mountains of copy, but don’t amount to much more than “it’s a website that people will visit and do stuff.” Get out of the ivory tower! You have a good idea, now how can you practically apply it to the market? Find that answer and write it down.

Once your core product description is a few lines long, stand in front of a mirror and sell it to your ideal customer…in less than 60 seconds. The rules of the elevator pitch generally allow 2 minutes, but that’s misleading: an elevator pitch not only presents the customer with the idea, but also provides information on what to do next, i.e. “call my office,” “check out our website at…”, etc. In a real elevator pitch situation, you don’t get to offer next steps until the product is laid out.