Read about the first rule here.
Starting a business is a little like dating for the first time. Except you’re not even dating yet. You’re just throwing on your best sweatpants and striking an awkward pose in front of a girl, any girl. Or maybe that was just me.
The long and short of it is simple — you’re going to get rejected. Worse, you’re going to be embarrassed. You’re going to do a ton of stupid things, before you figure out how to woo customers, investors, and business partners.
So you had better develop a really thick hide. Build great listening skills. And dial back that ego. In fact, just kill it from the start.
You need grit. Toughness. Resilience. Whatever the vocabulary, go get some of the delicious rejection to build it up.
Put Yourself Out There
I don’t care how crappy your idea is, you need to surface it early to get valuable feedback. Don’t worry about how unrefined your pitch is. If it’s crappy, with practice it will get better. Don’t stress about how poorly formed your idea is, because people who ask questions and shoot it down are actually helping you make it more concrete. Listen carefully. Learn to evaluate the feedback and incorporate improvements.
Conversely, if you think you’ve got a genius idea, think again. The same rule applies. Share it early to get feedback. You might quickly discover that the idea is entirely not viable as a matter of market forces or technical challenges. Most of the times, your moment of genius is just self delusion. Check your elation at the door and find a trusted and semi-intelligent person to give you an honest opinion. I say semi-intelligent because intelligence is really overrated. If you need Einstein to understand your startup idea, you’re already in trouble. Keep it simple.
Share early. Don’t worry about people stealing your startup ideas. Ideas are cheap and anyone with a shred of imagination can think up the same thing you have. For God’s sake, calculus was independently invented by Newton and Leibniz — that’s calculus! In all probability, your idea will be simpler, and also more likely to be conjured up by other people already. You’re not that original or creative. Everything your mother told you about how unique and smart you are can be thrown out the window. The sooner you accept you’re not a special snowflake, the quicker you can ideate, vet, and begin implementation. The magic will be in the execution, and anyone who can “steal” your idea and implement it deserves to steal it anyway (stop crying, it’s the truth). Remember, nobody has a patent or monopoly on ideas (don’t be a patent troll!). What matters is execution. So get your idea out there early, and start listening to feedback.
Prototyping can be an ugly and gruesome affair. If you have a co-founder, sometimes your prototype can feel like your mutual lovechild — brilliant, beautiful, and full of potential. Other times, you realize you’ve created a Frankensteinian abomination and all you want to do is smash your face in and curl up into a ball of despair.
In either case, you need to share your prototype. Again, you’re going to get a lot of pessimism. People will poke at all the shortcomings. They’ll even laugh and make fun of you (often behind your back). Remember, this is character building. Don’t fret. If people are too polite to tell you something is wrong, it doesn’t mean everything is perfect. You just have to find a more honest audience. Go find someone who will beat you up, because I guarantee you that you’ll find it. Look harder, listen harder. Pay attention. Become stronger.
The earlier you can share your proof of concept, prototype, or minimum viable product, the faster you can iterate and improve. Don’t live in a vacuum. Don’t guard your creation with suspicion of other people’s agendas. Don’t isolate yourself and become a mad scientist. Get input. Fast.
And did I mention? You’re prototype will likely suck — really badly. It’s OK. Keep on trucking, don’t give up. You give up when you give up. There is no “knowing” when to give up. You just do or you don’t.
Engage Potential Customers
Here, people will disagree with me a lot. Some will advise not showing your hand too early. Others will say you need to really drum up some suspense and do some creative marketing. Blah blah blah. That’s all nice and good, but at the end of the day, you either convince customers of your product value proposition or you don’t. The only way to know for sure is to get it into people’s hands.
And no, I’m not saying products sell themselves. I’m saying you have to persuade your potential customers to even try it. If you can even get people to test something you’ve created, that’s a significant step. And no, throwing up a beta landing page is not enough. Customers won’t come to you, so you have to go out to them. Sometimes physically — yeah, you know, get old school! Don’t just rely on social media, ads, and blogs. GO OUT THERE.
Don’t be lazy. Knock on doors. Wake up early. Go home late. Ask your friends to try your product or service. Ask your enemies. I like to ask people who hate me. Because people who hate me are the ones who want to see me fail, but if I can convince them to try my product, then damn it, it must be semi-decent (which is only 1/2 step up from trash). Again, the same song and dance, get feedback and improve.
Reach Out to Investors (but not for money, yet)
You should delay taking funding for as long as possible for many reasons I can’t get into in this post (economics, control, etc.). But you need to talk to investors as early as possible, not for their money, but for their rejection. Mmm that sweet sweet sound of NO.
Why do this? Well simply because you’ll learn two things: 1) How to actually access investors. Trust me, you don’t just call them up. I would know, I’ve tried. You have to learn how to learn to get to investors. Interesting right? 2) You start practicing pitching your idea/prototype and asking for feedback. Investors — the good ones — are not short-sighted. When they say no, they will provide some reasoning, or at least questions. They want to maintain a potential relationship with you in the event that you do become a big shot one day (herd mentality covered in a related article here).
Anyway, the point is, practice accessing and pitching to investors. 99% of the time, you’re not going to hear back. About half of the remaining 1% of the time, you’ll get NOT INTERESTED BUT THANKS A BUNDLE. If you’re lucky, half of that remainder is a qualified NO — and that’s like striking gold, because you’re getting some feedback. You can start excavating a correspondence with some intelligent investor who might just give you time of day to talk through what is broken about your product. You should treat that as treasure.
[If you’re counting, that’s 99% ignored, 0.5% thanks but no thanks, 0.25% qualified NO… leaving the last 0.25% for a potential yes; free advice — don’t be bad at arithmetic.]
Begin Courting Journalists and Bloggers
Tech bloggers and journalists are really sharp. They have limited amount of and space to write really catchy content that grabs eyeballs. So they’re always on the lookout for something interesting and new. It means they typically have a keen eye for what’s good and what’s trash.
You need to start reaching out to these writers. Again, like the investors, most of them are going to ignore you. You can’t afford to stop trying. Keep bugging them, but not in an annoying way. Write a draft piece of PR for them introducing your product. Take the work out of their discovery effort and help them understand what your business is from the start. Remember, like investors, writers see tons of leads a day.
Don’t be dejected if they say no. Ask them why. The fact that they might even respond is a good sign. I’ve gotten plenty of good product and market advice from savvy journalists and bloggers, who didn’t even know they were helping move my startup towards success a small step. Remember, getting feedback is the name of the game. One time, I had a blogger from TechCrunch tell me: “The idealism in you is so endearing, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you no.” If they respond at all, it’s a life line. Grab it. Engage. Ask why.
Be the King of Rejection
Few of us are born to be great entrepreneurs. The saving grace is that you can learn to become a good one in time. And part of that process (in addition to many other parts), is developing a really tough mentality so that you can persevere. But perseverance isn’t just a passive skill or quality that you have or don’t have. You can become stronger and more resilient if you maintain a state of mind that treats failure and rejection as impermanent conditions. You have to develop a growth mentality — that setbacks are temporary and breakthroughs are possible. And the only way to cultivate this mental toughness, is by actually engaging in the act of confronting rejection.
So throw on some slacks. It’s time to get in the game.