How to pitch an idea to your CEO

Every startup employee at some point has an idea that they believe will create a lot of value for the company. How do you get the greenlight from the CEO so you can turn the idea into reality?

Startup CEOs are ambitious, under immense pressure, and extremely time poor. That means that if you want to propose a new initiative you’d better do your homework and prepare as well as possible.

Here are seven steps to make sure your project gets the resourcing and backing it needs to be successful.

1. Know the key metric you’re trying to change

This should be an obvious step but for far too many people it isn’t. You have to be as specific as possible in showing the impact you expect this initiative to have. That means having a key metric. Make it direct and measurable – don’t leave it to the imagination or make it vague.

“This should increase signups” is a bad example. Instead this should be: “Our target is to increase the conversion from visitor to signups by 10%” If it’s not clear what you’re trying to do then the answer will automatically be “no”.

2. Know what metrics your CEO cares about

You have the key metrics you’re measured on and care about (if you don’t then that’s a much bigger problem) but why should the CEO earmark your initiative for resources? The answer is that your numbers drive the metrics both the CEO and the rest of the company care about (if that’s not the answer then you should abandon your idea immediately).

There are always top-level numbers that matter to everyone in the company like revenue, profitability and cost. Your numbers should already be tied to those higher level figures. Even still you should connect the dots for your CEO.

This makes the full implications of the resourcing decision obvious to the CEO. That might sound trivial but it isn’t. You add value when you communicate succinctly with decision makers so they need to do the minimum amount of mental lifting. This is important when you consider how much decision fatigue your CEO probably has.

3. De-risk by testing

Good startups use lean startup methodology to rapidly iterate from their initial idea to product-market fit. This approach works for initiatives at all levels in the company and your proposal is no exception.

Let’s say you’re a real estate rental startup and you want to create a “Should I Rent Or Buy In My City?” calculator because you think renters will find it useful and that it’ll drive pageviews. You want the CEO to let you spend money on an engineer to build this calculator.

A good test would be to pick just one city and do a “Rent Or Buy In City X” blog post and see how many pageviews it gets.

Make sure you pick the right metric and definition of success before you run the test. The metric for success should be as close to the number you’re trying to move with the overall initiative. In this case, that’s pageviews.

What’s a better pitch for your CEO: “I just know this will work in my gut” or “I believe in it so I tested and when we did the blog post we had 1,000 people spend 7 minutes on the page.” The answer is obvious.

What happens if the test ‘fails’ and you don’t see the numbers you were hoping for? That’s a great outcome! You’ve just saved the company previous time, energy and resources by cutting an initiative that had a low chance of success.

4. How to get priority

If you’ve followed the steps until now and your idea is still standing then you’ve made the case that you need resources. The next question is how high up on the roadmap should your initiative sit?

There are several factors that go into prioritization: expected upside, how confident you are in getting the results described, the amount of resources it’ll take, resource availability, time to execute, and the other items on the roadmap.

If you think your CEO has accurately gauged these factors for each item on the roadmap then you should trust wherever they put it. You should only advocate for moving your initiative up the list if you think your CEO isn’t weighing the factors correctly.

Just remember that your CEO has information you don’t have and there may be things they can’t tell you. For example, a key engineer may be leaving soon but it hasn’t been announced. Passion is important but ultimately you have to trust your CEO and their judgment.

5. Get input from a smart colleague

If you notice someone in your company is really good at getting CEO approval or seems to be able to read them particularly well then pull them aside and ask for their advice. If you can make them an ally in your request then they can probably look over your proposal and give feedback on how to make it stronger.

This is especially helpful if your CEO is intimidating, difficult to convince or hard to read. You may only have one shot to get them onboard and you better make it count.

6. Make it easy to say “yes”

Your CEO’s time is rare and valuable and you should treat it as such. Make sure that when you make a request you express it succinctly, give them all the key facts, format your request so it’s easy to read (bullet points are your friend), and pick the right time to make the request.

Everyone has their preferred system for decision making. Your CEO may prefer to have office hours once a week for considering these requests or they may funnel them all through their inbox where they’ll handle ad hoc.

If your CEO has an executive assistant then check with them to see if the CEO is going to be in the right mood when you approach them with your idea. This one step alone can make a huge difference.

7. Build on the side

If you get knocked back and you still believe strongly in your idea then do it quietly as a side project (if you have the skills). This may not be suitable for every project but if you can do it then go for it. This shows initiative and drive. If it works out you’ll really shine. CEOs care about results above all else. If it doesn’t work out then chalk it up and move on.

Don’t forget that you and the CEO have the same goal and want the same things. Keep that in the front of your mind and trust the process above then you’ll add more value and have fewer failed initiatives in the long run.

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