Leading a startup is harder than any other career path on many levels. You must build everything from scratch, fight for every dollar in and out of the company, and go to sleep each night with the knowledge that you should have done even more that day. You suck up an incredible amount of rejection from prospective customers, partners and investors. The rejection is always “personal” because the business is your baby.
While rejection is part of the game, a handful of jerks make life even harder for the hopeful souls trying to get a startup off the ground. Last week I felt the sting of a jerk–and while the experience ruined my day, I discovered a better way to diffuse this stress going forward. You might find the story helpful whether you are in the startup trenches, or just got cut off on the exit ramp of the interstate.
I was recently reading the blog of a fairly well-known investor and noticed that he had added an open calendar app on his website inviting people to meet with him. This is an example of a new trend of “office hours” that progressive investors have recently embraced. I was planning to be in his city the following month and figured it would be a great opportunity to connect both as a startup (MVC Test) and fellow investor (CincyTech). The scheduling process requested that I pick a few times and add a one-sentence description of the reason to meet.
A few hours later I got a response from the investor: A snarky one-line assessment of my business and no word of whether or not he would meet with me. My blood boiled for several hours. I wrote and rejected several responses to his missive, deciding to try and put the incident behind me. But something still nagged at me–Rejection is fine and expected, but why add malice? In other words,
Why be a jerk?
Believe it or not, some people actually choose to be jerks in the business world. A recent Wired article on the management lessons of Steve Jobs shares the stories of executives who openly denigrate people’s work and call customers “idiots” over email. I personally stay away from anyone who frequently speaks negatively about other people behind their backs. This lack of self-esteem can be toxic in many ways–especially in the personal crucible that is a startup. And if they tell you about others behind their backs, chances are they will do the same to you.
Startup investors often have to defend themselves against charges of jerk-ness. Many who are criticized say that they are simply being direct, and that this directness is meant to help the companies that come to their doors. And as gateways to money and success, investors can be seen in a harsher light to entrepreneurs. There is always one fundamental difference in perspective: The company pitching in the conference room is taking their jobs personally, while investors must look at a business with absolute lack of passion and emotion.
For some investors, though, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Investors simply don’t have the same kinds of checks and balances that business owners have. If you are a jerk in most other business roles, people will choose not to work with you or for you. Your business results will sour and soon you’ll be looking for a new job. But investors get 10 years to show results, and their limited partners are only looking for a strong return on investment. Niceties don’t count.
I have a unique perspective as both a startup founder and investor. Over the past year as an Entrepreneur in Residence at CincyTech, a seed-stage VC firm, I have listed to over 100 founders pitch their ideas. For me, the role of listening to a pitch produces empathy. I feel for the founders pitching their hearts out, because I know that the odds are long, and the reality is that we can only invest in a fraction of those who walk in the door.
To reduce any negative feelings along the way, I try to go out of my way to explain our process, offer helpful perspective and tips, and always keep the door open for future conversations. No one taught me to behave this way, it just seems natural to try and be a good person.
In the midst of my anger over the jerky reply from the “open” investor I went online to learn more about him. From the first page of Google results I discovered that he recently tried and failed to launch his own startup, and was now struggling to find investors and startups to join his new fund. Then I read some negative industry buzz about his mixing of business and pleasure. On one hand I felt better reading this. It validated my experience of his jerkiness, and suggested that karma is, indeed, a bitch.
But then my anger melted away and I began to feel sorry for him, because he is likely suffering because of his personality issues. What could be worse than having a flaw that you don’t know exists, or that you don’t know how to correct. It is hard to be angry at a person that is self-destructive.
So as you struggle on toward startup success, feel sorry for the jerks that you will inevitably encounter. By forgiving and pitying them you might be able to better wade through the unproductive anger that ensues…and it just might make you a better person in the end.