The Perfect Pitch

Microsoft and Tellme know the secret of good business communication. The vision behind each company can be stated in 10 words or less

Last week, Microsoft made what may be its largest acquisition since 2002, buying telephone voice-recognition provider Tellme Networks for what some analysts estimate could be upwards of $1 billion. Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder and Chairman Bill Gates has a lot in common with Tellme co-founder and CEO Mike McCue. Both articulated a simple but profound vision to inspire investors, employees, and customers. The vision Gates used to recruit Steve Ballmer became Microsoft's mantra: to put "a computer on every desk in every home." McCue's vision is just as clear and has remained unchanged since he started the company in 1999: Say what you want into any phone and get it.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time with McCue as part of my research for a new book, to be published in the fall. McCue actually gets standing ovations in staff meetings. I thought anyone who can elicit that type of reaction from his employees must be included in a book on business communications! I wasn't disappointed. McCue has a gift for making complicated technology easy to understand. He also thinks seriously about how to communicate the vision behind his company in presentations, meetings, and interviews.

Customers who may never have heard of Tellme are probably familiar with its technology. Call 1-(800)-DOMINOS and you will hear a friendly voice saying "Hi, thanks for calling Domino's. Are you calling to place an order?" Simply continue to answer the questions by voice and soon you will be connected to the nearest Domino's Pizza (DMP) where you can quickly satisfy that craving for garlic-bread pizza. The same type of voice-recognition system powers FedEx (FDX), American Airlines (AMR), as well as 411 directory assistance for mobile carriers such as Verizon (VZ) and Cingular (T). McCue says that each month up to 40 million people use Tellme's network to connect to the people, businesses, and information they need.

The Mom Test

Make no mistake, the technology that makes this happen is highly complex, but McCue appreciates the power of being able to describe something simply. In fact, he has a term for it: "The Mom Test." For the communication behind a product or service to be successful, think about how you would explain it to your mother. According to McCue, "If [I'm] at Thanksgiving dinner and my mom or aunt asks what I do, the last thing I would want to say is, 'We're the leading provider of enterprise outsource planning solutions.' No, I would want to explain what I do so that she 1) understands it, 2) wants to use it, and 3) can use it." In McCue's opinion, very few products pass "The Mom Test."

My conversation with McCue reminds me of a discussion I had recently with venture capitalists at one of the most prominent VC firms in the country. They prefer not to be named, but they're willing to share their insights. When an entrepreneur pitches a product or service to the partners at this particular firm, the partners ask themselves "What's the company's one-liner?"

In other words, can the entrepreneur describe the company's product or service in 10 words or less? Yes, 10 words or less. According to one investor, "If you can't describe what you do in 10 words or less, I'm not buying, I'm not coming on board, I'm not investing. Period."

From Pitch to Mantra

Being able to articulate the fundamental reason behind a company in one short sentence tells investors that the entrepreneur has a good grasp of his business and target market and can synthesize facts into something meaningful.

On Mar. 15, Steve Ballmer spoke at the Stanford business school. The moderator asked Ballmer why he dropped out of Stanford to join Microsoft. Ballmer admitted that after six weeks at the company, he felt as though he may have made a mistake. But then Bill Gates and his father took Ballmer out to dinner. "At dinner, Bill said to me, 'Look, you don't get it. You may feel like you've just joined to become the bookkeeper of a 30-person company, but we're going to put a computer on every desk and in every home.' And I swear that recruiting pitch to keep me wound up being the mantra of the company basically for the next 17, 18 years."

That's the point of the one-liner. Your listeners want to "get it" fast. They want to know whether your company, product, or service is worth exploring. They're making snap judgments—do they want to do business with you, buy your product, loan you money, back your vision, or join your company as employees?

What's Your Line?

For years before the Microsoft purchase, McCue had been courting key employees, customers, and the media with his one-liner, a declaration so bright, bold, and compelling it convinced others to go along for the ride: Say what you want into any phone and get it.

What's your line? If you can't describe what you do in 10 words or less, I'm not buying, I'm not investing, and I'm not joining.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.