January 23rd, 2004
no no no no no no no no no
No no no no no no no no no no no
No no no no no no no no no no” – George Thorogood,
Nobody But Me
One of the eight million joys of being a parent is the
ability to predict what your eight year old is about to
ask before they even open their mouths simply by
observing their body language and facial expressions.
If my son is afraid that I am going to say
“No”, he screws himself up into some painful,
constipated look and asks with a tiny voice.
I tell him to relax and just ask.
Just ask me what it is that you want and I’ll
say “Yes or” explain why it is “No” at this
particular time. No
big deal. Don’t
ever be afraid to ask, I say.
Fear of rejection is as common a fear, shared by most
Canadians, as there is in our society.
From the foot shuffling ask to dance in the Grade
seven sock hop, to the mental tug-of-war we engage in
when asking for a raise from our boss.
The few milliseconds just prior to opening our
mouths to ask a difficult question, where the perceived
possibility of the other person saying “No” is high,
can be about as painful as the
If you really stop and think about it, this is an
irrational and avoidable feeling.
Like I say to my son, what is wrong with
doesn’t mean that I hate you and you are stupid for
NOT A PERSONAL ATTACK.
Is it a setback?
Sure, for the moment.
But listening carefully to the explanation gives
you important feedback for the next “ask”.
Awkwardness and shyness is almost a virtue in our polite
shouldn’t be. There
should be no reward for not asking in a timely fashion.
And in business, which is a global phenomenon,
you will be penalized for not “asking” in a timely
being shy with Americans (or the least shy group that I
have dealt with, Israelis) and you won’t get what you
Being afraid of “no” causes shifts in behaviour that
are dangerous in business.
Beyond the obvious ulcer-inducing worry ahead of
any major “asks”, a fatal flaw of those that are
chronically afraid of “No” is the creation of the
“yes” filter. This
subtle behaviour change means that the affected person
always tries to get the answer without actually directly
asking the question.
For example, pretend that you are out talking to
a potential customer for your great new technology.
You are trying to determine what their needs are
and if those match up well with your proposed solution.
A person afraid of rejection will not ask the
direct, uncomfortable questions, like “I’ll be back
in three weeks, will you have a P.O.?” or “Will you
endorse and support this idea internally?”
Instead, the meeting will be full of
“softball” questions meant to get the oblique
answers that you can interpret as being “yes”.
Simply put, people afraid of rejection or
inexperienced at asking tough questions will not get
good information and will not know the boundary
conditions for action.
Not only are we afraid of rejection when we ask, when we
answer, we are afraid of hurting people’s feelings.
This empathy is noble and generally viewed as
good in our society.
But it leads to very bad decisions and wastes a
lot of people’s time in business.
If you can’t be clear in your answer, you will
give false hope. Now,
compound the issue of the “asker” not getting to the
heart of the matter, as in my previous example, with the
“answerer” not giving direct feedback and you have a
completely screwed up business interaction.
If we are all being too shy to ask directly and
too nice to answer directly, we get nowhere… but we
get nowhere with a good feeling in our stomachs.
It’s a very Canadian way, eh?
Think about all of the instances in your business where
being shy and nice will affect decisions and outcomes.
Hiring good people. Negotiating
the best price. Getting
something extra from your supplier.
Deciding on features to be included in the
Now, I’m NOT advocating that we all become a**holes
overnight to be successful.
In fact, far from it.
What I am advocating is a pragmatic approach to
dealing with shyness on the “ask” side and niceness
on the “answer” side.
As Donald Trump says in The Apprentice, “it’s
nothing personal, it’s business.”
I also want to frame this approach in the context
of the start-up.
Avoid the “yes” filter at all costs – When talking
to people about your idea or your proposition, don’t
be vague when concluding the meeting.
Ask them directly what they think.
Don’t assume they like it.
Don’t assume they will back it.
In other words, don’t be afraid that they
reject your hypothesis.
What is far worse is to tell others that the
meeting went well and that they are “in”, only to
have someone else find that they are, in fact,
good-bye to your credibility.
Know how to read the answer – A critical skill to
develop is one where you read between the lines of
“nice” answers and ask more probing questions to get
Product managers and Sales people face customers
all the time. They
ask the customers what they would like to see and figure
out if they have the solution (or they can build the
(especially ones that end up successfully raising
money… hint, hint) go out and survey the potential
customer landscape, get to the right people in the
organizations and get very good information as to their
burning needs. They
also secure the right to ask for more information or
have a potential investor validate the proposition
successful entrepreneur gets specifics, not generalities
by hearing things in the answers, negative and positive.
ASK! – Don’t assume anything when it comes to the
critical reason for the meeting.
In my first aborted start-up in 1994, I had three
mentors/advisors helping me.
I kept asking them for contacts with money and
chased down those leads.
In the end, after closing it down, I said that it
would have been nice to get a lead investor to help
round up the other contacts.
His answer was an exasperated, “You didn’t
ask me!” I
never directly asked the question.
And even if I had, I might have asked the
softball open-ended version (“Assuming we get all of
the money, how much would you put in?”).
The “ask” needs to be direct and unequivocal
(“Would you like to do $150K in this round?”).
All of this sounds easy on paper.
But because of our pre-disposition to being shy
and nice in a social context, it makes this very hard to
do in practice in a business context.
Can you turn your business “game face” on and
off? Can you
separate personal from business?
If you can, you will probably be more successful
in business. You
will get better information and you will make better
importantly, if you ASK, you just might RECEIVE.
Wants To Be An Entrepreneur? – UBC’s Sauder School
of Business is starting a new part-time course in March
called the Executive Education Certificate in Entrepreneurial Business Management to
be taught at their new
is the first attempt that I have seen to get top-level
instruction on how to grow a start-up.
It assumes that you have already got
entrepreneurial experience and want to get practical
knowledge that can be applied immediately.
They have put a lot of thought into how to do
this effectively. If
you want more information, go here www.sauder.ubc.ca/ebm.
What Do You Think? Talk
Back To Brent Holliday
Something Ventured is a bi-weekly column designed
to supplement the T-Net British Columbia web site with
some timely, relevant and possibly irreverent insight
into the industry. I hope to share some of the
perspective and trends that I see in my role as a VC.
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