Some startups grow up to be unicorns, but before that, in the early phases, all of them are butterflies—fragile, beautiful business concepts. As Stephen Blank so eloquently puts it, “A startup is not a smaller version of a large company. A startup is a temporary organization in search of a scalable, repeatable, profitable business model.” (The Startup Owner’s Manual)
When my daughter was in Grade Two, her classroom featured a butterfly incubator. For weeks, she and the other children watched eagerly for changes in the chrysalis as they waited for its shell to crack and wings to emerge. On the outside, it looked like the chrysalis was stabilizing as the pupa hardened to protect the growing creature it contained. On the inside, of course, the radical transformation was happening as the former caterpillar evolved into an entirely new creature that would be unrecognizable to its former self.
Many startups grow a convincing chrysalis, sometimes fairly quickly. To external observers, it can look like they’ve got their business model altogether. Even to the founding team, it can seem that they’ve firmed up the key elements of their value proposition and growth plan. All they need are a few customers to make that magical transition from creeping caterpillar to soaring butterfly.
But in reality, as Blank points out, most startups haven’t fully formed their value proposition. Or if they think they’ve formed it, as they start to interact with the market, they should find a reason to evolve it. No one gets their messaging 100% right the first time.
While a company is in the chrysalis stage (which can last for years) its value proposition, like its products, goes through ongoing change. On the outside, it may look like the company is becoming more stable—creating a landing page, building a team, starting to raise capital. But inside the chrysalis, life is messy. Baby butterflies grow in goo, in the dark.
All this is completely natural; no startup, no matter how ingenious, catapults past the chrysalis stage. That’s what makes communications so challenging for startups. Some hesitate to put any message at all out into the world because they’re afraid of revealing imperfection. On the flip side, others outsource their messaging as soon as they have funds to spend, believing it will be a relief to have someone else take care of it. But neither approach works well for an emerging company.
Holding back until you’re certain you’ve absolutely nailed your message makes little sense because you need validation from your clients and customers. The need for audience input also explains why outsourcing your communications early on is equally unlikely to get you the results you want. Hiring a copywriter to create communications for your startup may seem like a way to stabilize your messaging, but it brings the risk of prematurely hardening what should remain fluid.
You might think that hiring a professional would prevent you from wasting time and energy. A professional, after all, should be able to measure twice and cut once, whereas you and your team would have to measure repeatedly and make many cuts, some of which might be faulty. Sounds logical, but, unfortunately, such a neat solution doesn’t fit the reality of a business in chrysalis mode.
In the chrysalis, things are constantly changing. New cells are growing, colors are fading and brightening into new shade, legs are disappearing and wings sprouting. That means your messaging must change with those changes. As your product develops new features, your messaging should adapt. As you gain fresh insight into what your target market is really looking for, your messaging should reflect that knowledge.
While you’re a chrysalis company, you need flexibility, the ability to pivot your messaging along with other aspects of your business. Instead of outsourcing your communications, consider ways you can build the capacity to create them—or at least partially create them—for yourself.
Messaging is not nearly as mysterious a process as the series of phases that turn a larva into a butterfly. Anyone can learn to express themselves in clear, compelling language that resonates with their target audience. It’s simply a matter of putting your ear to the side of the chrysalis so you can listen to the market you want to serve and shape what you have to say in a form they want to hear.
One of my favorite ways to tune into the target market is to listen closely to the specific language that the target audience uses. Next time you’re holding a discovery conversation with a potential customer or funder try this exercise: in the notebook, you use to record highlights of the discussion, create a space to write down keywords your conversation partner uses. No, I’m not talking about keywords you might use for SEO. I’m talking about the quirky, maybe even inaccurate, terms your audience uses to express their view of the world. Those terms are copywriting gold.
I learned this lesson more than 10 years ago, when I was teaching a writing program for a global professional services firm in the States. One of the participants, a senior consultant with expertise in building large-scale computing systems shared a story from his client experience. Many months into a huge project that would integrate all of the software systems across the company, the CEO met with the consultant and said, “So, I hear you’re getting us a new computer.”
How frustrating this oversimplification (indeed complete misunderstanding) was to the consultant—but how much he learned from it. To his credit, he instantly grasped that talking about the “technical landscape,” the “single source of truth,” or matters of cybersecurity would be a waste of breath when communicating with the CEO. So he adapted his messaging and learned to explain the value of what he and his team were doing in the simplest, most concrete terms.
Try the keyword exercise for a week, and you may be surprised by what you discover. If you listen intently, the language you learn from your audience may enable you to express your value proposition with such clarity that you shatter the chrysalis sooner than you’d thought possible.