And you can dream
So dream out loud
You know that your time is coming ’round
So don’t let the bastards grind you down – U2, Acrobat
After literally thousands of meetings with entrepreneurs in my career, one of the lessons I’ve learned is giving an entrepreneur a quick “no” is much more beneficial to someone than stringing them along. Even better is if I can give them some honest feedback about why I wouldn’t invest. Saying “no” over and over and over again isn’t the most pleasant part of my job and it’s taken me a long time to learn how to do it gracefully. (It’s hardest when I like the idea, but don’t think the person pitching me is the right one to execute on the idea…). Given the sheer number of opportunities that my partners and I look at and a better sense at this stage in my career of what I’m looking for, If I know right away that I’m not interested, I’ve taken to give an entrepreneur a “no” in the first face-to-face meeting instead of false hope about conducting some “due diligence” and getting back to them. It’s been rewarding to see how well that’s been received.
Last week I met with a young entrepreneur who pitched me on his idea for a startup. I knew fairly quickly that it wasn’t something that I’d be pursuing and after 20 minutes I spent some time explaining to him the reasons why. This particular young man took it fairly hard. He kept trying to re-convince me and his body language suggested that he was pretty defeated. It was at that point that I raised my voice and said to him “Who the hell do you think I am to tell you that your business won’t be successful?” His eyes widened and I could tell that I had surprised him. I went on to tell him about some of the great companies that I’ve passed on in my career and how often I’ve been wrong.
I happened to grow fond of this young man during our meeting and after some reflection, decided to share the following story with him which I haven’t told very often. When I moved to Boise in 2000 and decided to start a venture fund, there were an awful lot of folks I met with who thought that my idea had little merit and they were very willing to share their thoughts with me. As a matter of fact, I had well over 200 meetings with potential investors. Given that we only had a couple of institutional investors and about 30 individuals who invested in our first fund, it’s safe to say that I had close to 200 respectable people tell me what a bad idea it was to raise a venture fund in Boise, Idaho (Now that I think of it, I’m certain that some thought that the idea had merit, but that I wasn’t the person to execute on the idea!).
There were many days where I’d come home to my wife after a day of “nos” fairly dejected. She’d kick me in the ass, tell me how much she believed in me, and send me off the next day to pitch a few more people on my idea. Raising the fund wound up taking 18 months. That’s 18 months in a new town with two toddlers and no income. There were more than a few days when I thought to myself that it would never happen. On the other hand, I believed in my business plan and with each person who told me that they thought my idea didn’t have merit, it added fuel to my fire. I’ll even share with you that today, almost ten years later, I remember almost everyone who said “no” to me and proving them wrong still motivates me to this very day.
So my message to this young man and every entrepreneur who reads this is simple: Don’t let me or any other investor who tells you that he doesn’t think your idea is worth investing in dampen your enthusiasm. I guarantee you that anyone who regularly invests in startups has said no to many entrepreneurs who went on to build wildly successful businesses. You and only you will know when and if it’s time to shift gears. Until that time, don’t let the bastards grind you down…