What do I mean when I say that your startup story should be “Books for Amazon”? Let’s let Jeff Bezos tell it

If you have spent any time with me talking through the story you’re telling when you’re pitching your startup, I’ve no doubt shared my “Books for Amazon” advice. What do I mean by that? Well, let’s let Jeff Bezos give you some context, circa 1997.

Regardless of how you feel about Jeff or the company he built, there are some key takeaways from this story that are helpful for any founder working on pitching their company.

Tell a big enough story to be interesting… “Becoming the largest bookstore in the world” was a compelling business proposition, even if that’s where it ended. And with the subtext that, given his understanding of the power of the Internet, no incumbent bookstore had the wherewithal to effectively compete agains his upstart bookstore.

…but don’t reveal the grand vision. You’ll notice Jeff didn’t reveal what he was probably already thinking about: becoming the largest store on earth. Instead, he focused on books. Just books. And what makes books an interesting commodity. And maybe like “10 other things” he might be able to sell online. Again, big enough to be interesting. Not so big that it seemed unattainable.

By leaving holes in the plot, you draw people into your pitch. Let’s get back to that “10 other things.” This is where you, as the recipient of the pitch, stop thinking about books and start to think about what you might consider selling online. The 10 other things just stokes your imagination with the headiness of that potential. And suddenly, you’re part of the conversation. “Well, if you could sell books online. Couldn’t you sell vacuum cleaners online…?” Boom. You’re involved.

Demonstrate an unnerving understanding of the market opportunity. That part about books almost gets a little awkward. Okay, Jeff, we get it. You understand books. And yes, there is clearly an opportunity in books. Just calm down. I thought we were talking about the Internet? But you perceive that this guy is passionate about books. And you know that he understands the economics of books because he’s clearly done his research. Maybe a little too much research.

Ensure the early story supports the infrastructure for the bigger vision. Building the infrastructure to become the world’s largest bookstore is infrastructure that can be leveraged to become the world’s largest vacuum cleaner store later. You don’t need to tell that part of the story, now. But later, you can always come back to the book story. Explaining how you used books as a means of test driving warehousing, operations, infrastructure, and delivery with a non-essential item. And how, once you had the kinks worked out, you went about optimizing that supply chain with ruthless efficiency. So that you could get folks their vacuum cleaners as quickly as possible.

So next time you’re refining the story in your pitch, remember “Books for Amazon.” It’s the type of story you’ll want to tell, as well.


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