LUCKY OR SMART? Learn To Love The Word "No"

Bo Peabody

Below is the seventh chapter of entrepreneur and VC Bo Peabody’s book, LUCKY OR SMART: Secrets For An Entrepreneurial Life.

Before you read this chapter, you might want to read a quick overview of Bo’s experience of founding his first company, Tripod: How To Start A Company In Your Dorm Room And Make $580 Million.

You might also want to read the Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5 and Chapter 6.

Chapter 7
With only seven months to get Tripod into the black before our venture capital ran out, I hired a vice president of sales to help me bring in the much-needed revenue.  He had been in the traditional advertising-sales business for several years, which seemed to make him the perfect hire.  However, selling advertising on the Internet in 1996 was like selling meat to vegans.  People said “no” to this guy a lot.  When I asked him about this, he gave me a very astute answer: “Bo, products are not bought, they are sold.  The sales process begins when the customer says ‘No.'”

Entrepreneurs hear the word “no” more than anyone else in the business.  And for good reason: Entrepreneurs are pursuing fundamentally innovative projects, and the vast majority of typical business people are lemmings.  Why the hell would they support, with their time or money, someone doing something new?  Instead, they say, “No.”

Most business people are not paid to take risks.  No one ever lost his or her job for buying a piece of software from Microsoft, or placing an advertisement in People magazine.  But people do lose their jobs when they do something new or different, like buying a product form or making an investment in a start-up.  So when you ask someone at General Electric to believe that you can control the clouds, don’t expect her to get all excited; it’s much easier for her to simply say, “No.”

So entrepreneurs must learn to love the word “no.”  It’s a perverse but necessary tool for survival.

The first time I realised I loved the word “No” was when I applied to college.  I was determined to attend Williams College, one of the world’s most selective institutions of higher learning.  One of every five people who applies to Williams gets in, which is one of every hundred who seriously think about applying and one of every thousand who ask their high school guidance counselor if they should apply.  I didn’t have a prayer of getting accepted.  I was, after all, a B- student.

And sure enough, I got the thin envelope: the one with no information about when school starts, or what dorm you’re in, or who your roommate will be.  Instead, it just contains that nicely worded letter, the one that when you cut through all the flowery language simply says “no.”

I needed a plan.  The customer had said “no,” and the sales process was just beginning.  Figuring that the admissions committee of this elite school had probably seen and heard just about everything, I decided to take a bold, direct, and unorthodox approach.  I got the telephone number of the assistant director of admissions, a man named Cornelius (Corny) Raiford.  I called Corny up and told him:

“Hi, my name is Bo Peabody, and I reject your rejection.”

There was a long silence.  “Excuse me?” he said.

“I want to go to Williams College,” I continued.  “And with all due respect, I think the admissions committee has made a mistake.  And I’d like to work with you to correct it.  I am formally rejecting your rejection. I’m coming to Williams.  Not next year perhaps, but at some point.  I’m in no rush.  I have all the time in the world, and I plan to send an application in to Williams every year until I’m accepted.”

There was another long silence.  At this point, I figure Corny is either going to play ball with me or transfer my call to the police.  Corny cleared his throat, and said, “I appreciate your desire to attend Williams.  I’m not sure I’ve ever received a call like this, so let’s see what we can do.”  For the next few months, I worked with Corny to build a yearlong program during which I’d remedy several of the deficiencies (read: B’s) he saw in my application.  That next year, I re-applied to Williams, and was granted early admission to the class of 1994.

Most people would simply accept the rejection.  Don’t. Ever. Train yourself not to shut down when you hear the word “no.”  That is in fact just the time to really start fighting.  No human being likes to say “no” to another human being.  When he does, he is at his weakest moment.  Take that opportunity, and start selling.

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