Silicon Valley and the Elevator Pitch

Jul 03, 2017

A few months ago, as winners of a small and obscure European start-up competition, we were invited to attend a conference in Silicon Valley to help start-ups get ‘Investor-Ready’ – a sort of boot camp for budding entrepreneurs.

Now, to call AYR, our project, a start-up after three successful rounds of funding might not sound terribly fair. But we were still a few months from taking our first product to market and at the time of this trip, remained pre-revenue.


Besides, if someone sponsored your flight and stay to Silicon Valley wouldn’t you go?

On the flight it occurred to me that we should probably think about an elevator pitch – a synopsis to summarise everything we stand for in less than a minute, without a presentation, model, or even a captive audience. A hook, which would draw any listener in, invite them to ask questions and begin a conversation. Something I could share without needing to explain technical details to anyone, that would make them understand our product or mission instantly and want to hear more. 

I hate the fact that my dad, my uncles, my family, and my friends smoke.

So, I thought I should begin with a statement of fact: a problem, something irrefutable, and accepted universally. “I hate smoking” didn’t seem appropriate.“I hate the fact that my dad, my uncles, my family, and my friends smoke” -  well, true enough, but perhaps a little too personal and, knowing how many people love smoking, it failed the ‘universal’ test.

Why not, then, begin with a fact?

Not in the form of a number because these are usually time-sensitive.

Not a percentage because then the question becomes the source - how authentic is said source? What was the date, method, time, or participants that make up this so-called fact?

No, the statement of fact I would begin with was something I have observed over the last four years doing this project.

Something I’ve felt deeply and has been confirmed by even the most enthusiastic smokers, including those for whom the act forms a major part of their identity.

By the time the plane landed in San Francisco I had my first working draft of the elevator pitch…

Most smokers would rather not smoke.

And yet, although the majority of smokers are intelligent beings (they understand that they are not making a health choice when lighting up), and awareness of medical nicotine replacement therapies like gums and patches, or their consumer counterparts, like e-cigs, vape pen and modding kits, are at an all-time high - the great majority of smokers choose to smoke.

They continue to indulge in the act of smoking -  in England, about a dozen times a day, on the Continent a little more, in the US a little less. All in all 1.3bn, or nearly 1/5th of humanity chooses to smoke.

Over the last few years, a team of us here in London have been trying to understand what is it that smokers love so much about smoking, and the challenge that we set ourselves has been very clear. Could we invent a product that matched the things that smokers loved about smoking, but left behind the things they hated: the smoke, the smell, the ash, and the harm?

An entirely revolutionary experience that observed their ritual of smoking but was based on vapour rather than combustion and tobacco?  A product that would be entirely familiar to smokers, but completely new?

We have come to call this project AYR, and it will be finished later this year.


That seemed concise enough, and, I felt, provided a suitable teaser without revealing what made AYR so very different from anything else. I deliberately neglected to reveal the 100 + patents we have filed during the invention of our first product, the amazing team that is developing it, or the great many shareholders who are backing it. Not to mention, the one thing we never say…that AYR is beautiful.

We’re going to eradicate smoking … what do you do?

Forty eight hours after landing, walking and chatting to fellow start-up entrepreneurs and investors, I stumbled upon two relatively quick conclusions. Firstly,  the 17 years that I had lived in London had made me too sophisticated with my words, too measured in my ambition, and too understated to inspire.  I had begun to internalise that very thing that growing up in Toronto and speaking American/Canadian we referred to as a grammatical error, “the passive voice” (to discover what it is open up Word, change your language from UK English to American English, and do a grammar check, “it would be good if … it may be sensible to …”).   It was time to get rid of “may” and “could” and replace them with “will” and “would” … the audience demands that the believers believe.

The second realisation was perhaps far less subtle. The ‘elevator’ pitch shouldn’t be a minute, or the amount of time it takes to ride the elevator (or say walk with haste a couple of VC veterans to their cars having asked you to “walk with me”). To deliver an elevator pitch, you have as long as it takes for the elevator doors to shut … about three seconds I reckon.  

So what is it that we do?

We’re going to eradicate smoking … what do you do?

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By Phill


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