A Canvas That Tells a Story: KISS Canvas (v4.0)

[This is part of a series on the KISS Canvas]


30-page business plans are great for established businesses and terrible for startups that need to iterate quickly. 15+ years ago the Business Model Canvas (BMC) changed everything by giving us a 1-pager (or 4×3 foot poster) to help you quickly document and test the key hypothesis behind your business model. The BMC was a quantum leap forward.

However, my students and I often struggled with the structure of the canvas. While it was superior to a business plan it was relatively hard to read & use. You literally needed a map to show you how to read it – start here, jump to there, then jump down to here…

In a Nutshell

And so was born the KISS (Keep It Super Simple) Canvas. Each key stakeholder (payers, users, channel partners, etc.) gets their own row. Read the columns in each row from left to right and you’ll find the facts of the business model layed out in a logical narrative structure. In fact, it tells the story of your business, as you would in a good pitch. No map required.

At the highest level, this KISS canvas tells the following story just by reading from left to right: We help [key stakeholders] by providing [value proposition]. We find, earn, and retain their trust by [relationships]. This is economically sustainable because of [financials].


We help the blind and visually impaired by empowering them to connect with their fully sighted friends and family as equals. We find, earn, and retain their trust through word-of-mouth and strategic partnerships with nonprofits that serve the blind. This is economically sustainable because customers pay us an $8 monthly subscription.

And today, after 4 years of field testing, I’m proud to roll out version 4!

KISS Canvas v4.0

KISS Canvas (Lite)
  • Key Stakeholders – Who do you serve? Each stakeholder gets their own row to keep their information clear.
    • Type – Stakeholders tend to fall into predictable categories: the one who pays you, the one who uses the product, the one who connects you to the customer, etc. It is important to know each type’s needs.
    • PersonaDescribe the archetype that represents the key traits of this the stakeholder.
    • Pains – What problems do they have?
  • Value Proposition – What do you offer?
    • Benefits – What promises are you making to your customers?
    • Competitors – Who else is solving the problem?
    • Advantages – How are you superior at solving the problem?
  • Relationships – What kind of relationships will you have with each segment?
    • Find – How will you make people aware of your solution? This is often called marketing or promotion.
    • Convert – Once aware of you, what process will they go through to use/pay for your solution? This is often called sales.
    • Retain – Once someone is using your solution, how will you retain their loyalty?
  • Financials – How does the money (and value) flow?
    • Value Model – What value does each segment provide you in return for your product (money, attention, referrals, etc.)?
    • Pricing – How much do you charge?
    • Cost Structure –  What are the costs associated with running your venture?

Get Your Own (free!)

If you would like to use the KISS Canvas, you may do so completely for free as they are licensed under creative commons :).

Check out more KISS Canvas Content.

Deal Breakers for Investors

Caya and his team at Slidebean kindly interviewed me about often-invisible deal-killer for startup raising money: the investment-culture differences between varying groups of investors. Did you know if you are using a SAFE note that 2/3rds of angels in New England angel groups will categorically decline you? Learn more about this and about how to suss out the cultural norms of your investment community.

And full credit for my background art goes to my daughters :).

If you enjoy the video ad want more content like this, listen to the longer & more detailed podcast version of the interview.

A Tool for Consistent and Sustainable Startup Growth

This is a repost from the Launch413 blog

Effective Tools Used By Launch413: A Case Study

When we created Launch413 in 2018, we had no idea what was just around the corner. We already knew entrepreneurs were one of the best ways to create prosperity in our communities and we knew how to help them. We also knew entrepreneurs were one of the most powerful forces for good in the world. Three years later, we still consider ourselves privileged and honored to help other entrepreneurs create jobs, innovations, and prosperity.

Startups need tools and advisors to help them stay on track, do the right things at the right time, and maintain momentum. At Launch413, we deeply believe our tools should be sustainable and our advisors should be impactful.

ApprentiScope, a Launch413 Portfolio Company

ApprentiScope is a software company with a vision to revolutionize the world of apprenticeship programs. In May of 2019, Founder Will Lippolis took the leap to begin running the company full time, and four months later had two paying customers and a robust customer feedback loop — a good start. He was measuring revenue, customer success and product market fit. Things were going well, but his ambition was to make millions of people’s lives easier. To scale his company, he understood that he would need more partners and tools.

The VIRAL Scorecard – A Roadmap

Humble by nature, Will began looking for experienced coaches that would be a good fit for him and for ApprentiScope. He discovered Launch413 and two of its advisors, Paul Silva and Rick Plaut, introduced him to one of their favorite tools, the VIRAL Scorecard, originally developed by Village Capital. Simply put, the VIRAL Scorecard identifies where a company is situated in specific categories key to its future success, including the strength of its team, its market penetration, and scaling. Working together, Will, Paul, and Rick determined where ApprentiScope fell in each of the eight Scorecard categories. The exercise produced clarity about the areas Will needed to focus on. “Having a baseline of what needed to be worked on from a holistic point of view was of immediate value,” said Will.

Their analysis of the VIRAL Scorecard indicated that ApprentiScope needed to work on the business model and scale categories first. To move forward the company needed a consistent and repeatable pricing structure and enough customers to prove it. Will met with Jim Geisman and Chris Fraser, two of Launch413’s domain expert advisors. “We talked and then I accomplished meaningful tasks that allowed our business to level up. Every month we’ve seen growth across the business. The core benefit of the VIRAL Scorecard is the ability to point out the weak (and strong) points of the business, on many different fronts, all at the same time, in a way that is really easy to digest. It’s very helpful for goal setting. If you want to be a level seven business by the end of the year, you can see that you have to do all these things. It’s a really powerful methodology.”

The VIRAL Scorecard is not just a tool to be used in a quarterly review. “I use it on a very regular basis because I can get a comprehensive look at the business quickly. We have other core business documents and they have their place, but they’re not super useful day to day.”

Value of the VIRAL Scorecard and Launch413 Advisors

“If you’re an early stage company, you want to actually know where you are as a business and not just live in your mind’s positivity realm somewhere,” says Will. “I really like the way we’re using the Scorecard with the Launch413 team. It’s a super helpful way of bringing in advisors and investors when working on specific areas and extracting people’s experience and expertise. And, they can ensure you’re filling this in accurately, because it’s only helpful if you do it truthfully.”

Launch413 co-founders, Paul Silva and Rick Plaut, summarize both the value of using the VIRAL Scorecard structure and working with their team of advisors. “We know that successful entrepreneurs are committed and revenue centered. We also know that to cross from early-stage to being a sustainable company entrepreneurs need to maintain momentum, and recognize and fill knowledge gaps. The VIRAL Scorecard provides the roadmap to scale and Launch413 domain experts work within that framework to partner with entrepreneurs to provide the consistent coaching and support needed for successful scaling.”

About Launch413

We are a community of entrepreneurs helping each other beat the odds, accelerate growth, access funding, and survive company-killing mistakes. It that sounds interesting to you, learn more here.

Get Your Own VIRAL Scorecard

You can learn more about, and get your own, VIRAL scorecard tool here.

4 Questions to Find Your Price

This long, detailed, and excellent article is chock full of valuable advice on pricing. One part that particularly stood out for sharing are the four questions to ask a potential customer to help you determine where to price your product.

At what point is this way too expensive that you would never consider purchasing it?

At what point is this starting to get expensive, but you’d still consider purchasing it?

At what point is this a really good deal? (You’d buy it right away.)

At what point is this way too cheap that you’d question the quality of it?

RVI’s New Model 1 year in: 3x the members, 2x the investments, more diversification

One year ago the angel group I have the honor to lead pivoted to a substantially different model. Like all pivots, it wasn’t easy. In fact, it was scary as hell. But thanks to the incredible involvement of our members and our assistant manager Ethan Ferris, 2020 was our best year ever.

  • Membership tripled, pulling in people from a much larger geography than conceivable before. Whereas before it was hard to get people to drive 45 minutes from Amherst to Springfield, now we have members as far away as Texas and prospective members attending from California.
  • Invested in nearly twice as many companies in 2020 than in any prior year in our 18 year history.
  • Increased diversification by making it easy for our members to place smaller bets on lots more companies.
  • Delighted entrepreneurs by giving them answers in 7-10 days from when they pitch and providing pitch feedback they constantly rate as among the best they’ve ever received.
  • Delighted our syndication partners by making life easy on them and their entrepreneurs by moving with speed, efficiency, and respect.

I’m proud as hell of what we we did in 2020 and can’t wait to see what 2021 brings us.

If you aren’t familiar with the River Valley Investors (RVI), we connect angels to strong startups who have already secured an angel group or venture fund to lead the round, share their due diligence, and help guide the company post-investment. Our streamlined, collaborative process means you get to leverage the expertise of dozens of fellow members to get to YES or NO in just a few short hours.

If that sounds like your cup of tea, learn what is required to be an RVI member.

RVI’s New Model 9 Months in: 2x members, more investments, more diversification

For 14 years I’ve led the River Valley Investors angel investor network. A year ago the group was on death’s door. Membership was down to the lowest levels since I’d taken over leadership from our founder and my mentor, Joseph Steig. And none of us knew that COVID was just around the corner. If RVI failed then our region would have lost its only active angel group – a huge potential blow to local startups.

It was time to pivot. I spent the last 3 months of 2019 conducting intensive customer discovery, interviewing RVI’s top members, past and present. They taught me a lot.

In January RVI leveraged that learning and pivoted to focus on speed, convenience, and syndicated deals. In March we switched to meeting online permanently.

The results:

  • Membership has nearly doubled in 9 months, pulling in people from a much larger geography than conceivable before.
  • Membership is continuing to grow at the fastest rate in seventeen years.
  • We’re investing in more deals than we’ve ever invested in before.
  • We’re helping our members get more diversification than they’ve ever had before.

I’m proud as hell of what we’ve done in less than a year, and excited to see where the next year takes us. We’ve accomplished all of these results because of the incredible feedback our members, past and present, generously gave in Q4 of 2019. I can’t thank them enough for helping ensure our region continues to have a source of high-risk capital for startups!

If you aren’t familiar with the River Valley Investors (RVI), we are a network of successful business executives and entrepreneurs who invest in exciting startups. No one investor has all of the time and expertise needed to fully vet all deals. That is why we only look at startups that have already passed the hurdle of securing another angel group or venture fund as their lead investor. RVI members then leverage each other’s expertise and networks to vet the opportunities and come to a decision in just a few short hours of work, then co-invest to secure optimal terms.

If that sounds like your cup of tea, learn what is required to be an RVI member.

The Quick and Easy Way to Find the Best Applicant From Among Hundreds

One of my favorite jokes goes something like this:

Whenever a new position opens up, and I have to sort through a stack of resumes, the first thing I do is take half of them at random and throw them away.

I don’t want unlucky people working in this department.

As with many good jokes, it’s funny because it has a nugget of truth to it.

Anyone who’s run an accelerator, a grant program, reviewed book/screenplay manuscripts, or been in charge of hiring has an impossible challenge: how do you find the proverbial needle in the haystack?

The answer is usually some variation on, “start sifting.”

Sorting through a massive pile of potential applicants is time consuming, boring, and feels pointless.

But we know that the results are undesirable. Being unable to fully and objectively review applicants perpetuates the existing weaknesses of the selecting culture, misses out on diamonds in the rough, and it is costly.

And it’s not like it’s a malicious problem – it’s just an effect of the system.

We just don’t have a better way to do it.

Or do we?

Option 1: Automate or outsourcing the task to less costly labor. Perhaps we give the young, inexperienced pre-screener a set of very simple rules of thumb like “Graduated from Harvard/MIT/Stanford” or “ready to work 40-hours-a-week on their venture.”

There are lots of problems with this. The first is that it inadvertently bakes in the flaws of our current systems as it prefers people who tend to graduate from top-tier schools or who can afford to work full time on their venture without going hungry or neglecting their family. You end up with a very young, white, and male demographic.

It also leaves out the ‘x-factor’. There are always factors beyond the obvious and quantitative that can signal a great applicant.

Option 2: Use Experienced Judges.

People who can spot that x-factor are rare, busy, and expensive. So we don’t use them until late in the process. When we do, we often use them in ways proven to be ineffective – for instance putting 3 judges in a room for 8 hours and sending applicant after applicant to them all day long. Studies show the applicants coming in at 5pm have a much lower chance of being accepted vs applicants coming in at 9am.

Another issue with these high-cost judges is that you often can’t get enough of them to achieve the diversity of perspective you need to spot the best applicants.


Because these people cost a lot of money, and moreover, are hard to find!

Oh, and on top of that, because of the cost of processing applications, there is NO practical way to provide feedback to the vast majority of people you reject. So, you can’t maintain a relationship with potential future applicants, nor give them a clear path to improvement.

How much of that applies to your system? What if you could do something better, more convenient, and at lower cost? Usually that requires a technological miracle. But in our case we just need to take advantage of a very old miracle – peer selection.

The Peer Selection Solution:

At Valley Venture Mentors (VVM) we created a selection process that improved on all of these issues – reduced cost, saved time, AND increased the quality of applications we accepted.

In short, it’s something of a miracle solution. And, like many miracles, we stumbled upon it largely by accident.

Let me show you how it works.

Step 1: Peer Selection

  1. The applicants submitted their applications, as normal. VVM’s applications, for example, had two sections:
    1. Pitch – Section describing the venture
    2. Rest – Everything else, notably: Entrepreneurs’ names, contact info, demographic data, etc.
  2. Drawing inspiration from research on blind auditions, we created packets containing 20 randomly selected Pitches without information about the founders. If you don’t know that the founder is female, of color, LGBTQ, etc. then that cannot influence your decision. (It isn’t perfect because if someone had a startup called “Black Girls Code” that information will be in the Pitch and the reviewer might make some educated guesses. However, we solve this later on in the process…)
  3. Give each applicant a packet and a limited amount of time to read, score, and provide feedback to every Pitch in their packet.
    1. Why 20? We wanted to have each company score as many of their peers as possible to get a more accurate score, but we had to balance that with the amount of time that would take the applicants to complete. Our goal was to have the whole process take < 4 hours so that the applicants wouldn’t get tired and start scoring people too harshly.
  4. This was all done with Google Forms and Google Sheets, so no costly or confusing software was required!
  5. We had a few simple checks to see if someone was gaming the system. We kept an eye out for things like:
    1. If you scored teams low that everyone else scored high (or vice versa).
    2. If you seemed to give random scores or score everyone the same.
    3. If you gave little or no feedback.
  6. Then we used some spiffy math to adjust for the fact that some people grade generously, some harshly, some with a tight spread, some use the whole scale, etc.
  7. We disqualified anyone who we felt was trying to game the system. In theory, this could be tricky. In practice, of the very few people who tried to game the system, 100% of them ended up with low scores from their peers anyway. I assume that would not always be the case, but it was the 3 years I managed the process.

Simultaneously we had a Control Group – a group of the usual kinds of people who are used as judges – the expensive people. We had them review a random packet and compared their scores to the crowd’s. The scores were 80% the same.

Benefits of Our Peer Selection System

  • Faster – Processed hundreds of applications in 1 week
  • Cheaper
    • Almost no “expensive” talent (just the 5 control group judges)
    • A small portion of time from two staff people
    • No expensive software!
  • Better
    • Dramatically reduced unconscious bias.
    • Every applicant received feedback from more than a dozen peers.
    • Tests the applicants’ commitment and willingness to work for the position (if they submit no peer review scores, you can safely disqualify them).
    • The activity, one of the first any entrepreneur would experience working with us, showed applicants how serious we were about being a community and living by our values. It helped us find our kind of entrepreneurs and let them know we were right for them. In short, it made them like us. A lot.

That’s how it worked. Knowing this, you can build one for your program. If you’d like help I can put you in touch with someone you could contract to help you. Reach out to me on LinkedIn

A Taxonomy of Customer Pains and Benefits

I’m sure you’ve seen this before.

A triangle with the three vertices labeled as follows: Premium, Convenient, Cheap
positioning triangle

This triangle is a super-simplified way of discerning what pains your product or service is solving. In short, it helps you discern your value proposition.

Your company’s value proposition must provide benefits that perfectly match your customers’ pains. If the customer has no cash, you’ve got to be cheap. If they have no time, you’ve got to be fast, and so on.

First-time entrepreneurs asked to document their hypotheses about Pains and Benefits often experience “blank canvas” paralysis, the inability to get going because of a lack of a clear starting point.

That’s where this handy triangle comes in. It gives you a brief list of options, from which you can choose what fits best with your company and your customers.

This is very imprecise though.

It’s never as simple as, “I don’t have any cash,” or, “I’m short on time.”

If you want to solve the customer’s pains, you’ve got to understand them on a deeper level.

Of course, this requires interviewing your customers at length to get a full picture of the problem they are facing.

But, there is an intermediary step you can take.

This blog post aims to provide a set of categories and examples to guide an entrepreneur to find the relevant pain hypotheses, which can then be tested in interviews.

Each heading lists a category of Pain/Benefit. This is not an exhaustive list. Deep knowledge of your stakeholders will provide far more specific pain points and benefits. However, this list can kickstart the exploration process by giving you a running start.

So, find the pains that you think your customers may be feeling, then go out and talk to them about it!

Existential Risk / Survival

Losing their jobSaving their position
Ruining their careerMaintaining their career
BankruptcyFinancial stability
Physical painFree of discomfort
DyingLive long & prosper

Money (too little / more)

Expenses too highA growing savings account
Revenue too lowMore customers
More revenue from existing customers

Time / Convenience

Too many tasks to do every dayA simpler schedule
No personal timeMore personal time
Deadline missedHit the deadline with confidence

Shame / Status

Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO)Pride in being in the “in” group
Failure leads to public shame
Fear of being mediocre
Status increased
Impact recognized

Lonely / Connected

Depressed by lonelinessJoy from belonging
Socially isolated
Can’t find their “tribe”
Can’t breakin to social network
Connected to a community of like-minded people.

Bored / Fun

Ignorant of a topic of interestMastery of their craft
Seen it all beforeNovelty, something new to experience

The KISS Scorecard Helps Founders, Investors, and Mentors Focus on What Matters


Entrepreneurs and investors used to rely on strictly qualitative/gut methods of assessing progress and deciding what their next steps should be.

In 2014 the great Steve Blank gave the startup world its first widely-respected quantitative assessment system: the Investment Readiness Level (IRL). A few years later Village Capital took the IRL to the next level, creating the Venture Investment and ReAdiness Level (VIRAL). It took Steve’s IRL and essentially added a second dimension, a set of 8 milestones for each IRL level. It is a fantastic tool to help highly scalable startups understand where they are at in terms of being ready to raise venture capital funding.

VIRAL is an excellent tool used by many. However, it didn’t work for my students. It puts nearly equal weight to all components of a business at every level of its development, whereas I find that in the early days almost all your attention should be on customer discovery, and later on it should be about product development, then on marketing, and so on. Also, while my students are building scalable businesses, few are building venture capital scale businesses, and many of the milestones in VIRAL weren’t quite right for us.

In a Nutshell

And so was born the KISS (Keep It Super Simple) Scorecard. At its most basic, it is a way to let a startup CEO/investor/mentor know what they should be focusing on, and it does so by helping them tell a story…

  • Level 1: Idea – A founding team with passion and an idea to solve a large, important problem.
  • Level 2: Market – Identified a viable market of customers who’s “hair is on fire.
  • Level 3: Value Proposition – Initial product that customers are thrilled with and is superior to the competition.
  • Level 4: Relationship – Cost-effective methods to Find, Get & Keep customers.
  • Level 5: Financials – Revenue model, cost structure, and unit economics are proven and profitable.
  • Levels 6+: Scale 10x – Grown 10x, fixed what broke along the way, and remain profitable.

The Milestones

Like VIRAL, the KISS Scorecard has milestones for each level but more than half are on the specific aspect of the business it should most be focusing on. So for companies in Level 2: Market, most of the milestones have to do with understanding your market/customer discovery. For companies in Level 4: Relationship, most of the milestones are on finding cost effective marketing, sales, and retention strategies. Each level also has dedicated milestones for the few things startups always need to pay close attention to: Team and Fundraising

Also like VIRAL, KISS Scorecard’s right-hand side depicts what flavors of capital tend to be the best fit for companies given their level. Let’s take a look (click to enlarge).

KISS Scorecard

How to Use the KISS Scorecard

  1. Get your own (free!) digital copy of the KISS Scorecard. If you like paper, go to the “print” tab and you can cross off milestones as you go. From here on out though we’ll assume you are using the “Digital” tab.
  2. Mark your current status. Go through the Scorecard and mark off each milestone you have completed. To do so just put an “a” in the tall, skinny cell to the left of each completed milestone. When you do so, you’ll notice the milestone will get a black background and the text will turn white. Your score (in the upper left corner of the document) will increase. Your score goes up by 1/9 for each completed milestone. Note that all the milestones are in columns D onwards, columns A-C should not be edited as they are labels, not milestones. Next go to the Log tab and in the row associated with the “a” assessment, put today’s date.
  3. Find your gaps & set your priorities. As the leader of a company one of your top jobs is to determine what few tasks of the infinite pile are the priority. The lowest-level uncompleted milestones on your Scorecard should generally be your top priority. If they aren’t, you should make sure you have a good reason.
  4. Repeat. Periodically (probably every 1-3 months) you should update your Scorecard and use it to guide your medium-term goal setting. Use a new letter for each assessment (“b” for the second, “c” for the third, and so on), leaving your old letters in place. Doing so gives you a grayscale bar graph showing the evolution of your startup over time. Be sure to update the “Log” tab each time so you have the dates of each assessment recorded. This is a great activity to do with your board of advisors. Asking them to “bless” you marking milestones as complete (even in a non-binding way) can create accountability most of us need.


Let’s walk through a fictitious example (picture of it below as well)

Example KISS Scorecard

We can see the evolution of Magic Mops’ progress over time on this scorecard. The black cells with white text show them as they entered an accelerator with little more than idea (the “a” assessment). The progressively lighter gray “b” and “c” assessments followed each month thereafter as they applied what they learned in the accelerator. We can see they didn’t think much about fundraising until the end of the accelerator and otherwise were mostly adding one layer of knowledge at a time. Then, after graduation, they go to autopilot.

Fast forward a year. Magic Mops’s product was in the market and generating a few hundred thousand dollars in revenue. Wahoo! The CEO was spending most of her time on ramping up sales & marketing efforts. She runs into her old KISS Scorecard from the accelerator and realizes she hasn’t updated it in all this time. At her next board meeting she asks everyone to help update the scorecard. The conversation is illuminating.

First of all, her score is listed as 3.0, not the level 5 or 6 she expected given the her recent sales successes. This gives her and the board pause. So she looks more closely…

Yes, she has 1 milestone in level 6 and one in level 5 crossed off. A few bigger customers took a chance on her, so she felt pretty confident. But, there is a huge problem. She’s spending time on high level milestones when the very foundation that work is built upon is unsound. Critically, she is missing:

  • Milestone [2.4] “Our initial target customers love the product, pay for it, and keep using it” – People have ordered, but there have not yet been any reorders.
  • Milestone [2.5] “Customers validated our solution is superior to competition” – While the janitorial staff using the mops love them, there is zero evidence from the paying customers that the product is superior for them.
  • And all the Level 4 milestones are incomplete. Many things have been tried, some successes came in, but nothing that is scalable or repeatable or even consistently measureable.

Scaling up right now would be begging for the #1 cause of startup death, premature scaling. Instead, she needs to put almost all of her attention into milestones 2.4 and 2.5. Only after she has proof that those milestones are completed can she start working on sales & marketing with confidence. Her board helped her reorganize her strategy and ToDo lists to focus obsessively on these milestones.

She just dodged a company-killing mistake.

Hopefully, so can you.

Get your KISS scorecard (for free!) now.