How To Not Be Heard

For years I’ve worked very closely with two individuals who get extremely excitable, to the point of anger and frustration, when they’re expressing their point of view. These two people happen to be among the smartest people I’ve ever met. However, they often deliver their feedback accompanied by something very off-putting such as the following gem:

“Someone with a brain will eventually figure this out!”

This is what they really said to me! It was immediately followed by some very insightful and important feedback. But it’s feedback most people would never be able to hear.

If you were on the receiving end of this feedback, it would be pretty hard not to feel insulted. The implication that you don’t have a brain would probably distract you from any advice or insights that followed.

Fortunately, I have what I consider a rare and useful skill in my line of work–the ability to cut through the emotion and still listen to the content of the message. However, most people aren’t built that way. They’re going to get hung up on the fact that you’re insulting or berating them and how that makes them feel. As a result they will never give any consideration to your actual message, no matter how amazing your insights may be.

I once heard a great phrase, which I’ve since successfully passed along to these two individuals:

“The fury with which you speak undermines the veracity of your statements.”

So this is how to not be heard: Scream. Hurl insults. Unleash your fury.

If you do want to be heard: Stop. Think. Breathe. Set aside the emotion in your tone.

When I work with startups and give them feedback, I always try to remain even keel and tone the down emotional content. Sometimes I’m really pissed off, and sometimes I’m really excited, but I strive to make sure my message is heard and not my emotion. If you’re the kind of person who likes to scream and deliver a lot of hellfire with your feedback, recognize that many people will never hear your feedback. If you’re the rare example of someone like this who also has amazing, important insights to offer, realize that you’re undermining yourself. Your ideas will almost never be heard.

If you want to be heard, you have to learn to rein it in. If you’re prone to getting excited and emotional, remember: Don’t let the fury with which you speak undermine the veracity of your statements. Tone down the emotion when you’re providing feedback, so that your brilliant insights can be heard.

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Between the Yes and the Close

When an investor says “Yes,” that doesn’t mean you can stop communicating with them.  Unfortunately, that’s often exactly what happens. Entrepreneurs will take a Yes from an investor and then proceed to shut down all communication until it’s time to close the round.

This is where many deals are lost–between the Yes and the close.

I can think of several examples where an entrepreneur had a Yes, but then lost the deal by failing to keep the investor up to date. In one instance, four months passed after an investor committed to the round. When the entrepreneur contacted him to say “Okay, we’re closing,” the investor literally replied: “Sorry, that was a long time ago. I’m not sure I remember you. Can you remind me who you are and which company this is?” Obviously, that investor had moved on to other things.

Another time, six months went by after a Yes with no communication between the company and the investor. So when they finally were ready to close, the investor told them: “Look, that was six months ago. We haven’t heard from you since then, so we assumed it wasn’t happening and we’re not planning on investing.”

After you get a Yes, do not stop communicating. Typically after an investor commits to you, a couple of months–and sometimes more–will go by before you actually close their money. Particularly in equity rounds, it can take a long time to put together syndicates. Or you might have a complex situation where there’s a lot of herding of cats. Even in the best of circumstances, some time is going to pass between the Yes and the close.

A lot can happen in a couple of months. Things change. People change their minds. Other hot deals come along. In an instant, a Yes can turn into a No. Don’t let that happen to your hard-earned Yes. Help it remain a Yes.

The key to keeping that Yes is to keep the lines of communication open. Investors sometimes change their Yes to a No based on the entrepreneur’s behavior. The way you keep an investor informed and up to date during this critical time frame is an indication of how you’ll communicate with them in the future.

That’s why it’s important to manage that relationship by continuing to let the investor know what’s going on. You should be updating them weekly, or at the very least biweekly, with a quick email. Keep them informed about your progress and the good things that are happening. Tell them about others who are committing to the round and new customers that have signed up. Let them know how much you have committed and when you’re on track to close.

Then make sure they’re responding once in a while, even just to acknowledge that they are receiving your updates.

No matter how much time it takes to put together the round, continue to develop your relationship with an investor in the weeks and months after they say Yes. And of course, after the investment too. But I’ve seen it before – If you don’t communicate well between the Yes and the close then time becomes your enemy and you run the risk of that Yes turning into a No.

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Reconciling Vision and Focus

Which is more important for your startup–a big vision or a specific focus?

Lately I’ve been hearing about this dilemma from several companies I work with through Techstars. These companies have mentors or advisors telling them they need a big, bold vision to draw others to the company, attract investors and be viewed as thought leaders.

At the same time, they are also being told they need to focus–they need to do something very specific and really build up a dominant market share with good revenue in a specific area.

Many view this as conflicting advice. It causes them to thrash about, between big vision and specific focus. In reality, it’s not conflicting at all.

Having a long term vision and having focus early on are completely compatible ideas. The key here is that your focus should show how you’re executing along the path to fulfilling your vision. Recognize that over the long term, your company has a trajectory with a start point and a theoretical envisioned endpoint where you change the world. Focus on one concrete step that lies on the path of that long term vision. You need both your vision and a focus that is in line with that vision.

When I was at the Disney Accelerator recently, this vision vs. focus topic was coming up a lot. It so happens that one of the participating companies is a great example of focus that demonstrates progress toward the overall vision. The vision for this company is helping parents and kids connect and communicate. They’re doing that right now, but they’re doing it in one very specific area–chores–with a suite of web and mobile apps called ChoreMonster.

Of course chores are only one way that kids and parents will communicate. But what if you think of chores as one interaction along the path of helping kids and parents interact? By focusing on chores, the company is making progress while still maintaining their overall vision.

Vision or focus? There’s no need to choose one or the other. Instead, choose both–talk about your vision while making progress with your focus. Just like with your eyesight, vision is of no use without focus.

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Answer the Damn Question

An investor asks you a simple, direct question: “Have you ever lost a customer because they couldn’t figure out how to install your product?”

Your answer might be: “No, that has never happened.”

Or maybe: “Yes, that has happened once.”

It was a short answer, but you answered the damn question.

This is where it often goes wrong. Then comes the dreaded pause.

You don’t like that pause very much. It makes you uncomfortable. So you fill the silence by veering off into other topics or offering up more information:

“We’ve never lost a customer for that reason, because our product is incredibly easy to install.”


“So that’s just not really the reason we lose customers at all.”

Wait. How did that happen? Now you’ve brought up an issue the person wasn’t even asking about. You have created an entirely new line of questioning, when you could have simply said, “No.” Or, “That has only happened once out of 400 customers, so it’s definitely not a trend.”

The next question is probably going to be “Can you tell me more about how you do lose customers?”

That pause isn’t by accident. It’s a tactic many investors use. After you provide the short, direct answer, a savvy questioner will often remain silent for a moment, hoping to get you to say something beyond the answer you’ve already given.

So when you’re asked a question, simply answer the question. If the investor wants to follow up with a related question, that’s great. But learn to be comfortable with the inevitable pause that will occur after you give a direct response to a direct question. You don’t need to fill the silence by elaborating on all kinds of other things or volunteering a bunch of additional information. Don’t create the next issue and remember that less is more.

Just answer the damn question.

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The Purpose of Pitching in Public

Your precious public pitch. You prepare, practice, polish and finally, present it. I know, that’s a lot of “P” words. Here’s one more: Purpose.

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Never lose track of the reason you’re pitching to begin with. You aren’t pitching investors in order to get them to make a decision.

The purpose of your pitch is to get a meeting.

Keep that goal on the forefront of your brain as you create, practice and deliver your pitch.

Nobody’s going to walk up to you immediately after your presentation and write a check. Okay, so that does happen occasionally–we’ve seen it a handful of times at Techstars Demo Day. But the majority of the time, the purpose of your pitch is to get that next meeting with an investor. And how do you get a meeting? You get it by being awesome.

As an investor, if I’m thinking about potentially working with someone, I’m going to spend some time with them. I want to see how they interact and figure out if they have what it takes to execute on their idea. But the thing that often compels me to meet with them in the first place is simply this: Do they seem awesome?

I watch lots and lots of pitches and meet with tons of entrepreneurs, and it is just way more fun to meet with awesome people. So use your pitch to show me that you’re awesome. Show me that your product is awesome. Show me that you can describe it awesomely. Within the first minute of your presentation, you should really draw me in and get me excited about this big opportunity. Help me clearly understand what you’re doing, show me that you have momentum and tell me about your traction. Like I said, investors typically aren’t going to make a decision on the spot. But if you can do those things and demonstrate that you and your product are awesome, you’re much more likely to get that next meeting, where you can share more information and go deeper.

So how do you use your pitch to show that you and your company are downright awesome? Bring some energy and show your enthusiasm for what you’re doing. Always be yourself. Whatever makes you particularly interesting and awesome, find a way to showcase that through your presentation. Maybe you have a great sense of humor, a unique perspective or a dramatic story to tell. Show that you truly understand your market and why you’re passionate about what you’ve built. Finally, practice your pitch over and over so you’ll be able to deliver it with complete confidence.

If you can combine being interesting with an amazing product and/or significant traction, there’s a good chance you’ll have investors thinking: “I really want to spend more time with these people. They’re awesome. I’d love to learn more about them and what they’re doing.”  That’s exactly the reaction you want. That is how you get the meeting.

Hopefully it will be an awesome meeting. That’s why you’re pitching in the first place.

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No Vision, All Drive

It was pretty fun to sit on stage recently with Techstars co-founder David Brown to tell our story in front of the newest class of Techstars founders in Boulder. Since it was our first time on stage together talking about how we built and sold our first company, Pinpoint Technologies, we put together a few short videos from the talk that highlight our entrepreneurial adventures.

Together we’ve had successes and failures over the last 25 years, and we’ve laughed a ton along the way. Here’s the quick story: in 1993, we founded our first company, Pinpoint Technologies, which grew from a basement startup to a successful multinational company with $50 million in annual sales and over 250 employees. Later we founded a company together called iContact, which failed (you may have heard of the one that was successful – we sold them the domain name after we failed). And finally, we founded Techstars together and it seems to be doing OK.

David recounts our experiences together, from founding Pinpoint to coming back as Managing Partner at Techstars just one year ago, in the updated and re-released version of his book, No Vision All Drive.

These short videos give you a glimpse into David’s book, which exemplifies what it was like for two young entrepreneurs who knew nothing about building a business to grow their startup into a real company with a successful exit.

The reason we started Techstars together was based on our experiences together. We sold Pinpoint Technologies for half as much as we later learned that the acquirer was willing to pay. Since then I’ve seen 48 Techstars companies exit. I’ve seen that pattern play itself back, and in some cases we’ve been able to double exit values for our founders. Sure wish we had that help when we sold our first company successfully!

Check out the videos and if you like what you see, grab a copy of No Vision All Drive, just released this week.

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