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Oct 15

Don’t Let The Bastards Grind You Down

Posted by: Mark Solon        

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…


29 Responses to “Don’t Let The Bastards Grind You Down”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark Solon, techboise. techboise said: RT @Hwy12 My message to entrepreneurs - "Don't Let The Bastards Grind You Down" (Read and be encouraged!) [...]

  2. avatar DavidP says:

    Thanks for great advice, not just for entrepreneurs but for working with customers, too: keep plugging away.

  3. avatar Gabriella says:

    As a youngster raising my first fund and pitching a new model, I needed that story. Thank you!

  4. avatar Brad Feld says:

    Great message Mark. It's important to remind everyone - all the way up and down the financing chain (I almost said food chain or value chain, but I'm not sure what that means in this context!)

  5. avatar Mark Solon says:

    You made my day Gabriella, thanks for sharing that!

  6. avatar Neil Hartley says:

    It's a great story Mark. For those who need oratory support listen to Hillary Clinton's DNC speech last year ( Get to 22.30 in and listen to her talk about Harriet Tubman "keep going". It applies to all of us in everything we do. Keep going! Don't stop. Keep going! If there's a better motivational speech anywhere by anyone I'd love to know about it.

  7. Thank you for sharing this story. I am an entrepreneur and it was inspiring to read it. I would add that even if you should not let people grind you down you should always listen carefully to their feedback and take on board any constructive criticism.

  8. I'd say this applies to more than business. I once had a girfriend read me the riot act for taking serious her criticism too personally. (Worse, she was right… LOL) I got the exact same "Who the hell do you think…" point.

    Mark - thank you for sharing this. It's hard sometimes to separate the message from the messenger but at least we're aware of that. What can be very hard in life is to separate the message from the recipient… we take what could be very useful info & make the wrong attribution. Somehow "you gave a boring talk" (and here's why & how to fix it) morphs into "I'm a boring speaker".

    A question, if I might — when did you come to this realization? Was there a particular situation where this crystallized in your mind? Your "aha" moment?

    Entrepreneur Up!

  9. avatar Rajat says:

    Really great story, will share with my founder buddies currently raising money!

  10. avatar Mark Solon says:

    don't forget to tip your waitress!

  11. avatar Woody Leger says:

    This is great Solon! Woody

  12. avatar Jamie Cooper says:

    Mark, Great blog and well said. Many noted and successful entrepreneurs were told no, picked themselves up, listened to advice, adapted and still went out and made it happen. One of those people is you.


  13. avatar Mark Solon says:

    Thanks for the kind words Jamie, though we both know that you've done the same;-)

  14. avatar Pete Warden says:

    That post really resonated, thanks Mark. 'Adding fuel to the fire' is my favorite part, I'm definitely motivated to succeed partly by a desire to prove the naysayers wrong!

  15. 1985 — "" Nolite te bastardes carborundorum (Don't let the bastards grind you down). "" — Margaret Atwood in Handsmaid Tale

  16. Mark, a slightly different twist-I've told entrepreneurs that what they will get from an institution (e.g Highway 12 or the Boise Angel Fund) is an answer. And typically they won't want the answer, but a rapid no with some explanation is so much better than a maybe which is highly unlikely to turn into a yes. Kevin

    • avatar Mark Solon says:

      I think it's important to set expectations Kevin and I'm glad to see you've adopted the same philosophy. Now, if we can do one thing to help each entrepreneur that approaches us, we're really doing our jobs!

  17. I discovered this post after reading Jon Cook's one about you. Frequently, I work with novice entrepreneurs who feel the need to "bend this like this and act like that" and give naysayers way too much power. It seems easy to give VC's and investors a 1-up position because of their experience and knowledge. You give entrepreneurs such a gift by telling them why their idea is not your "thing." They can go pitch to the right person or figure out how to bootstrap and see the idea all the way through.

  18. avatar Mark Solon says:

    kind words Elli and something all investors should remember. i try to never forget that the entrepreneurs are the stars of this play and investors are only supporting actors…

  19. [...] Don’t Let The Bastards Grind You Down | Highway 12 Ventures “Who the hell do you think I am to tell you that your business won’t be successful?” [...]

  20. avatar Brice says:

    In my estimation, honest thoughtful critiques that provoke and run counter to your thinking are tremendously valuable. While I hope the young man proves you wrong with his idea, I hope that he listened and triangulated his knowledge with yours. If I can't explain my idea intelligibly to a regular person on the street - chances are that I am going to have a tough time executing.

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