As a startup founder you are going to be hearing the word “no” all the time, so you better have thick skin and be prepared to deal with this. You can expect to be told “no” by candidates you want to hire and also from potential investors, customers, and partners. If your first instinct when someone tells you “no” is to get defensive and hit back, then you’re not going to make it as a startup founder. Your job is to understand when a “no” is really a “not yet” as opposed to a “never”. You will want to spend your energy with the “not yet” people you encounter and learn to brush off the “nevers” so that they don’t drain your energy.
“No” is a tough word for anyone to hear, but any startup trying to change an industry is going to be breaking new ground. Most people will think you are crazy for taking big chances to make your dreams come true. People fear change and will be happy to tell you all the different ways your new business could fail. When you start recruiting candidates, many will find your business too risky, or they will be looking for compensation packages you cannot afford. If you have experience recruiting from a big company, be prepared for a big change here. Finding the right people to join your startup in the early days likely means you will lose out on candidates you like. Be prepared for the “no” while you search for the right people.
The same thing will happen when you talk to investors. VCs will blow you off with vague statements like “too early” or “not a big enough market”. These will sting, but you have to anticipate this pain when you capital raise. Potential customers or business partners will have similar responses. They will tell you to come back when you have more existing customers, an impossible Catch-22. They will ask for referrals from other customers or partners, another Catch-22. Be ready for this type of “no” response as you hunt for early successes for your business.
It is totally natural when someone tells you “no” to get defensive and start debating your case. This might make sense in some situations in life, but as a startup founder it is often the wrong instinct. You are trying to break new ground, “no” is going to be a big part of your work life for a while. You will need to learn how to fight the instinct to fight with everyone that doesn’t agree with you. Take a deep breath and try to figure out what the other person is telling you with this “no”. Be gracious, ask for as much information as possible on why the person has said “no”, and only provide further points for your pitch if it is going to be productive.
The most important thing to figure out when someone tells you “no” is whether they are looking for more info from you or are they slamming the door shut. If the door is closed, is it closed forever or are their things you can prove with the business growth to rekindle the conversation? Lots of “no” answers are really “not yet”. Your job is to understand what it will take to turn a “not yet” into a “yes”. Try to get as much detail as possible from the person about the progress they are looking for to work with you. It may not be possible to get a specific answer, but try your best to understand their criteria, repeat it back to them, and then follow up hard when the timing is right.
For the job candidate, investor, customer, or partner that is telling you “never”, my best advice is just move on. Trying to tell them they are wrong is not going to help you. It might make you feel better for a few minutes, but you are likely to alienate them. This can have dangerous, unexpected consequences. The startup world is small. Job candidates, VCs, and customers often talk to each other. Spending your time fighting or lecturing people that will never do business with you could hurt your reputation with the next person that might have been more open to your ideas. Just let it go.