what the hell are you doing

When my co-founder and I left ZenPayroll to start a company, our friends and families and coworkers asked the same question: what are you working on? We told them that we were frustrated with the state of government services. We told them that we wanted to help fix cities. We told them we wanted to build software.

And…

that was about all we knew.

We couldn’t tell you, exactly, what we would be building. We couldn’t tell you who inside of city governments would use the product. I didn’t even know that San Francisco’s city council was called the Board of Supervisors. We figured it out, eventually, but would have saved ourselves months of trial and error (and error (and error)) by clarifying our own thoughts.

Throughout your life as a founder, you will spend a surprising amount of your time describing what your company does. Some common situations:

  • Recruiting
  • Sales
  • Press
  • Fundraising
  • Email introductions
  • Explaining to your friends and family why you quit your high-potential career path to found a company in an industry you know little about

No one will join your company, invest in your company, buy your product, write about you, or know how to help you if you can’t tell them what you’re doing.

This article walks through the building blocks of a simple three sentence company description. Each section describes one component along with short exercises to gather your thoughts. We’ll walk through who your customers are, what their problem is, what they’re currently using, and what you’re building. At the end, we’ll tie those together into a clear and concise company description.

A Running Example

As an example, we’ll use the company I co-founded.

Seneca Systems builds software for local governments. Today, public servants cobble together Post-Its, Excel spreadsheets, and voicemails to serve hundreds of millions of requests from citizens — everything from potholes to policy positions. The current process is slow, inefficient, and drops requests altogether, so we built Romulus to centralize government operations and give local governments the tools they need to serve their constituents.

With that in mind, let’s get started.

Your Customer

To build a great company, you have to know exactly who you’re helping.

You want to be as specific as possible and limit yourself to who you will help today. If you plan to build other products for an expanded definition of “customer” or expand internationally, leave those out. Better to build the best solution for a small group and expand from there than to either a) be 70% good for many people or b) run out of money building the best product for everyone.

Stay focused.

Stay alive.

Targeting

The attributes of your target customer depend on what type of company you’re building.

selling to businesses (B2B)

For B2B companies, some criteria to consider:

  • Size: Selling to small/medium sized businesses (SMBs) is vastly different than selling to enterprise
  • Industry: Government, healthcare, construction, finance, legal services, consumer goods, education, telecom, automotive, social, etc.
  • Geography: Start narrow. You might have international ambitions, but you won’t enter multiple markets on day one. Focus.
  • Buyer: Who in the organization has the authority to give you money?
  • User: Who uses your product?

For the buyer and the user (they may be the same person), answer the following:

  • What is their title?
  • What are their day-to-day responsibilities?
  • What do they care about?
  • How do they see themselves and their work?

These are the basics, but by no means an exhaustive list.

selling to consumers (B2C)

Target customers for a B2C company may include:

  • age
  • sex
  • gender
  • location
  • interests
  • income level
  • profession
  • nationality/race (e.g. hair care products)
  • a wide range of other criteria like “owns an iPhone” or “suffers from depression” or “considers themselves a ‘sneakerhead’”.

Exercise

Describe your target customer in detail.

We’ll narrow this down at the end; better to start with a nuanced understanding and whittle it down.

Problems

In one of our first meetings at YC, Michael Siebel talked about the “hair-on-fire” problem. Read his post for the analogy in depth, but suffice to say: if the problem is important enough, the solution doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be better than what’s available and good enough to go through the pain of getting it.

Finding the Issue

How do you identify a hair-on-fire problem?

The best option is to solve a problem you have yourself. You’ll know why it’s important to solve, have tried existing solutions, and understand what needs to be built.

If you are not your target customer, spend as much time as you can understanding their problems. Email them. Call them. Show up at their offices. Get as close as you can to seeing the world as they do.

At Seneca, we started by showing up at city halls and walking into offices. We’d ask to speak with someone—anyone—about what they did, their priorities and objectives, and thank them for their time. (Always thank them for their time.) Most people enjoy sharing what they do—especially people, like public servants, who are rarely listened to.

But what are you looking for?

You’re looking for a problem specific enough that you can solve it directly and general enough that other customers will have the same problem. For example, one of the first elected officials we spoke to had developed an exhaustive blueprint for how she would help her district. She asked if we could turn this 70+ page PDF into a website.

It was a hair-on-fire problem for her. As an elected official, she needed to show her constituents that she heard their concerns, had concrete answers, and would be held accountable to deliver. If she couldn’t, she would be fired at the next election.

As two full-stack product engineers, we were in a position to solve this problem. But, no, we wouldn’t. We weren’t trying to do contract web development, and most elected officials (unfortunately) did not have such a detailed and thoughtful plan for their district.

So we dug into the root problem. She said she wanted a PDF turned into a website, but what she really wanted was to build connections with her community and prove that she was solving their problems. As we spoke about other touch points with constituents, she mentioned the deluge of requests sent to their office. We spoke with other offices and they had the same problem.

With that, we were off and running.

Exercise

Describe your customer’s hair-on-fire problem(s).

  • What is it?
  • Why is it so important to your target user? To the target buyer? (Those may be the same.)
  • What happens if they don’t solve their problem?
  • What happens if they do?

Current Solutions

By now you have a target customer and have identified a hair-on-fire problem (or at least a hypothesis). Let’s think about what your customers are using today to solve their problem.

Please note: your competitors are not products that do exactly what you do. Your competitors might not look like you at all. Your competitors are products that solve the same problem you solve.

In our case, Seneca’s primary competitors were not other customer relationship or data or case management products. In fact, most of our competitors weren’t even software. Our primary competitors were what front-line employees used to manage citizens’ requests: Excel spreadsheets, Post-it notes, and voicemails.

If we had said, “we have no competition—there is no other modern SaaS solution for local governments to manage service requests”, we would have been technically correct but, practically, very wrong.

Exercise

Describe your customers’ current solution.

  • What do they use today?
  • What is lacking with their current solution? What pain points remain?
  • What is your unique insight? Why aren’t your competitors solving those existing pain points?
  • How much does it cost customers? (This can be in money or time or mental exhaustion.)

Your Product

We’ve come all this way without talking about what you’re building, and that’s by design. If you’ve started building, you probably have some emotional connection to what you’ve built. Unfortunately, none of it matters if it’s not something that:

  1. solves a problem
  2. for a group of people
  3. better than what they’re currently using

Nick Tommarello, CEO of Wefunder, put it best when describing what he looks for in early-stage founders: strong conviction on the idea, but flexible on implementation.

Exercise

Describe what you’re building (or going to build.)

  • Be specific and concrete.
  • No buzzwords.
  • No ‘disrupting’ or ‘innovating’ or ‘game-changers’ or ‘platforms’ or ‘synergies’ or ‘adding value’.

Just say what you’re building.

Company Description

Now let’s bring these all together into a three sentence description of your company. Three quick notes:

  1. This is a guideline. Adjust based on what makes sense for your company.
  2. This represents your best hypothesis today. Your description of your company will change over time.
  3. Keep it simple, in plain English. They can ask follow-up questions.

Exercise

Build your company’s three sentence description.

Of course, you won’t go into as much depth as the above exercises—“department heads and city managers of cities in the United States with populations over 50,000” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. It’s easier to start with more context and winnow down to the core truths than to write whatever pops into your head when you hear “target customer”.

  • We are [company name] and we [say what you’re building].
  • Today, [our target customers] use [existing solution] to [problem that needs solving].
  • [Why existing solution sucks] so we built [product] to [why you’re better].

Again, here is Seneca’s:

Seneca Systems builds software for local governments. Today, public servants cobble together Post-Its, Excel spreadsheets, and voicemails to serve hundreds of millions of requests from citizens — everything from potholes to policy positions. The current process is slow, inefficient, and drops requests altogether, so we built Romulus to centralize government operations and give local governments the tools they need to serve their constituents.

It takes about twenty seconds to say and gives the listener enough context to ask follow-up questions.

Practice

Now that you have a first version, practice. Practice the cadence, the words you emphasize, and the pauses between sentences. If you stumble repeatedly on the same set of words, tweak your phrasing until it feels natural. Then keep practicing.

Practice to yourself in the mirror.

Practice with your cofounder.

Practice with friends.

Tell them your three sentences, then ask them to tell you in their own words what you do. Ask them what customers you’re serving, what their problems are, and what you’re building. Any parts they don’t understand are your fault. Don’t argue with them. Revise and repeat.

It may feel awkward or wordy or jumbled when you first get started. You’ll get there. You might feel frustrated, like there’s so much more to your company and your vision and the nuances of just how big and important your company is. Take a deep breath. You’re giving them enough information to know what they want to know. If they’re interested, they can ask follow up questions. If they’re not, you’ve only wasted three sentences of your time.

So tell me:

What the hell are you doing?