Your Lowest Common Denominator

A few weeks ago, I was headed to a hackathon with some friends and since we didn’t know what we wanted to build yet, we decided to casually throw out ideas to each other during the hour long train ride. Luckily enough for us, the man (let’s call him Calvin) sitting across the aisle from us loved to talk and despite not knowing much about “cutting-edge” technology or startups, I learned a lot from him on how to build a desirable product and company.

Although Calvin seemed incredibly ambitious, most of his own ideas were not (think Instagram for cats). He was also extremely hard to convince and was unenthused by all of the ideas we threw out. To be fair however, he also didn’t understand most of the ideas that we were coming up with, simply because we couldn’t distill the ideas down simply enough for him to understand.

While our ideas were completely clear in our heads and to each other (despite the fact that we came up with most of the ideas on the spot), they were still obfuscated by random tech/startup jargon that we felt naturally comfortable with. When it became clear that this level of dialogue didn’t work with our newfound audience, we switched gears into more high level descriptions, but still, Calvin didn’t seem to buy what we were saying. Again, this was our fault, not his.

To him, someone who didn’t really “get” tech, the innovativeness and creativeness of our ideas didn’t seem to change his opinion. What was most important was whether or not we could actually communicate to him what our ideas meant. It didn’t matter whether we allowed him to share pictures of his cats or allowed him to take a picture of his shoes and then magically generate a matching outfit on his iPhone and it certainly didn’t matter to him if we used Rails or Node or Django — if he couldn’t understand what the idea was, then it wasn’t compelling enough to build.

The bottom line here is that if no one can understand what your startup is offering, no one will care and no one will buy or use your product. If you can’t explain it to someone, then there’s no reason why they should be convinced to back you and your product, no matter how great your endgame vision is. So when you’re building something, make sure that you can explain it to any random layperson on the street by determining your lowest common denominator — the most basic and easily understandable idea you want to communicate. Once you nail that down, you can easily add layers of abstraction and detail if necessary. In a sense, it’s like you’re developing an MVP of your pitch — something simple enough that just works and doesn’t include anything else. Anything extra is just fluff and can be thrown away.

This same realization also occurred to me when I was preparing for my YC interview last month. When I talked to past founders about our idea, the biggest piece of advice I received was that I was saying too much while conveying too little. Instead of being able to instantly get a mental picture of what we were doing (Instagram for cats, for example, is a perfect counterexample), it would take two sentences from me before they reached that sudden moment of clarity because I couldn’t explain it simply enough. And these were some of the smartest and most clever people I’ve ever met.

Obviously, it’s hard to explain such complicated things (like your startup) so clearly and succintly, but it’s also what all the good startups do extremely well. Facebook, at its most distilled level, is a social network, Google is a search engine. If what you do is easy to communicate and easy to understand, then it also becomes much easier to get people excited about it, especially if they love and need whatever you’re making. And if they’re excited, chances are that the people you convince will then convince their friends as well, because they truly understand what they’re talking about and can explain it in their own words to others.

When you spend all day solving big problems and thinking about the underlying innovation of your product, it’s easy to forget that people outside of your tiny bubble can’t and won’t understand what you’re talking about at all. You need to remember to take a step back, wipe the slate clean, and look at things with a beginner’s mind. Build for the “Calvins” of your customer base — the people who want your product and would wholeheartedly support you if only they could understand what you’re doing.

So start small and focus on the basics. Figure out your lowest common denominator. Simplify.