One of My Most Frequent Pieces of Advice: Be Politely Persistent

Posted on Mar 29, 2014 | 0 comments


One of the hardest things for most entrepreneurs to know is how hard to push in situations where people tell you “no.”

But then again most entrepreneurs fail. There is that rare breed that doesn’t accept “no” for an answer. It is impossible advice to give because there is such a fine line between being persistent and being annoying and it’s something you probably can’t teach. I often describe “chutzpah” as being able to skate right up to the line of acceptability without crossing over it.

And being persistent I believe is the most important attribute for success in an entrepreneur (assuming of course that you have all the other requisite skills).

Years ago I started using the term “politely persistent” to remind people that you still need to be likable even if you have gumption.

I’d say less than 20% of of entrepreneurs fit into that bucket.

Of course at one end of the bucket are entrepreneurs who are persistent but just aren’t polite. Maybe they’ve hit a few set backs: They’ve struggled to raise money, they haven’t gotten press coverage or they haven’t gotten accepted to present at prestigious conferences. I’ve talked before about the need to get rid of “that negative chip on your shoulder” as it won’t help you in business.

It seeps out into conversations as frustration, anger, resentment, jealousy or worse. It ends up being a turn off to potential employees, investors, business partners and the press.

There are some people who don’t have a chip but also aren’t polite – just rude. They get pissed off if a senior executive at Google doesn’t take a meeting with them, if people are late to their meetings or if they have emails that are unreturned. And they take out that resentment against anybody else that may show signs of one of these past patterns. Their angst at “shaming you” into better behavior has the reverse effect on most people.

But my post isn’t for the haters. It’s for the overwhelming majority of entrepreneurs who are either too shy, too nervous, too polite or too worried about upsetting somebody to push the boundaries. The 70% of entrepreneurs that simply can’t get past an un-responded-to email.

I once went to a startup event where a VC told the audience that if a VC doesn’t respond to your email to move on to the next VC – that VC is clearly not interested. WTF? I called it “the worst startup advice I had ever heard somebody give.” (Yes, I could have been more polite on that day) What I actually said was (paraphrasing from memory):

“If you fold at the first un-responded to email what hope to you have at becoming an entrepreneur? Seriously, hang up your cleats now and go back to your corporate job.

 

Do you think the SVP of Marketing from Coca Cola is going to respond to your every email? Do you think that every conference organizer will promptly meet your needs? Will every customer who feels bombarded with sales requests want to take your call?

 

It’s your job to persist. It’s your job to be that one person who calls back periodically, finds a way to get introduced, shows up to an event to meet somebody, finds something unique to say to that person where you can stand out.

 

Be polite, but never accept a simple ‘no.’ “

In fact, NO is the one word that no entrepreneur should accept.

But how do you get past gate keepers? How do you get on elusive calendars or invited to speak at conference?

1. Well, for starters you need to be a great networker. I wrote an example of why this matters when meeting VCs but it’s true of all exec. Nothing beats a warm intro.
2. You need to know how to write good & action oriented emails.
3. You need to know how to make good phone calls and not be afraid to pick up the phone.
4. Understand reciprocity and how helping others earns you good karma points – and favors.
5. Be humble – nobody likes too much arrogance; but
6. Don’t be afraid to be a bit cheeky. You can take some risks. You won’t have success with everybody you approach but I’d rather see you show some juevos and / or some humor sometimes to stand out. Just don’t go overboard.
7. Be confident while being polite. I recently had a CEO email me to tell me he was “politely withdrawing his consideration for venture money if he didn’t hear back from me.” My first thought was, “huh?” I then searched my email and found it was the 3rd email. Of course I felt badly. And his email – while confident – was very respectful. We did a call immediately.
8. Find under-utilized lines of communication. In the early days of Facebook messaging Jason Nazar used to send me messages at 11pm when he knew I’d be online and undistracted. Rajat Suri used to send me Gchats. Or this guy Eric Damier who sends me funny text messages that make me laugh. He’s “over the top with a smile” and I can’t help wanting to hear from him.
9. Do they blog? Stating the obvious but if the person you want to meet blogs and if they engage in the comments section then this is the best way to build a relationship. Provide thoughtful comments. Engage lightly. Be “present” but don’t be “creepy.” For regular bloggers this is the single best way to engage.

But most of all. Above anything else. Be persistent. You must follow through. A hard “no” is better than no response.  And even a “no” should just be a suggestion to try harder.

Consider this story from the founders of Kayak quoted in this excellent article about the most respected venture capital firm in the business – Sequoia. They had a bad meeting with the founders of Kayak who felt that had something more to prove,

“The two were initially turned down [by Sequoia] before English returned uninvited a day later and convinced the firm to give Kayak a second look.”

This is the norm. Broken M&A transactions that get picked back up. Teams that didn’t hire you only to be impressed later by your performance and / or persistence. Deals that seemed lost but since you never gave up you ended up winning.

There are also the funny & positive ways to connect with the people you want. Take this great story about Sam Rosen who knew I was traveling from San Francisco to Mountain View to present at 500 Startups. He messaged me that he would love to give me a ride down, which I needed. He proceeded to pitch me his business on the drive down – but not too much. Just enough to leave an impression. A couple of years later I brought him on board as an EIR and after that I backed his next company MakeSpace.

If you have any interest here are two stories of how cheeky persistence change my life

1. How I got to move to Europe
2. How I got to work in Tokyo

[Update: When does “no” actually mean “no?” Because of course sometimes it does. Matt Szymczyk asks in the comments section and my friend Ralph Mack who is a very active angel investor and thinks a lot like I do asked me via email. Ralph put it best – that your “ask” has to be in someone’s “scope of interest.” If you’re pitching me a book idea, a film or even a biotech company it really is a firm NO because I don’t do those things.

Similarly, I try to be very clear with entrepreneurs when I really am not interested so that I don’t give them false hope. Equally I often tell people, “this could be something I’m interested in one day – just not now” or “you’re the kind of entrepreneur I might work with some day but not on this business” so that they have context.

I often  privately counsel entrepreneurs to ask these “qualifying” questions (in a polite but direct way of course!) to VCs. “I know you’re passing for now. Is this the kind of business you could one day see yourself funding? Or should I focus my energy in the future elsewhere.” You might not want to hear the real no but you’re better off hearing it than wasting time in the future. Most people avoid giving the direct answer but when asked usually will out of politeness.

Always remember the rule of sales … a firm no is better than a muddy maybe. Raising money is a sale. The golden rule of sales is “qualify, qualify, qualify.” If you’re not a fit then better that your resources go somewhere with a more likely hit rate.]

[Featured Image is amazing and is courtesy of my favorite 500px person, CPO Evgeny Tchebotarev – no, I am not an investor.]