Hardtech Helps People. Mike Harmon’s “Moonshot Manifesto” Makes It Easier to Tell Them How

Recently, I sat down with marketing leader and HardTechCMO founder Mike Harmon. From his start studying journalism to his work as a CMO to his newly founded consulting and coaching venture, Mike has relied on the power of storytelling to help startups position and sell new-to-market technologies.

It comes down to this: it’s not enough to have technology you know can change the world. You have to show the world the potential impact of that technology. And you need to convince everyone from investors to partners to future clients why that matters.

So what ties all that together? Storytelling.

Here’s how…

Why specialize in hardtech?

Mike Harmon: Storytelling is important for everyone. But throughout my career, I’ve found folks in the hardtech space in particular need the most help telling their stories. 

Employees at hardtech startups have amazing skills in complex fields (think: battery tech and alternative-fuel engine technology). Impressive as they are, though, those skills don’t often include storytelling expertise.

Any startup must get the world excited about its technology. That means it has to be packaged and presented in a clear, compelling way. But many of these technologists find that they don’t know many professionals who focus on storytelling. 

How can hardtech startups effectively tell their stories?

MH: It all starts with the story behind tech that’s yet to be built. Success isn’t just about promoting a product. It’s about championing possibilities, then proving you know how to make them real. It’s about developing a sense of excitement and then ensuring it lasts.

A lot of hardtech innovations come from PhDs who specialize in nuanced areas of science and technology. I’ve met a few who are great storytellers. But storytelling is a talent that a lot of people lack. That’s all the more likely when someone specializes in an entirely different field, especially one that requires deep technical specialization.

That’s only natural. Storytelling and technical acumen are entirely different skills. To flip the script: I'm a good storyteller, but I'm not trained as a technologist. I build with words and images, not circuitry or code.

So the question is: how can companies lift up innovations to make them captivating no matter who the audience is? Investment communities, R&D engineers, potential partner companies, and university labs, just to name a few, all have different perspectives and priorities.

It's one thing to have an interesting innovation, but it's quite another to effectively tell people about it. Yet if you can't package your technology into a compelling story, it's hard to excite investors, partners, or customers.

What steps can leaders take to effectively tell their stories?

MH: There are a few must-haves. First, you need a clear, documented vision – what I call a "moonshot manifesto" – that outlines how your technology will change the world. Don’t take it for granted that investors want to know the potential impact.

Tell people about your technology. What problem does your technology solve? How does it solve it? What inspired you to go down this path? What was your "eureka moment"? How will it benefit the world?

These are the types of questions founders need to ask at the outset. Then, the next step is to understand your target audience and tailor a message to them.

Can you share the outcome of a successful “moonshot manifesto”?

One example that comes to mind is the message "Be DNA Certain," which we developed at Strand Diagnostics, the molecular diagnostics firm where I worked as VP of Marketing & Communications.

It's one thing to be certain. It's another to be certain at the molecular level. Our mission was to improve patient safety and diagnostic accuracy with our DNA testing of prostate and breast biopsies. That was our moonshot manifesto. And our product offered that level of diagnostic accuracy and patient safety.

For me, the moral of the story is that a great manifesto is key to the successful design of your product and value messaging. In this case, the beauty of our approach was that it resonated with both patients and physicians, which meant that it supported both push and pull strategies.

What’s your advice for how to understand your audience?

MH: “Know your audience” certainly isn’t a new concept. But because it’s so simple, it’s easily overlooked. A lot of times, folks make the mistake of thinking all potential audiences will respond to the same information – even just the basic idea of their product.

But the content in an effective investor pitch deck won’t be the same as what interests a potential development partner. VCs want to hear a story that illustrates how large the market is – and how much bigger it will become.

Potential customers, on the other hand, want to see how technology will impact their industry – not all of its touchpoints across five different industries.

In the end, it’s about focusing on what each particular audience cares about.

How can startups focus on the “right” story?

MH: To my mind, it’s about understanding narrative style. About “knowing your voice.” And this is another area where storytelling expertise is crucial. 

  • Do you want to be seen as a visionary? 
  • Do you want to be seen as someone who can identify problems no one else sees? 
  • Do you want to be recognized primarily as solutions-oriented? 
  • Do you want to be known as an advocate who focuses on the impact of those solutions? 

Founders may be more than one of those things. But if they don’t find the right voice or actively position themselves in the market, their audience won’t take in the right story.

Can you share a success story of this advice in action?

MH: Definitely. To reemphasize: effective marketing goes beyond championing a product’s features. It requires uncovering specific customer needs (e.g., knowing your audience) and presenting your solution as the best answer (e.g., developing your voice).

I previously worked with NuCurrent, a wireless power technology company where I served as VP of Marketing. In our case, success came from research. Specifically, we dove into public filings and user groups from various mobile device manufacturers and discovered a crucial insight: connectors are the primary failure point for many electronic devices.

This revelation transformed our messaging, which previously had focused on being more convenient and reducing clutter. We pivoted to highlight how our technology eliminates the need to plug in to charge a device. The resulting benefit was the elimination of the main point of failure for these portable devices.

So we were able to identify a problem that helped us tell a concrete story about how to solve it: simplify design to reduce maintenance and remove a point of failure, which will extend the device lifespan.

How did you tie audience and voice both together?

MH: Good question. Let’s keep the answer simple.

Research led us to the audience (hardware developers likely to experience failure) and that led us down the path of very personalized, account-specific messaging. It allowed us to approach companies with high-value, product-tailored solutions with the potential for immediate impact.

That sounds like pairing curiosity and empathy.

MH: That’s a good approach. But it requires a balance between genuine curiosity and making assumptions. You can't just barge in and declare, “You have this problem, here's my solution!” That comes across as presumptuous.

Start by exploring. Ask open-ended questions:

  • Are you facing any challenges, specifically with X?
  • Would an innovative solution to X be valuable, or worth investigating?

This approach acknowledges the potential client’s expertise, which is what drove their success in the first place. Once you understand their pain points, you can introduce yourself and your potential solution.

A DIY Approach To Rev Your Marketing Engine

Startups that aren’t yet ready to partner with professional storytellers can still get started. According to Mike, the key is to find a sounding board. A thread to pull. A way to explore your initial idea.

It’s a tactic founders find familiar from when they first started their company. And it’s similarly helpful for developing messaging. 

While some thrive with a blank page, others freeze. But if you can find a way to spring forward, a partner or colleague who can help change the momentum and ignite that creative spark, it’ll make all the difference.

The main challenge? To tap into creative potential and refine raw material into something that helps people.