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Getting to No
A bi-weekly column with timely, relevant and possibly irreverent insight into the BC technology industry.

Something Ventured:
January 23rd, 2004

By Brent Holliday
Greenstone Venture Partners

“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 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 Norwalk flu. 

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 “no”?  No doesn’t mean that I hate you and you are stupid for asking.  It’s 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 society.  It 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 manner.  Try being shy with Americans (or the least shy group that I have dealt with, Israelis) and you won’t get what you want.

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 product.  Receiving investment capital. 

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, “out”.  Say 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 better information.  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 solution).  Entrepreneurs (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 later.  The 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 decisions.  Most importantly, if you ASK, you just might RECEIVE.

Random Thoughts –

-         Who 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 Robson Street campus.  It 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. The column is always followed by feedback (if its positive or constructive. I'll keep the flames to myself, thanks).

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