Mediocre Marketing: How NOT To Describe Your Startup

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Mediocre Marketing: How NOT To Describe Your Startup


I'm subscribed to a Yahoo! group that occasionally gets a post from recruiters looking for candidates for startups. Though I don't enjoy these posts (they're not relevant for me), I understand that recruiters have a place in the market too and they're just trying to do their jobs.

But, I was really disappointed today from a post I saw from a recruiter that was trying to hire sales candidates for a startup. It was strikingly ineffective to the degree that if I had not received the message myself (and didn't know that it was serious), I'd have thought it was a joke. Trust me, it's not.

Here it is (unmodified) for your amusement and education:

"Hot Start Up – Focused on delivering an innovative architecture that enables unique and disruptive technologies to address the severe inefficiencies in current online marketplaces. Several patents filed for innovative processes – Lead & financed by a team of well known successful entrepreneurs who have done it before and are now doing it again. A Great Company with lots of upside. Very serious about creating and maintaining the type of culture that creates success – Team Centric – Collaborative – A+ Players with Low Ego. Get in on the ground floor and join a winning team."

Here are my issues with this particular description (apologies for the sarcasm and snarkiness). It's not usually my style, but in this instance, something had to be said, and I think there are good lessons to be learned:

1. Opens with "Hot Start Up". It's good to know this, because I get so many notices from cold startups or lukewarm startups that I appreciate when someone helps me immediately recognize a "hot" startup.

2. "Focused on delivering an innovative architecture that enables unique and disruptive technologies...". This is compared to a scattered approach to delivering a pedestrian architecture that enables common technologies that help maintain the status quo.

3. " address the severe inefficiencies in current online marketplaces". Which, of course, is much better than addressing extremely efficient online markets.

4. "A Great Company with lots of upside." I can't tell you how many startups I come across that describe themselves as being mediocre and having little upside.

5. "Very serious about creating and maintaining the type of culture that creates success." Really beats all those startups that are frivolously maintaining a culture that prohibits success".

6. "Team Centric - Collaborative - A+ Players with Low Ego". We want to filter out the candidates that are loners and overly-confident B- players.

7. "Get in on the ground floor and join a winning team". Who would want to join a startup on the third floor for a team that's clearly going to come out in fourth place?

All humor and sarcasm aside, here's why I took time on a lazy Sunday afternoon to write this article: Whatever startup it is that this recruiter is trying to find candidates for is probably not going to get much value. The lesson here can be boiled down to one sentence:

When describing your startup, avoid being platitudinal. Be different. Communicate something meaningful.

Here's my litmus test: When making a claim about your startup, ask yourself if anyone would ever claim anything different -- or even better, claim the opposite. If the answer is a clear "no", your description is probably empty. Examples: Which startups are not innovative? Who's not looking to disrupt? Who's not creating a culture of success? Who's looking for B- players? Who's looking to build a third-place team?

Here's my (hypothetical) rewrite of the original description:

Our founders made a bunch of money on their prior startups, which were hugely successful. We've got enough money to file for patents, have an admin answer the phone and pay great salaries and commissions to those that join the team. We're building a financial services product that isn't disruptive, but helps the CTOs of banks not change their existing systems, and feel better about it. Turns out, people are willing to pay to not be "disrupted". It doesn't last for ever, but there's a bunch of money to be made in the meantime. If you're looking to work in the basement, answer your own phone and change the world, there are lots of other startups out there. If you want to make real money now but still tell your friends and family that you're a high-flying risk taker that just joined a startup, call us. Johnathan, our administrative assistant will answer the phone.


My version is not as flattering as the original, but at least it says something.

What do you think? Am I being overly harsh here? Do you think the original would actually work? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Mon, Jan 28, 2008


Couldn't agree more. What you write about your startup is very important in conveying the nature of your startup.

posted on Monday, January 28, 2008 at 1:29 AM by Shahnawaz Khan

Dharmesh, your version is great.
'Made to Stick' is a great book that covers similar topics. I thought it was one of those "airport business books" but it is actually quite good.

posted on Monday, January 28, 2008 at 2:05 AM by Nivi

Ever been to a car dealership? Unfortunately, salesmen care about buzzwords more than content. The original ad is intended to recruit a salesman. Your ad is great for attracting people who care about content, eg programmers.

posted on Monday, January 28, 2008 at 2:14 AM by shah of blah

You aren't being overly harsh. There may be a nicer way to say what you are saying, but the truth is that an incredible amount of marketing material has this same problem. If I hear state-of-the-art one more time, I'll scream.

posted on Monday, January 28, 2008 at 4:51 AM by Rebecca Rachmany

Dharmesh -I think that there is actually a startup idea for YOU in this post. I'm thinking about an on-line Web 2.1.1a Startup Job Descriptor.
You login, enter a few details about the position, and the program would spin it into a buzzword-laden job posting suitable for framing or mass spamming.
Another fun online tool would be an adaptation of babelfish, but it converts phrases from "English" to "Recruiter" and "Manager" and "HR" and "Programmer". Would be fun to send a generic text block through that loop 3 or 4 times and see what it looks like at the end.

posted on Monday, January 28, 2008 at 7:28 AM by

Brian, what you are talking about already exists, it's the unique "Dilbert mission statement generator". Enjoy.

posted on Monday, January 28, 2008 at 9:49 AM by Antonio Leonforte

Your version is obviously better but it's also much more work. Remember, it's not the company CEO or HR employee that wrote that, it's a professional recruiter. The recruiter saves a lot of time by just spamming out boilerplate all over so it's normal that the pitch looked vague. The recruiter probably only has 2 or 3 pitches. One for "small well established company", one for "industry leader" and the one you saw for startups.

posted on Monday, January 28, 2008 at 10:28 AM by Guillaume Theoret

OK, I get your point. But just because a recruiter uses overused lingo is no reason to get on your high horse. I suspect that they get some sort of positive response from these emails or they would change their tactics.

posted on Monday, January 28, 2008 at 11:48 AM by Richard Stiennon

I wouldn't say you're overreacting, it bugs me too. I've made my stand against the platitudes and empty-speak, and it's a losing battle.
Hiring ads particularly are a content-free zone.

posted on Monday, January 28, 2008 at 12:01 PM by M Scholz

Time for a marketing professional to defend the profession. :-)
That blurb isn't mediocre marketing... it's not marketing at all! Boilerplate is just boilerplate, and it's functionally meaningless. It just takes up space and communicates nothing.
Saying that it must work because recruiters keep using it is like saying the Dilbert-like boilerplate must result in successful mission statements because managers keep using it. No. They just don't know any better.
I wouldn't want to hire the salespeople who respond to that blurb. By definition, they don't recognize nonsense when they hear it. These are the salespeople who will drive me crazy following hopeless leads because they can't cut through the prospect's double-talk.
Dharmesh's rewrite is more factual, but not concise. The art of marketing consists (in large part) of creating apt, concise communication. What this recruiter needs is a concise way of describing (1) what's special or unique about the startup, and (2) what special or unique attributes they are looking for in salespeople.

posted on Monday, January 28, 2008 at 12:11 PM by Carl Strathmeyer

Couldn't have said it better myself. If you want to promote your startup, give the following details. Where did the founders come from and what is their track record. Where did the money come from and what is the investors track record. Lacking a good story on those points, try to challenge the receiver with an interesting problem to solve and some humor. Empty superlatives will produce candidates that are attracted to empty superlatives.

posted on Monday, January 28, 2008 at 12:22 PM by tom summit

There's a handy-dandy tool for business plan executive summaries and business plans, that I recommend strongly.

posted on Monday, January 28, 2008 at 12:55 PM by Growth Through M&A

Have you tried to put yourself into recruiter's shoes?
Recruiters usually don't want to identify this start up in his job ad.
The reason for such cover-up is that if job ad contains enough specific about start up, then job seeker will be able to contact this start up directly. In this case recruiter would lose her 20% commission.
However I agree, that even under such circumstances job posting could look better.

posted on Monday, January 28, 2008 at 1:02 PM by Dennis Gorelik

Funny. David Meerman Scott did a study for the meaningless terms used in press releases, and he created the Gobbledygook Manifesto. Pretty funny to see hom pany companies are offering a "next generation, world class, cutting edge, robust, sclable solution".

posted on Monday, January 28, 2008 at 10:21 PM by MIke Volpe

Not sure if the original or similar posts actually work, but I do agree with this : "When describing your startup, avoid being platitudinal. Be different. Communicate something meaningful."
Are you being harsh? No. Just hypocritical.
"Are you an "A+" player? Do you like challenges? Are you passionate about your work? Do you like free espresso? Will you fight others for the last slice of pizza? Do you want to work at a hot and exciting venture-backed startup in Cambridge, MA, the cradle of high tech? HubSpot is currently looking for star players to add to our team to help build a gigantic company and change the way companies market their products and services. If you enjoy an unstructured, fast-paced environment where the only limit to your growth is your own capabilities, contact us today. All of our employees receive stock options and plenty of freedom."

posted on Monday, January 28, 2008 at 11:36 PM by Dmitri

Dmitri: Fair criticism. Thanks for calling me on my hypocriticalness (keeps me honest).
Will revisit our description. It's weird how many platitudes crept in there. Scary, actually.
Note to self: If you're not careful, one day you wake up and you're looking for A+ players to join your hot startup.

posted on Monday, January 28, 2008 at 11:54 PM by

It's a rather generic ad, and that it was written by Captain Obvious is just a bonus. I would be scared off by it.

posted on Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 2:11 AM by Luke Smith

it will be great if you can pass your version to the original company who needs it the most and this way you can help another startup better itself.
As people will laugh at the startup and applauded your efforts but if the message is not passed onto the company they will keep repeating their mistake.

posted on Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 2:51 AM by Amit Desai

Yikes! That is so unprofessional! How do they think that would work?

posted on Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 11:49 AM by Janice Sharman

I agree and actually your write-up is far more real and I would would be much more likely to respond.

posted on Friday, February 29, 2008 at 1:17 PM by Mike Zarnek

This criticism applies to 95% of all marketing lingo - nay, 95% of all writing!
Mark Twain supposedly said once "I apologize for writing such a long letter. I didn't have time to write a short one."
Compelling writing of any type requires effort and creativity.
See, even this writing is bad...

posted on Sunday, March 09, 2008 at 7:17 PM by Peter McRae

Does anyone else think that the startup Dharmesh described is simply wasting money by hiring a recruiter? All those founders want is someone to sort out the cover letters and resumes according to simply defined criteria. Then they pick for interviews from the first set of salespeople who most align with those criteria. Less time, less bs. And they start firing the ones who can't cut the mustard, and hiring from the next batch. Repeat as necessary. I also think one of the lessons of this article is that platitudes have no place in the communication of most businesses, much less that of startups.

posted on Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 12:32 AM by Tariq Nisar Ahmed

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