People Are More Impressed With Who You Are Than What You Do

We’ve all been asked that dreaded question at a networking event.

“So… what do you do?”

I drive myself insane wondering why people lead with that question in social situations. My guess is they are just nervous and it’s the first and easiest thing that comes to mind and then out of their mouths.

Yet, it’s the dumbest and worst question to lead with once you shake hands with someone. It shows the other person you are about to judge them and looking for the lowest hanging fruit to make your snap judgement. So do yourself and the person in front of you a favor and don’t ask it anymore.

So what SHOULD you ask?

Anything. Except for the above question anything is fair game. Ask about their clothes. Ask about their background or where they came from. Inquire about something unrelated to the topic of the evenings event like the weather, local sports team, the coffee shop where you are sitting, a funny off-the-cuff joke about the random people you are watching. Really, anything will work here. Absolving yourself of the “what do you do” question will invariably raise you right to the top of the list of people the other person wants to converse with.

But why is this so?

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The “what do you do” question makes people feel like they are being interrogated. Especially if the person you find yourself talking with has recently made a huge life change and is in between jobs or startups. Take it from me, when in that phase of life this is the last question any of us want to answer. And the thing is you never know who has recently made that decision or is currently in that phase so better to be cautious and not take a salt shaker and dump it on someones fresh wound right out of the gate.

The “what do you do” question also makes people feel uneasy since its origins can be found in us humans trying to compare ourselves to others. Instinctively, our goal is to find someone who we feel superior to so we can make ourselves feel better, even for a brief moment. If I ask you what do you do and you tell me “I’m a lawyer” or “I just sold my startup to Google” I now know where we stand economically and socially. If you respond with a lower status job description I also know where we stand and feel better about myself.

But what about the people who ask the question only so you ask them the same question so then they can pitch you their business? Same result holds here: not a good idea to lead with your elevator pitch to a stranger that didn’t ask for it. I don’t know about you but I don’t want the first interaction with every person I meet to be a pitch session about what they are working on and how I can get involved. This is also a very shallow and quite self-serving interaction and again puts people on the defensive.

What I have found works best is to be genuinely interested in other people, and ask questions about them and what they care about. Becoming interested in others is quite easy if you don’t lead with “what do you do” questions. I try to challenge myself and get creative in how I converse with people, how much I can get them to talk about their ideas and passions. Initiating conversations without asking about profession or job shows the other person you are genuinely interested in their story and them as people, not just about professional comparisons. One or two great questions or comments unrelated to their profession can jump start a quality interaction with pretty much anyone.  I have found this is the best and quickest way to illustrate who I am and my inner character without saying a thing – outside of asking the intriguing questions.  The less I say the more I listen – and thus show who I am – resulting in a strong trusted connection with the other person.

The crazy and counter-intuitive thing about this strategy is once you start a conversation with another person not asking about their profession the other person will inevitably bring it up, but on their own terms. And since you didn’t come across as aggressive or interrogating you will find they are very engaged in the conversation and will walk away thinking you were one of the best conversationalists they have ever encountered even though they did most of the talking.

And in this way you will find each and every conversation is a way to learn something new about the world, something new about another person and a fun way to add to your wisdom of the world.

Seek first to understand, then be understood.

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You Gotta Give To Get

I have noticed a trend within myself recently: The more I help others when they ask the more I tend to get from others when I ask.

I am not sure if its a natural phenomenon, me being more attentive to others needs or others starting to be more in-tune with where I sit in our industry. Regardless, I discovered really cool things happen when I am more open to giving to people.

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The giving I am referring to is of my time, relationships and mind-share. This realization has come to my attention as younger founders or less experienced entrepreneurs more frequently reach out to me for help, perspective or introductions. This is natural, fine with me – given they are respectful in their ask – and something I enjoy doing.

Yes, that means I’d be open to responding to you too if you need it!

Interestingly, many times when I meet with someone they are very thankful and surprised with how generous I seem to be.  My response: I feel it’s what we are supposed to do if we are farther down the road in our journey than someone else (referring to providing guidance and intro’s if the situation calls for it.) All I ask is they do it too once they are at a level where they can help others in this way. Most first time founders don’t run in the same circles as investors or wealthy former founders, and they have to get connected somehow, someway. Founders getting introduced to well known people, investors or customers was how pretty much how this whole industry got started. Let’s keep it going…

The interesting thing I notice is how much natural karma is created when you are genuinely more open to helping people when they reach out.

The adage I now live by: help people first and people will no doubt help you.

The Tales We Tell Ourself About Failure

One thing we humans do really well is self doubt.

In the last week I have had two separate conversations with fellow founders about the grave situations their companies are in, how they are staring “defeat” right in the face and don’t really see any other option than to move on.

Both people are down and out right now.  And rightfully so… They have put years of blood, sweat, tears and money in pursuit of their dreams. They feel troubled with the fact that they didn’t succeed in the way they felt they could, didn’t build a meaningful and growing company. I know what they are going through, I have was there a few years ago and had a hard time knowing when it was time to pull the plug.

My advice to them is this:

It’s okay. You think the company (and you) are a failure because you have to move on and go do something else. You may have put your self worth into the company so much so that as the company faces a failure in operation you are feeling like a failure in life. You might be feeling a bit embarrassed because of all the things you said to your friends, family, coworkers, and industry partners now make you look at best untrustworthy, and at worst fraudulent.

These are all normal fears and feelings. They are all accurate and a normal part of the grieving process of a failed attempt at a startup company. But these are all fairy tales we repeat internally.

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The reality is the very fact you set out and tried something unique and different is the success in this story. The very fact that you had the courage to attempt something most people would be afraid to do is the success. The fact that you were looking to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem is the success. Most likely your entrepreneurial decisions inspired at least one other person to jump up and start their own entrepreneurial journey. And further, maybe that person and their project turns out to be a massive success, impacting millions of people around the world, lots of that due to you. You may never know… but it’s a possibility isn’t it?

Many people lean on the stat that something like 75-90% of all startups fail, they don’t reach a point of self sustaining profits. I feel this stat is misleading since it only measures financial outcomes of each entity. Is the company alive, or dead? Red or black? Running or shuttered? Successful or not?

A better measure – albeit much more difficult – is to evaluate the impact each person and their endeavors have on the people around them. I guarantee if we were to measure the impact and success of each founder who ventures out on their own by looking at how they affected, influenced and inspired others we’d be talking about a whole different number. I bet it would possibly be the inverse, which would be quite inspirational. We’d be saying something like “Only 10-15% of startups really fail to impact the world so you must go and do it!”

To all those who are currently struggling with what to do and which decision to make for your company right now, heed this advice. The only failure in your situation would have been not choosing to attempt the impossible, since that is the only reason you are able to sit in the chair you are sitting in right now, reading this on your device you are holding in your hand, sipping the drink you are tasting right now, and driving in the car you just drove in.

Success is simply choosing to attempt the impossible and inspiring others to do the same.

Is Depression Actually Normal?

I wrote a post recently touching on my brief bout with Founder Depression.  As a result, many mentioned it on Twitter or reached out to personally thank me for writing it and to let me know they also struggled with it.

This sparked a few thoughts: “Is depression actually normal?”  And “if everyone deals with some sort of depression in their life then what can we do about it?”

I have come to realize depression is something all of us deal with at one point in our lives.  It should not be taboo or anything.  It should be addressed and talked about openly as part of the entrepreneurial education process.  As founders, we encounter depression usually from external events such as failure of a business or a negative outcome of something in which we had hoped for when we first started out.

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I am starting to realize being a great entrepreneur starts by perfecting how to handle the shit in your life.  Because it hits the fan waaaaay more times than you plan.  I have also come to understand the successful ones figure out how to identify the piles in the road ahead of time, and navigate accordingly before they hit something fatal.

Athletes strength train and stretch in prevention of injuries.  Why are we not doing this in the startup community?  Why are we not helping people to prevent what inevitably happens to those of us who strive for more?

The point here is to understand its not IF it will happen, its WHEN it will happen to you.  And then go into your entrepreneurial journey armed with the idea that you will at times feel very down about yourself and your company.  This is reality and this is serious.  If a founder doesn’t take it as such they are potentially setting themselves up for disaster.

Like I did.

In a recent conversation with my father we touched on this.  I noted that only when I realized I had dug myself into such a deep hole emotionally could I fully grasp where I was and what I had to do to get out of it.

I realized even though I was not in control of external events I was in control of my thoughts, feelings and internal dialog. And I was the only one who could bring myself out of the funk in which I had brought myself into.  I had to consciously think and make decisions that would place me in a neutral or positive place.

No more negative self talk.  No more whoa is me. No more pity parties and thinking I had let myself, my family and my community down.  I had to stop fighting myself, put my ego aside and choose a different path.  One that – although it has a few more twists, turns, roundabouts and curves to it – is leading me into an even better position than when I was CEO of my own little startup.

The fact is, if you are a high performer and things don’t turn out exactly the way you planned you will naturally tend to go into a dark place.  Those sort of feelings will not help you move forward in any way whatsoever, so please think now about how you will respond once you sense yourself going down.

Finally Emerging From A Founder Depression

At times we can be our own worst enemy.  The challenge is to minimize those times.

We often hear choosing to become an entrepreneur – and the life that accompanies it – is not for the faint of heart.  This is absolutely true.  But for the longest time I didn’t really understand what it meant.  Or moreover, I didn’t fully respect the ramifications of the simple choice of taking my entrepreneurial leap.

Yet now being on the other side of this experience, I understand on a deeper level what entrepreneurship all about, and how to best navigate through it the rest of my life.  As I describe some of my thoughts and observations, I hope they might resonate with you as well and help you through whatever your situation you might be in currently.

Entrepreneurs, by default, are high performers.  And high performers, by default, are hard on themselves when times get tough.  Combine those two and you could get a deadly combination.

Entrepreneurs hold themselves to higher standards than others and often are disappointed when things don’t necessarily end up as great as they had thought when they initially set out.  But you know what?   Entrepreneurship never ends up like you initially thought.  It’s messier than anyone ever imagines and more extreme than anyone ever describes.

After I experienced a failed startup I dropped into what I now can identify as a depression.  I was not – and am not – depressed as in the clinical sense, but it was more like what you would think when people refer to the last economic depression we recently survived.  It was temporary and externally triggered.  Things weren’t right and I was responding to them certainly in a negative and self deprecating way.

It was painful.  It felt troubling.  It sucked because I wasn’t supposed to be there.  Or so I thought.

What I discovered was I denied myself some truths I should have admitted at the time.  I wasn’t admitting things like: 1) I really didn’t know what I was doing, and neither does anyone else.  2) The business was not working the way we had positioned it.  2) Startups actually do fail!  3) It’s okay to walk away rather than being so committed to a project you drive yourself into the ground.  4) Your personal value is more than just your company’s success.

I did not admit those things and the result was just that – nose dive right into the ground.  Being a friend or family member you probably wouldn’t have known it by being around me.  I am a damn good actor.  I do a great job of burying the issue and grabbing another beer to selflessly talk about your challenges and issues.

Yet deep down inside was some of the worst self talk anyone could imagine.  I was not my biggest cheerleader, supporter, believer and best friend.  If you are wondering, negative self talk is not the path to success.

It took a few years to pull myself out of it.  It took me accepting the fact that although I knew I could be a great founder at some point in my life, now was not the time.  It took me putting my ego aside and accepting positions with other startups and companies where I could add value and learn more about building companies.

It seems elementary now, but letting go of the founder dream and using my skills in an another company was the farthest thing from my mind at the time.  It took me admitting I did not know it all and I need to place myself somewhere to both earn a living and learn more about the world of technology and growing a business around it.

This type of wisdom and perspective is almost impossible when you think you are worthless.  And that is exactly what people think when their startup fails.  They think since they could not make their own company work – one where they pretty much put every ounce of effort they possibly could into making it work – what’s their value anywhere else?  This and other similar thinking is obviously incorrect and ill applied.  Yet, I am telling you this is exactly what I and other founders find themselves thinking.

I have since pulled myself back together, landed a great position with another company here in Seattle and on the path to learning and earning!

The resulting mental and emotional clarity is refreshing. It has allowed me to stabilize my life and opened up space for other projects like Founders RAW, Coinme, and getting back to writing.  It has allowed me to establish myself as a mentor and advisor to other entrepreneurs, here and elsewhere in the world. It has allowed me to embrace and fully enjoy a meaningful relationship for the first time in a long time.

The lesson here is not that you can do things to avoid the founder depression.  More than likely it’s inevitable for you, me and every other entrepreneur.  The lesson is in identifying the oncoming founder depression, quickly observing its symptoms, and then finding mitigation strategies you can deploy to keep you afloat – and happy.

Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart.  But it is for the wise and honest.

When A Founder Crosses The Line Towards Godlike Hubris

I recently noticed a frightening trend with certain founders in the tech industry.

–> Have a great idea.  Get a few key people to join you and build it.  Launch the product and raise money from investors.  Experience massive success.   Raise more money.  Gain hundreds of millions of users. Raise billions of dollars and fight off regulators.  Have unfiltered access to billions of people’s data.  Exploit it.  Believe you are the second coming of a God.  Act like an uncaring, immoral capitalist.  Care only about your wealth and not what you are doing to everyday citizens.  And so on…

With the recent Uber misteps and observing the resulting outrage which ensued, it has come to my attention that we, as an industry, need to take a long look in the mirror.  Founders need to take full consideration in how they are running their company, the culture they are creating, the data they are generating, and the ultimate consequences of their actions.

I hope Uber realizes they are doing to their users exactly what they were furious (I assume) about the government doing to them as citizens when the Snowden files were revealed last year.

We all need to understand we are standing at an unprecedented time in the history of business and technology.  Everyday Joes now have the opportunity to create an app or platform that one day might just become indispensable to mankind.  With its use, Joe will collect billions upon billions of data points on everyday citizens – like where they are currently, where they are going, who they talk to, what they typed, to whom, what they viewed on their phones, whom they connected with socially, etc..  With all this happening, Joe will find himself directly in the middle of our society, holding a treasure trove of personal data and a devil on his shoulder just waiting for the right time to temp him into exploiting it.

I mean, it’s like big brother!

But surprisingly it ain’t the government doing these things.  Imagine what Facebook knows about you.  Couple that with your Uber or Lyft usage data.  Toss in your twitter clicks, Instagram photos, Gmail history and Google Chrome browser history.

We are doing this to ourselves.  We are the ones creating this new world of massive data collection which is resulting in unprecedented spying, snooping, breaches of security, cloud hacks and the like.

This is your fault.  And mine.  It’s all of our faults.  All in the name of making more money.

I am not here to end the data analysis, in fact I believe in it and when done correctly it makes for a better end user experience.  I also know data collection is only going to get more prevalent with the expansion of categories like the Internet of Things and connected homes.

Yet, I am urging us to start thinking about things using a different filter, or scope of perspective.  Start asking yourself these questions:

Recognizing all possible data about myself and every other person is now being collected, how to I structure my platform to preserve mankind and the humanity inherent within our society?

How do balance personalization of my technology with personal security of my users?

How do I proceed when I know I CAN do something but unsure if I SHOULD do something?

Where’s my “do not cross line?”

How can we best usher in a new era of technology applications where security is inherent within the structure of the product, not an afterthought when plugging holes after launch?

How do I shift my perspective from making the most money possible with my application towards making the world a better, more secure and protected society?

Please start thinking about these questions and more…  It’s time we call a spade a spade – WE are the ones creating the exact surveillance society we were deathly afraid of growing up.  We just thought it would be the Big Bad Government or another foreign country, not ourselves.

Please understand hubris will sink anyone who thinks they are immune to it.  You – as a founder and someone desperately wanting to change the world – can now no doubt do just that.  You and your technology can alter the history of humans here on earth.  Just make sure you know what change you are putting in place.

How To Approach Investors

I was asked a straightforward question by another founder recently.  “How should I approach a potential investor?”

Although it’s a straightforward question, the answer is quite nuanced and depends on the specific situation at hand.  All investors are different and appreciate being approached in varied ways.  So given that, here’s what I responded with through email. (I have removed any details that would suggest a certain person or industry)

A) Connection
You need to find someone who you connect with and have a similar view on things. This is why I suggested talking with people that are already into ____________.  They should at least “get” your idea and thinking behind it. An investor that usually puts money into software companies probably won’t get it.

So I think you need to continue to look deeper in that community. But you can’t just send an email and ask for their money right up front. Everyone’s knee jerk reaction is no. This is the biggest mistake people make, just like the guys that hit on the women at the bar. Instant turn off. You need to do what you are doing with me and get to know them, allow them to get to know you and your idea. Don’t worry about “giving away your idea” as I have learned it’s better to connect with many people and hopefully there’s a possible business relationship than keeping your mouth shut and then nothing happens. Ideas are a dime a dozen… work on extending your relations with people in the industry.

B) Early success
Most all investors need to see early success indicators. That is why if you can show some early traction as well as some profit, they investors are way more willing to put in some money to help it grow. Although ideas are a dime a dozen, that’s all they are. But a product that has shown some early promise is music to an investors ears. They need to be able to see it, feel it and touch the prototype, or in your case see your early small tests as successes. Once you can show them real numbers you then build out your model of future projections – based on your real numbers – and show them how their money will be multiplied.

C) Trust
The last one is you need to find people who you trust, and who trust you. This goes back to a) in the way I say find someone you connect with. Turning the tables and looking at it from their point of view…. some random guy is emailing them and asking them to put money in something they don’t know anything about. Basically, they don’t trust you. So you need to work on finding someone you can work towards trusting, and he can work towards trusting you. This takes time.

That’s why your lead into the relationship is more like “hey, I have some ideas I want to run by you, I would appreciate your perspective on these ideas…” Don’t even mention money for the first few interactions, and when it comes up you can say something more like “to scale to the level we want to we would need some capital investment. I’m starting to look around, do you know anyone who would be interested?”

Finding investors to put money into your company is hard enough, make it easier on yourself by doing some legwork first.