Below is the eighth 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.
When you’re an entrepreneur, even getting a “no” is a triumph. It’s a sign that your customer is at least marginally engaged with you and your proposal. The much more maddening situation is when your calls are not returned, your emails ignored, and the FedEx describing your fundamentally innovative concept is collecting dust on the desk of some underworked, overpaid, gutless, balding, 50-five-year-old Vice President of Worrying at some Fortune 500 company. I’ll take a “no” any day. At least then I know I’ve got one of his ears out of his arse and on the telephone.
Forgive me. While the above thought (and perhaps even more violent versions) may go through your head at your desk while you enjoy your fifth box of macaroni and cheese that week, it must never enter your head while working. The fact is: These vice presidents are busy people, running very important functions at profitable, successful companies. And you absolutely need them. These guys are the A-students. You, your B’s, and your fundamentally innovative concept are not even close to being on their radar screens. You are, in short, powerless.
Ultimately, however, if you send enough email, log enough voicemail, and spend enough money on FedEx, these guys will return your call. As it turns out, they are human beings, too. But when they do return your call, they will not apologise for their tardiness, they will not acknowledge the numerous voicemails and emails that they deleted, and they will definitely not have opened any of the five FedEx envelopes you sent them. And—even worse than all that—they will talk to you in a monotone, as if this is the most annoying thing they will have to do that day. Which it probably is.
But this is your chance, your one chance. You’ve got him on the phone. Even the most disinterested bastard will listen to you for 60 seconds. And remember, guys like this have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to continue the conversation if they hear even one thing during those 60 seconds that may help them raise profits at their company. So with an enthusiastic voice that acknowledges none of the injustices inflicted on you by this pencil-pushing slug, launch into your elevator pitch: 60 seconds about how you can help this gutless guy do his boring job better.
If you’ve done your research, tailored the content of your pitch, used the right tone, and hit on a little luck, you will spend the next fifteen minutes discussing how your company can help his company. This is the most valuable fifteen minutes an entrepreneur can have. Listen carefully and take copious notes. Believe it or not, you and your fundamentally innovative concept have just been given the opportunity of a lifetime.
Perhaps even worse than that first fifteen-minute phone call is the panic-inducing process of closing your first sale. Entrepreneurs are always the underdogs, trying to sell their products to people who don’t think they need them (or at least don’t yet know they need them). Entrepreneurs are therefore always low on the to-do list of the people they are trying to do business with. Ironically, though, these people are always number one on the entrepreneur’s to-do list. “Sell product to Microsoft” makes sense as a first item on a to-do list. “Buy product from Tripod” just doesn’t have the same ring.
The result of this mismatch in priorities is that the entrepreneur is often left in limbo, wondering what happened to the customer he or she had been successfully courting. It’s shocking the number of times I’ve been in the middle of negotiating a deal with a prospective customer when he has simply disappeared for a week or longer. 20 days of twice-daily back-and-forth phone calls, and then one day he’s gone, with no explanation. Is this polite? No. Good business etiquette? Not even close. But it happens all the time.
In this situation, it’s very easy, and perfectly reasonable, to indulge your sense of powerlessness, panic, and assume that your big fish has spit out the hook. But that’s almost never true. In the vast majority of cases, your prospective customer will eventually reconnect and produce a decent excuse for his silence. Sure, the excuses are often strange, and indicate dysfunction on the part of your customer’s employer. But that’s the way it goes.
During these moments of silence, good entrepreneurs don’t panic. The fact is that you can never know what is going on in someone else’s business, or in his life. What you can count on as an entrepreneur is that for a prospective customer, most of these things will come before he talks to you.
The situation is compounded if you are young. And because technology is one of the major drivers of entrepreneurial activity, and young people are the major drivers of technology, young entrepreneurs are more prevalent now than 20 years ago. I started Tripod when I was nineteen years old. It was very difficult to get anyone to take me seriously. And except for the brief moment in time when young Internet entrepreneurs were in vogue, I went to great lengths to hide my age. I had no choice. The prejudice against age is rampant in the business world. Even now, when I’m 30-three, people look at me funny, wondering whether or not I’ve paid my dues long enough to deserve their attention.
Young or old, entrepreneurs have to accept that creating fundamentally innovative products and trying to sell them to executives at established companies is an uphill battle. The executives have power and you don’t. Get used to it.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.