NOTE: This was originally published in FORBES in Forbes Under 30.
Even though it has never been easier start up in the first place, there’s no doubt that most adults don’t take you seriously when you’re building a company and yet can’t even get into a bar. In my own experience building my company ThirdEye, I would oftentimes talk to another fellow entrepreneur who was 20-30 years older than me and most of our early conversations went something along the lines of “That’s a super cool project you’re working on.” Here are three reasons why you’re going to fail. “But I’m sure it’ll be a great ‘learning opportunity’ for you….”
Credibility matters in almost every aspect of building your business–which clients you’re able to onboard, which partnerships you get, what kind of hiring opportunities you have access to, which investors you get meetings with, what kind of buzz you’re able to get, and what advisors are willing to work with you.
After my experience building and selling ThirdEye and working in VC, here’s what I’ve learned–either by observing others via osmosis or by failing myself–about what you should do when no one is taking you seriously or when no VC wants a second meeting with you:
1) Have a stellar board of advisors and mentors.
In the early days, we were just a team of students (read as “kids”) with a cool project. But the more we started to develop more relationships with previously successful entrepreneurs and VCs, the more we found that we were able to get into more important meetings. Great advisors can make up for a young management team.
It’s important to note that the way you find great advisors is not by asking people you admire “hey we’re building Y….do you want to be your advisor?” but rather by just asking them for a piece of specific advice that they can definitely help with.
Once you get your foot in the door and they either like your startup concept or they like you as a person, they’ll be there to help in the long run (see here for a process on how to do this). For example, in his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin talks about how when he asked people for a small favor, they were more likely to help him down the line because of a sort of advocacy effect–since they had already helped him, they think they like him, and then helped him additionally in the future.
2) Build partnerships with well-known organizations.
One of our largest breaks when ThirdEye was young happened when we were able to do beta testing with the National Federation of the Blind. The key lesson here is that going in with the attitude of “I’m going to sell these guys” is probably not the right one; instead, just ask for advice and nudge the potential person to like you as a person. As in the case of advisors, once you’re able to get into the door, just keep on asking for advice and slowly push to build a stronger and deeper tie with the organization until they become a formal partner.
At the same time, it’s worth remembering that a business dependent on partners for its survival probably isn’t in a great position. It’s important not to build partnerships only for the sake of credibility; it’s better to spend your valuable time building friendships with parties that can be mutually beneficial down the line.
3) Get some kind of external third party recognition.
Derek Sivers says that the first follower turns a lone nut into a leader. When you’re building something, you’re expected to vouch for your product–after all, you built it; but finding some third party source–especially a well-known authority like a major media company–who has no vested benefit in the success of your product is a different story. We’ve all heard of stories of products that have exploded because Oprah covered them or because they were on Shark Tank.
4) Take design seriously and make sure you have a strong web presence.
In a world where we’re accustomed to the beautiful industrial design of Apple and the seamless interfaces of Uber, whenever we see a startup with ugly UI/UX, we oftentimes aren’t willing to put up with the product even if it’s valuable to us (unless we’re extremely early adopters for that category of products). Seemingly small concepts to a non-designer like the type of typeface you use or how the colors in your logo interact with each other can create a product that people love or hate.
Even if you don’t have a design oriented team-member, spend time with design and don’t disregard it as “unimportant.” How people perceive your business matters, even if you are selling to businesses (or in our case, the visually impaired). One of the best ways to do this is just to scan the web for designs you like, synthesize which elements you like and don’t, and then create your own. As Picasso said, “good artists copy, great artists steal.”
5) Write about your experiences online.
In Show Your Work, author Austin Kleon prescribes that creatives and entrepreneurs detail their work on an online journal. The thought is that not only would this become a record for you, but it would also show people what you’re up to.
In my experience writing about my experiences and failures online, I found that not only did people take the company seriously since they could see the team was actually making progress, but when I wrote about the process of building ThirdEye, people frequently recommended the product itself to a visually impaired person they know. Thus, in addition to increasing the credibility of the company, my writing helped us gain valuable users.
6) Get a major VC behind you.
Although we knew we were going to be bootstrapping all the way, there are many startups that people only know about because a VC at a16z or Y Combinator or Union Square Ventures took a bet on them.
Of course, this is easier said than done and results in a sort of chicken and egg problem: if you don’t have clients because you’re not credible enough, you’re not going to get funded by a major VC, but if you don’t have a major VC, you can’t use this route to credibility. The solution to this might be to find angels and smaller funds who are willing to take a bet on you as a team to build a strong partnership and ultimately increase your credibility.
7) Do your research.
Who are the people we take most seriously? The people who seem to know every tiny detail about their business, their customers, and their market, and who have an answer to every question we ask. According to Gifs.com co-founder, Thiel Fellow, Harvard dropout, and Forbes 30 Under 30 Alum Kieran O’Reilly, “Future advisors will take you seriously if you know why they could help you. VCs will take you seriously if you know what you want, how much you want, in what format, and why. You don’t want to get a meeting with a16z and then tell them that you’re raising at a $100MM valuation.”
Point is that the easiest way to look like a fool is to not do your research and not understand the opportunity you’re going after. It’s not unheard of for young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to raise $10M with just a pitch deck–all they have is a plethora of painstakingly analyzed details on why someone should take a bet on them.
8) Sell. Sales solve every problem.
There’s a saying in the business world that sales are the potion to any ailment. In most regards this is probably true. If you’re able to onboard your first few clients or able to get a sustainable business, you won’t be running after VCs or press or clients–they’ll be running after you since you have a business model that’s making money.
Interestingly, these sales (or similar metrics for traction) don’t necessarily need to be sustainable. By now the story of the Airbnb founders selling “presidential cereal” to bootstrap their business is infamous; since Brian Chesky and his co-founders were able to sell upwards of $30k selling breakfast cereal, Paul Graham at Y Combinator took a chance on them simply because they were great salesmen. Still, it may not necessarily be a good idea to spend too much nonrenewable time building an unsustainable business model selling something not related to the core business.
9) Don’t worry about it.
Maybe you just read this and are thinking well this stuff doesn’t really matter. In many regards, you’d have a valid argument; if you go build an Uber or Airbnb, none of this stuff matters: you’ll get the investors, press, partnerships, and meetings no matter what. This is definitely a valid argument–in the early days, all a founder’s time should be going into product and customer interviews.
On the other hand, an equally strong argument could be that you won’t be able to find product-market fit or get major sales without credibility, especially in a B2B business. Plus, some of these things–like advisors who really add value, press, and money from VCs–will be useful regardless of whether or not your company has hit exponential hockey-stick growth.