Article originally published on Blue Dots Partners website: https://bluedotspartners.com/
Over the past three decades, I have met over 2,600 CEOs. For a long time, I used to ask them the same question: “What does your company do”? They love that question. They get it all the time, at cocktail parties, on flights to business trips, at a PTA school meeting, or a conference when they sit with someone they have never met before. Sometimes, they may even get it from their children.
The answer invariably tends to be a long monolog about how great whatever they do is; how revolutionary and new it is; and how it will change the world forever. I call that the “Making the Planet Spin the Other Way” response.
The other, more subtle, more interesting and more sophisticated type of answer is about their mission, their purpose, their point of view, about what makes everybody tick at the company. I remember the early days of WebTV Networks, a company that was started by Steve Perlman. It was a combination of hardware, software and a service. The hardware was a device that plugged into a TV and a phone jack. It enabled that TV to receive content from the Internet (yes, via the telephone connection). It offered many functionalities that a computer did such as web browsing, email, rich content. Steve described his company as “a way of bringing computers to average people,” which in July 1995 when the company started was no small feat. The product was launched in September the following year. Only 22 months after the company was founded, Microsoft acquired it for a whopping $425 million. It actually was a big deal since WebTV was both the very first company to have a TV connected to the Internet and the first to have a consumer device (as opposed to a computer) access the Web. In a way, it was IoT way ahead. The mission of the company and the “why” were clear and it has always been less about the “what” or the “how.”
A few years ago, I decided to not ask the “What does your company do?” question anymore. I now ask a different one. A very different question. Interestingly, it gives many CEOs pause. The question is: “So, tell me: why I should buy your product?” A strong CEO should be able to answer this question quickly, intelligently and crisply. I also indicate that the CEO should respond in one or two sentences only.
This is a much more interesting question. It centers the discussion on the customer and what would compel a person to decide to give money in exchange for the product or the service. It is not about the “what” or the “how” but the “why.” Larry King used to say that his favorite question is “why?” It’s an open-ended question and the answer can be surprising and often leads to other questions and a fruitful discussion.
By asking the “Why should I buy question?”, the first logical thought the CEO should have is: “Are you a potential customer.” Maybe the answer is: “You should not buy my product because I sell complex equipment for the manufacturing of MRI medical machines and I am ready to bet my next paycheck that you will never buy my $10 million machine.”
I recently talked to Armand Thiberge, the co-founder and CEO of SendinBlue, a marketing automation company delivering “marketing tools for everyone.” Armand is a brilliant entrepreneur, who recently raised a $36 million VC round. The company claims 50,000 customers and sending over 30 million emails every day. I asked Armand my favorite question and his answer still resonates in my head: “We provide an email marketing platform and we offer pretty much the same as our competitors such as Constant Contact, Emma, MailChimp, SendGrid and others, but we are 10 times cheaper. This is why you should buy!” This was a powerful answer. First off, he was able to describe what SendinBlue does in three words (“email marketing platform”), then he understands his top competitors and is not afraid of them and the answer to the “why” was very crisp: it is simply 10 times cheaper.
Try it out, ask the “why” question to CEOs and see what they tell you. I bet this will be a much more interesting discussion that the long monolog you have heard some many times…