Chris Risley, of Bessemer Venture Partners (bvp.com), first introduced me to
the idea of high concept. It is a term borrowed from the film and
television industry that summarizes a proposed idea and usually leads a pitch.
It is intended to evoke immediate interest and possibly understanding of the
idea. For example, YouTube could have been described as “user posted video on
All too often, an entrepreneur over complicates the communication of her
endeavor. Besides her passion, she has been spending an enormous amount of
time contemplating, refining and planning her new business. So, she rushes to
explain all the richness and subtleties of the idea and how its
innovation will change the market. She may even assume that you can’t fully
appreciate the value of the idea without being told all its nuance.
It is true that complete understanding will take some time and exploration.
But this isn’t a prerequisite of interest and when pitching the idea to a VC,
friend and the target market, capturing interest quickly is critical. The
audience’s attention has to be earned and most will not have the patience of
suspending interest while lots of background and tangential information is
Herein lies the power of the high concept; it facilitates immediate interest
and understanding. The high concept doesn’t have to (and rarely will) capture
the breadth and richness of the idea, but some essence that makes a connection
with the audience.
But is can also focus the entrepreneur and this focus is probably more
valuable than the mechanism of communicating the idea to others. Entrepreneurs
get easily distracted and assume, just as when communicating, their idea needs
full implementation before releasing into the market. What they presume is the
minimal feature set for a release tends to have fluff that could be
The high concept is a simple litmus test; how does feature X support the high
concept? This should not be a slavish rule but a sanity check. As Einstein
said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” This
focus can save an entrepreneur time and money, particularly at early stages
where time-to-market is paramount and final value propositions are still
I have two favorite examples of high concept. In television, an NBC executive
asked Michael Mann to come up with a show based on the idea “MTV cops”. The
result was Miami Vice and I think it is clear how the show tied to the high
concept. In the Web 2.0 space, Meebo is “IM through a web page”. Simple and
concise, just like the actual product. I think many would envy Meebo’s
success and attention.
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