Weekly tip on improving your TechStars Application: The 140 character description

I’m in the throws of reviewing applications for TechStars NYC right now, so I’m motivated to help you submit more powerful apps.

When applying for TechStars, one of the first questions is “Describe your business in 140 characters or less”. This is basically your elevator pitch.  Anyone will tell you that your elevator pitch is pretty critical to nail – you have only a few seconds to capture someone’s attention.  Same thing applies to your TechStars application – you have to nail your 140 character description b/c it’s my first impression on what you do, and once that’s set, it’s pretty hard to recover from it.

So here’s a quick tutorial on how to write your 140 character description (and also your elevator pitch!)  You start with a basic formula, then add color.  Formula is

For {customer segment},   with {x problem}  we offer {y solution}.  This is a really rough formula, and I don’t recommend that you use it exactly, but it gives you a starting point.  

The key here is to be specific.  Generic language can be deadly.  I want to know what you specifically sell or do, not who you are.  The best way to highlight this is to give some examples.

Here are some 140 character descriptions from some previous TechStars companies.  These aren’t perfect, and this was before they went through the program, so you’re getting the raw, unedited version.  But they’re pretty good and I have a very clear picture of what they do in only  a few short words.

  • DealAngel’s website uses data mining and pricing analytics to rank online hotel offers.
  • Birdbox is a platform for managing all your photos and videos in one place, connecting everything from Facebook and YouTube, to Amazon and Dropbox.
  • Ubooly is a 6” tall, plush creature powered by your iPhone. It uses wifi to download new content every month.

And here are some examples of BAD 140 character descriptions:

  • We are an internet service that will reshape a dated 27 billion dollar industry thru tech initiating a global movement.
  • Solving life’s problems one app at a time.
  • PalmLing is Google Translate with a Human Touch.  (By the way, this company is VerbalizeIt and did get into the program despite their description)

Notice in this last batch I don’t know what they do.  Even the last one, what is it? A web application?  A device you carry around in your pocket?  What does a human touch mean?

When I read 140 character descriptions like that, I’m left to my own devices to creatively imagine what you do, and I could be wrong.  I probably am wrong.  As I dive deeper into your app, I’m starting from a different mindset on what you do, and therefore am highly likely to misunderstand your whole entire business.  The likelihood of getting cut goes up dramatically.

So spend some time crafting your 140 character description, or your elevator pitch, and test it on people.  Take their feedback, iterate, and test again.  Keep testing until you land on something where people know immediately what you do.  You don’t just need it for your TechStars app, you desperately need it for your startup.

Good luck!  Early app deadline is January 4th – I know what you’ll be doing this holiday season… Apply now!