Pitches by Analogy (Tips and Gotchas)

Uber for housecleaning. Airbnb for cars. Twitter for the enterprise. LinkedIn for musicians.

Elevator pitches often include analogies to large, successful companies. These analogies can be a great way to communicate ideas quickly and accurately — just compare "Airbnb for cars" to "We're building a website where people who have cars but don't always use them can rent their cars out by the hour or day. People who need short-term access to cars can browse local listings and bid on vehicles that fit their needs." The longer version is fine, but the 3-word version is punchy and memorable — and equally informative!.

Analogies are not a panacea, however, and I often see them misused. The most common mistakes include:

  • Misleading analogies. "We're like Airbnb for cars. We let people sell their used cars online with minimal effort." Huh? That's very different from how Airbnb operates.
  • Confusing analogies. "We're like Pinterest meets LinkedIn meets Reddit." What does that even mean??
  • Obscure analogies. "We're like SomeObscureWebsite.com, but for home decoration." What the heck is SomeObscureWebsite?
  • Boring analogies. "We're like coupons.com, but for Thailand." That doesn't sound very novel or exciting. In this case, it might be better to skip the analogy and do a more traditional elevator pitch. For example, "Thailand has a culture of shopping and bargain hunting, and their mobile penetration is over 95%. We're the first and only mobile coupon app designed for their $12b shopping sector."
  • Analogies that invite tough questions. "We're Amazon for sporting goods." Okay, but isn't Amazon the "Amazon for sporting goods"? A different pitch could have invited questions about your business, but instead I'm going to be thinking about Amazon and whether you can out-Amazon them. That's a hard sell.

In response to these common mistakes, here are some tips for pitching by analogy:

  • Make sure your analogy is clear. If you're comparing yourself to a company, that company should be well-known and should evoke a clear idea in people's minds. For example, Uber is a great company to use in analogies because everyone has heard of it and it is synonymous with great service available at the push of a button. On the other hand, saying "we are the Nissan of ____" is a bad idea because Nissan, while well-known, doesn't represent a specific quality to most people.
  • A good analogy serves two purposes: it's memorable and it's descriptive. Keep both goals in mind as you design your pitch.
  • Test your pitch on 5-10 people. If everyone loves it and gets it, that's a great sign. If people respond with "huh?" or "what do you mean?", then keep iterating.
  • To ensure that pitch is accurate, ask people to guess what your company does after you tell them your analogy. For a good analogy, like "Airbnb for cars," almost everyone will make the same (correct) guess. For a bad analogy, guesses will either be all over the map, or consistent but wrong.

An elevator pitch is a large part of startup's identity. It's how investors will introduce you to other investors, how the press will introduce you to readers, and how users will introduce you to other users. Test your pitch with many people and use their feedback to make it as memorable, concise, and informative as possible.