How to pitch your idea

Being a good chess player may help you get millions USD of funding for your startup.

How come? Imagine you are at a conference sponsored by a billionaire. You attend the conference party, so you have a chance to meet the potential investor and pitch your idea. But you are not the only one. Dozens of other people have the same plan. How would you differentiate from them? How would you ensure you get a chance to get more than 30 seconds of the billionaire’s time and a polite smile?

Demis Hassabis - a co-founder of Deep Mind - did it by sharing an observation about the game of chess.

At the beginning of its existence, Deep Mind needed funding. It was a research project, and nobody knew whether they would achieve tremendous success or spend all the money, getting no results. You need a special kind of investor for a project like this. You need someone with enough money, so they can risk losing their entire investment. You need someone who can wait longer to get a return on their investment. And you need someone who has seen an overambitious idea shaped into a working product. In short, they needed a self-made Silicon Valley billionaire. But they couldn’t meet with any of them because they had no contacts. Therefore, they did what everyone else was doing. They attended the same events as the investor they wanted to approach.

Of course, it wasn’t enough. The DeepMind team needed to get the investor’s attention. Everyone else was wasting time talking about their idea. No investor was interested in the ideas. You can’t start with an idea. You need to get the attention first! Demis Hassabis knew it. He also knew the investor was a chess player too.

Therefore, instead of talking about Deep Mind, he shared an opinion about chess. He said, “chess evolved into a great game because of the creative tension between the bishop and knight. Both are worth the same points but have completely different powers.” If you are a chess player, you may have an opinion about that statement. The investor had an opinion. He invited the Deep Mind team to his office the next day, so they had 30 minutes to pitch their idea instead of one minute. They got the funding, and, as we all know, DeepMind became a leading AI research company.

How did they get 30 minutes of billionaire’s time?

They got a chance to pitch the idea by applying the AIDA model. AIDA stands for “Attention,” “Interest,” “Desire,” and “Action.” AIDA is a marketing model describing how you should craft your message for your target audience.

It comes with an implicit requirement that you know your target audience. Demis Hassabis and the Deep Mind team spent almost a year preparing for conversations with investors. They knew the investor was interested in chess.

Talking about something the target audience cares about is the easiest way to get attention. They would fail if they spoke about AI or started pitching the idea. It’s way too early.

The next step is “Interest.” The target audience must like the message. Again, if Demis Hassabis stated he plays chess too, all he would get is a polite smile. It’s not a compelling message. It could work if he talked about a famous game between chess masters studied by all chess players for months. But it could be boring or too complex for small talk at a conference party. Therefore, he shared some observations about game design. I don’t know if it is interesting for chess players. I’m not the target audience. All I can do in chess is set up the board before the game and make legal moves. That’s not enough to win any game. However, the opinion was interesting enough for the one chess player they talked to.

The “Desire” step is all about wanting to get what you have to offer. In this case, the billionaire wanted to spend more time with Demis and the rest of the team. No, they couldn’t pitch the idea at this point. You can’t get a person’s attention and interest for one thing and create a desire for another.

The “Action” is a decision to get the thing you sell. In this case, it was getting a meeting scheduled. I don’t know if Demis also used the AIDA model during the meeting. But I do know that I used it in this article.

The first line was here to get your attention. It was something weird, unusual, something you didn’t expect. After all, have you ever heard about a chess player getting funding for a startup?

The following two paragraphs were the interest phase. I wanted to foreshadow a story, so you could decide whether you like it and whether you have the desire to know more. The action I wanted was for you to keep reading the article. If you have reached this sentence, I succeeded.

If you want to hear the story about getting funding for DeepMind, listen to this episode of the DeepMind podcast.

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