New founders regularly answer my questions with “I don’t have all the information.” And that’s ok. I love that honesty. But the thing I don’t hear often enough is the followup statement, “I’m going to find the answer.”
There are several reasons why business owners are afraid of asking questions. I’ll tell you right now, all of them suck. But here they are:
- They will get answers and information they don’t want.
- They’re embarrassed they don’t already know.
- They believe they’ll frustrate a potential investor or customer by asking hard questions
Don’t say I didn’t warn you — these are all terrible reasons to lack the information you need to succeed. But rather than just close with that, let’s break down WHY each one is awful in its own right.
#1 is probably most common. The primary fear, grounded or not, for almost any early stage founder is that the market will reject their idea. This has has nothing to do with the product, and everything to do with the founder themselves.
If your product is a manifestation of you, who you are and how you think, there’s an ever-present fear that people will hate it and, in turn, hate you. So many reasons why founders haven’t launched their product boil down to “what if they don’t like it?” So, obviously, let’s just work on it for three more months before getting any feedback. Kick that can down the road and avoid criticism at all costs. I can personally attest to the issues of self worth wrapped up in a startup. I am usually filled with incredible confidence about whatever startup I’m working on… until two weeks before launch. And then the “ohmygosh, they’re going to hate it” starts filling my brain.
And there are So. Many. Ways. for a product to be rejected. A business reflects the myriad ways we believe the world functions.
- A problem people experience.
- A solution people would pay for.
- How valuable that solution is.
- How urgent that problem is.
- How people will buy that solution.
Business are built on a pile of assumptions, and some are way more deadly than others. As a result, I urge my clients to be fearless when faced with information that might make their company obsolete.
Earlier this week a CEO suggested a new product position to me; I asked why her prospects weren’t using existing market solutions. She didn’t know. “Well then ask them,” I said. “Literally call them up and say, ‘if this benefit is so important to you, why aren’t you using Products A, B, C, D, E or F?’” There’s a (good) chance your prospects will respond “oh, wow, I hadn’t thought about that,” but it’s a dangerous game betting your company on an uneducated market.
Another place I see this fear crop up quite often is when a founder is short on runway, with limited time to raise more capital. He’s reached out to investors, hasn’t heard back in ten days, and decides he “doesn’t want to bug them.” This is generally code for “I want to keep hope alive.”
He fails to realize that TIME is now the scarcest resource. At this point, any investor who doesn’t quickly signal disinterest is doing you a disservice. He needs to cross them off his list as quickly as possible and focus on closing real possibilities. A fast no is better than an infinite maybe, right?
Even if that investor is your absolute last hope, press forward for information. If you find out they’re not interested when you still have $20,000 in the bank, rather than waiting until you have $0 in the bank, at least you’ve got something. What could you do with that $20K? Fund a job search? Provide severance to your employees? Pivot to another idea? Engineer a soft landing with an acquirer? Finding out you’re truly SOL and need to move on is better than false hope.
Fear #2 crops up with all stages of entrepreneurs. It certainly happens to neophytes, but can happen to the most experienced of us at any time. You go into a meeting, and someone uses a term you don’t know, but it’s obviously central to the conversation. For the next five minutes, you nod your head and slowly lose your grip on what everyone is talking about.
All you need to do is say, “hey, what does X mean?” and get clarification. You’d be surprised how much that NEVER happens. Founders don’t want to look inexperienced or foolish; they want to project confidence and strength. But fucking up a deal because you don’t understand a core concept is not a good look.
So that he doesn’t have to signal his own lack of understanding. my much smarter friend Todd asks “Can you define ‘X’ as you are using it? I want to make sure we are on the same page?” Solid hack.
And, don’t get me wrong, you should do your homework and be prepared. If you have to ask about a concept, it’s worth reflecting whether you should have known about a concept and why you didn’t.
But if you need to ask a question, ask it. You job is to understand your customers’ business better than they themselves do, and that doesn’t happen by playing along. It comes from directly asking for details. Often times, the term relates to an obscure concept and your counterpart will be delighted to explain, feel smart, and then move on.
And finally, fear #3 comes into play because founders, more than anything, want a simple and quick sale or fundraising round. No one wants to feel like they’re making life difficult for their counterparts.
One of my clients recently raised an early stage round from a private equity firm that had just launched a venture fund. The first thing that came to my mind was “are these investors REALLY going to be okay with early-stage risk?” At my urging, the founder had a direct conversation with the investors about their appetite for the risk associated pre-product/market fit. Specifically, what happens is that fit doesn’t occur by the initial estimate. PE is neither known for its patience or reticence about replacing CEOs.
If you’re not sure you’re a good fit for an investor’s portfolio, wouldn’t you rather find out before you bind yourself to them? If they get frustrated thinking through an answer, is that someone who should own a stake in your company? If you ask someone to think for a bit and they walk away, is that a bad thing?
More importantly, asking questions that a prospective customer might not have the answers to is an opportunity to prove your value as a partner. You can help them frame the answer — hopefully in your favor. You can be a part of that conversation. Pose your questions in terms that are helpful and mutually beneficial. Be genuine, find nuance and grace. When in doubt, default to curiosity and ask complex, open-ended questions. Hearing how they think often provides as much information as the answer itself.
Seriously, ask the fucking questions. It’s your responsibility as business owner to constantly try to kill your ideas. Challenge your assumptions and spend time thinking about what would definitively prove them wrong. If you are talking with a prospective customer or investor, tell them why they shouldn’t become involved. If they agree, move on. If they tell you you’re wrong, then you’ve got one hell of an advocate. It’s not reverse psychology or manipulation, it’s a willingness to have all the information and to fail as fast as possible.
— Eric Marcoullier
When I’m not blogging, I coach startups and established business, helping them avoid the many pitfalls associated with launching and growing products and services. If you don’t think that’s useful for you, awesome — let me know. After all, I love fast a fast no!
If learning how to cultivate useful information for your company sounds interesting, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my coaching site at Marcoullier.com.
(Photo by Roger Harris on Unsplash)