An Entire Technology Company On the Back of a Napkin

In: Insights

“Paul, What can we do that represents our VoIP solution as the simple game changer it is for transforming businesses through more effective business communications?”

We would meet every Tuesday morning in Dave Gilbert’s (aka “The Big Cheese”) office, designed like a lighthouse in Dana Point, California. Dave was the founder and CEO of SimpleSignal, a growing Business VoIP service provider with big dreams of disrupting the legacy telecommunications industry through all of the new innovations and capabilities afforded by putting voice over the Internet. Sounds commonplace now, but back then it was truly revolutionary and not everyone was buying into it.

So every week we would brainstorm ideas and then execute on them while squeezing our conservative marketing budget to get the biggest bang for the buck to grow the business to the next level.

What About a Napkin Sketch?

So back to the question Dave was asking. “Paul, what can we do that represents our VoIP solution as the simple game changer it is for transforming businesses through more effective business communications?”

Together we came up with a plan…”Let’s sketch out what SimpleSignal does on the back of a napkin! If we can communicate it on a napkin, who could deny we have a simple solution to a complex problem?”

That was the day that Dave and I sat at his big circular conference table and literally drew out what SimpleSignal does on a napkin… in real time…with a pen… as we discussed it together. Yes we ultimately tweaked it a little but we decided to keep it raw, real, as if someone drew it sitting in front of their audience in a restaurant, at a bar, or in a coffee shop.

We can tell you the hardest part of this project wasn’t the concept or the artwork. It’s narrowing down the message and figuring out what you are willing to leave out of the visual conversation. And that is a painful process because of the fear of your audience missing the key point. And for us, they were all key points. Learning to remove the clutter is both art and science.

The Napkin Sketch Became “Legendary”

No fancy PowerPoint presentation could match the impact this simple napkin sketch had in communicating the SimpleSignal value proposition to a wide range of audiences for years. It instantly connected on a visceral level with anyone, regardless of their technical aptitude. It quickly and visually provided the talking points to be able to walk through an ironically complex communications technology offering and make it all sound simple.

Dave Gilbert used that napkin sketch in casual conversations standing in a hallway, he used it when he met with investors, he also used it in formal presentations in front of large crowds. In every case, it connected. We even heard that Marc Benioff, CEO of held it up in a meeting with over 500 of his sales team and said something to the effect of “this is how you take the complexity of the cloud and explain it in a really simple way.”

SimpleSignal became respected in the telecom industry for being leading edge with their branding and marketing, and while we delivered excellence in all their marketing materials, trade show exhibits, websites, landing pages, videos and more, nothing got the attention and notoriety like our simple little hand-drawn napkin sketch.

“SimpleSignal on a napkin”

What made this napkin sketch so effective? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. It was simple. People crave simplicity. Our lives are increasingly complex. So presenting your value proposition on the back of a napkin is refreshingly unique. It makes an instant connection.
  2. It was fresh. In an industry driven by big bloated PowerPoint presentations and data sheets, our napkin sketch stood out as unique. Don’t get me wrong, we use PowerPoint and data sheets and they are necessary in the right context. But they should not be a lazy alternative to other possibly more creative alternatives.
  3. It forced us to simplify the message. Any temptation to try and add fourteen bullet points and two paragraphs of text were impossible, so the image and a word or two had to suffice.
  4. It kept the presentation conversational. With so little to go by, the storyline had to be delivered within a conversation, no reading of slides, which created an incredibly natural environment for understanding the message.
  5. It was easily shareable. When we created the napkin sketch, we first thought it would only live virtually, as an image online, in an email or in a flyer. But once we found a napkin printer that could actually print them on real napkins, they became a fun thing to hand out and they got passed around quite a bit. Going viral without technology… what a concept!
  6. It was easy to add notes. Short notations could be added as you were describing what was on the napkin. And when you used a Micro Ball pen, the ink looked identical to the pen I used when we drew it out the first time. This created a highly effective customized version of the napkin for that particular audience that they could walk away with (and share with other decision makers).

What are your marketing challenges today? How can you simplify your value proposition? What is the true essence of your key marketing messages? Try drawing it out on the back of a napkin. It will instantly force you to answer these questions and more. And who knows, you might have the next big napkin sketch story!

Also if you’d like help simplifying your value proposition and presenting it verbally and visually in innovative new ways, we’d love to help!