Perfecting Your Startup Pitch

Photo: Salil Sethi pitching at the Newark Innovation Acceleration Challenge in November. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Salil Sethi pitching at the Newark Innovation Acceleration Challenge in November. | Esther Surden

If you can’t explain your startup to a 10-year-old in 30 seconds, you’re not ready to explain it to the world.

When talking about their startups, a lot of founders get tangled up in their technologies, unique selling points, value propositions, etc. But most people who hear their pitches don’t want to sit through Ph.D.-level explanations.

In this article, I will share a simple technique to help you refine your pitch. I used this technique when pitching at the Newark Innovation Acceleration Challenge in late November, and won a fellowship.

Before we get into the technique, here are a few reasons why you should have a simple 30-second pitch about your startup

1. You want to share what you’re doing in a succinct way that will grab your listeners’ attention.

2. The proverbial elevator pitch does happen. Before starting, I worked at the management consulting company McKinsey. And it would take me two hands and then some to count the number of times I was stuck in the elevator with a client C-suite member who wanted to know what we were up to. As you hustle, you are likely to share an elevator with a potential customer, partner or investor, and you don’t want to be crafting a new pitch between floors. You want to be delivering one.

3. A man called Albert Einstein once famously said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well.” And, hopefully, you understand very well what you are doing.

Now here is the simple yet powerful technique: the X of Y.

One of the easiest ways for a human brain to understand a concept is through an analogy. Let’s take an example from the classroom. Here a teacher is trying to explain the role of white blood cells:

“The white blood cells are part of the immune system. When a germ or other microorganism enters the body, the cells are triggered to ingest these microorganisms through the actions of various enzymes.”

Now the same concept is explained with an analogy:

“White blood cells are soldiers defending our body from invading structures, and instead of using guns, they use enzymes.”

Using a similar technique, you can explain your startup by comparing it to a well-known platform or business model. Here are a few examples:

a. X = Uber, Y = your startup (e.g., hairdresser, cleaner): It’s a two-sided “service” marketplace that connects buyers and sellers through technology, most likely mobile phones.

b. X = Airbnb, Y = your startup (e.g., handbags, suits): It’s a marketplace that’s especially focused on the sharing economy, in which the sellers are temporarily renting out an asset to buyers.

If you think this technique works well only in the tech world, think again. Here is a nontech example:

c. X = Starbucks, Y = your startup (e.g., yogurt, tea): It’s a physical store where people purchase premium food or drinks, and the store doubles as a place to catch up with friends.

The X of Y has its limitations. If you are doing something very unique, it might be challenging to capture it by means of a comparison. (For instance, I doubt that Elon Musk would have used the “X of Y” technique when sharing his vision for SpaceX!)

However, most of the time “X of Y” will do the job, and it is a surprisingly powerful way to share your long-term vision succinctly and communicate what you are building.

Salil Sethi is the founder and CEO of, a New York-based ed-tech company that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to build a school-counselor digital assistant. A graduate of MIT and Georgia Tech, Sethi worked at McKinsey & Company (New York) prior to starting He recently participated in NJIT’s Newark Innovation Acceleration Challenge, and says he’s considering bringing his company to Newark.

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