How to Pitch an Idea like Mark Cuban and Reid Hoffman

Published May 18, 2016

Adam Grant’s (GLS 2015) new book explores how original thinkers succeed in business. In the post below, he talks to some of America’s most iconic entrepreneurs on how they would convince people to buy into a novel idea. 

Sometime this year, you pitched a new idea to someone. If you’re an entrepreneur, you probably tried to persuade an investor to fund your startup. If you’re an employee, you might have asked your boss to support improved working conditions or better parental leave policies. If you’re a leader, chances are you encouraged your team to take a risk on innovation or test-drive a new technology.

If your idea fell on deaf ears, you’re not alone. A dozen publishers turned down Harry Potter—it was apparently too long for a children’s book. (If anything, it was too short.) Movie studios rejected Star Wars and TitanicSeinfeld was nearly cancelled by NBC for being a show about nothing, when it was really a show about everything. Excite declined to shell out $1.6 million for a little search engine called Google. How many other great ideas are sitting on the cutting room floor?

And what can you do to get yours heard?

Last month I published a book, Originals, about how we can improve at championing our ideas. I wanted to learn from the best, so I sat down with entrepreneurs who mastered the pitch, made billions and became investors themselves. Now they’re on the other side of the table—they spend their days listening to other people’s pitches. And I couldn’t resist turning the tables on them.

Mark Cuban sold to Yahoo!, owns the Dallas Mavericks and Landmark Theatres and has invested about $20 million in entrepreneurs on Shark Tank. Reid Hoffman founded LinkedIn, got it funded by Greylock with a powerful pitch, and then became a partner there; his investments include Airbnb and Facebook.

When I asked them to demonstrate a pitch, three common themes jumped out at me. 

  1. Spell out the Problem, Not Just the Solution

When you pitch an idea, you suffer from the curse of knowledge: you’ve spent days, months or years thinking about the problem. It’s so crystal-clear in your mind that you lose sight of how it sounds to other people. Before people will believe your idea will make the world better, you have to explain what’s wrong with the world right now.

  • Mark pitched his app Cyber Dust. He warned us that when sending an email or text message, “The minute you hit send, you no longer own that message, but you are still completely responsible for it—for the rest of your life. How scary is that?”
  • Reid pitched a scholarship fund to help people build technical skills. He started by mapping out the problem: despite “mammoth growth of tech jobs that are highly valuable,” they’re going mostly to white men. Next, he described why the current solutions were incomplete: six-week boot camps exist to teach technical skills, but they’re too expensive to solve the inclusion problem. Only then did he unfold his vision for a scholarship fund via Opportunity@Work.

This isn’t unique to entrepreneurs. In his most famous speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. spent more than 11 minutes denouncing the injustice of today before revealing his dream for tomorrow. As communication expert Nancy Duarte explains, you have to show people what’s unacceptable about “what is” before they’ll get excited about “what could be.”

  1. Involve the Audience

“I’ve sat down with people who lectured to me for an hour about entrepreneurship,” Reid lamented. It’s not much more effective to deliver a monologue and then ask, “So what do you think?” Great entrepreneurs involve him in a dialogue: “How do you think I should solve this particular problem?” That sends a clear message: “I’m not just trying to get your money, I’m actually trying to treat you as a partner. I am also intellectually alive and learning…. Pitching is a collaboration.”

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Read Adam’s third observation in the original post here on LinkedIn – and watch Mark Cuban and Reid Hoffman make their pitches on video.

About the Author(s)
Adam Grant

Adam Grant

Professor & Author

Wharton School of Business

Adam Grant is the youngest tenured professor at Wharton. Named one of BusinessWeek’s favorite professors and one of the world’s 40 best business professors under 40, he is the best-selling author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success and Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. His pioneering research has led to increased performance and reduced burnout among business professionals—concluding that a giving mindset might be the best path to getting ahead.

Years at GLS 2015