A venture capitalist’s advice on some obvious but often ignored tips to stand out in the crowd.Sanjay Swamy
As entrepreneurs, we are always balancing the dual responsibility of living in the present and survival, while planning three to five years in the future. Your family, your co-founders, your team, your investors, your partners, and customers are all keen to back you,but only if you instill in them the confidence of knowing where you are today, and feeling reassured that despite the uncertainty, you appear to be in control of yourself, your emotions and the moment.
Clearly, not all entrepreneurs can do this well and at all times. However, it is essential to make a conscious effort and use this as a means to instill the right level of professional behaviour in the company. So, what are some of the obvious things that are in your control? The things you can do well are often the simplest things,and saying ‘life in a startup’ is most often merely an excuse to being disorganised and not in control.
To be clear, I am often guilty of several of the mistakes below, but am sincerely trying to correct myself!
Here are some examples:
1. Be on time:
All the time. There is simply no excuse for showing up late to a meeting - whether internal or external.
● This means you can also be demanding of others. I have a friend who told me that he reported a minute late to his weekly review meeting and the manager said, “Okay, looks like you’re busy.Let’s talk next week”. This set the tone, and my friend was never late after that.
● I use Google Calendar and check the box for “Speedy Meetings”, which means to end 30-minute meetings in 25 minutes, and one-hour meetings in 50 minutes. This gives ample time to switch between meetings.
● If, for any reason, you end up being late,then in today’s day and age, it’s imperative to send an email or text apologising and setting a new ETA.
● Practice makes perfect.It’s imperative to practice this for internal meetings too.
2. Say no to reminding others, or being reminded
● It’s imperative that people understand the responsibility of a commitment.
A lot of people I have worked with - lawyers, partners, team members - get irritated my habit of cutting them zero slack. When they say they will send me a new draft by noon, I expect it at 11:59,not at 12:01. There is no excuse to not notifying me in advance about a deadline that you will miss. It’s not like you remember at 12:01 that you missed the deadline;you probably knew it earlier. The point is that people are forgiving of missed deadlines,provided they don’t have to remind you, and you inform them before the proposed deadline.
● I often ask people, “By when will you be done?” If they say noon, I say, “Okay, let’s agree that you’ll send it to me at 2pm. But,if nothing shows up in my inbox at 2:01, I feel I’m entitled to call.”
3. Follow up. ALWAYS
It still is surprising to me that
● People don’t write a simple ‘thank you’ note with meeting minutes and follow-up points.
● People say “let me send you some information”,and don’t mean it.
● Given that the bar is so low on such matters, a follow-up email from a meeting is not just a professional and polite thing to do, it always scores very highly. Whether it is for a job interviewer a funding pitch, these are the signs that you are a professional, and will lead and expect others to behave in the same way,thereby increasing the chances of success of your company.
4. Keep the introducer informed
● When someone makes an introduction to you, do have the courtesy to update the introducer. And it can be done with simple things:
● Reply and thank them, and then move them to BCC - nobody wants to know the details of which coffee shop you are meeting at and when.
● After your initial connect with the person they introduced, drop the introducer a note informing them you have connected.
● If something materialises, remember to at least send a ‘thank you’ note.
5. Understanding the ‘no’to make it a ‘yes’!
I’ve had more no’s than yeses,and several no’s that turned into yeses over time. People often tend to make decisions based on a current state.Over time, as things change, they rarely remember to revisit old decisions.
When someone gives you a no, make sure you ask them for specific reasons as to why it was a no. Subsequently, it’s up to you to ping them, but do so in a systematic manner, and with some good news or updates,especially related to the reason they gave you a no for.
6. Having a prepared mind
The most successful people I know have always been very systematic when it comes to preparing for important events. For example, before an important meeting, it’s good to role-play, plan the seating, plan the flow of the meeting, and go with a clear goal of what you intend to get out of the meeting. It doesn’t always play out to a script, but being unprepared and trying to wing it rarely works, especially if the person on the other side is well prepared.
7. Make your own luck
We all like to rationalise our lack of success with luck,but rarely do we attribute success to luck. The fact is that in principle, luck has a role to play. At the same time, giving yourself more chances to get lucky is often the key to getting lucky.
I firmly believe in the mantra,‘Make your own luck’. This may take many shapes or forms,including simple things like speaking to the person next to you on the plane, taking that additional meeting, attending an event which was seemingly low value or even meeting someone. This doesn’t mean you go hunting for things to do,but I firmly believe that when something comes knocking, you investigate it.
8. Use spell check and grammar check
One of the silliest things one can do is not use free tools for spell check and/or grammar check. Not everyone is perfect in their communication, but not using basic tools shows you don’t care about the other person, let alone yourself. Again, my communication may not be perfect, but I rarely send out an email without having used spell check. It isn’t a bar-raiser, it’s a minimum expectation.
9. You can screw me over only once!
My basic rule in business is that "you can only screw me over once". Trust is earned by default until there is a reason to distrust - and once that happens, it's nearly impossible to reverse. General rule - don't tell lies, don't exaggerate the truth, come across as transparentor explicitly say, "sorry I can't share it with you". There is a big gap between being seen as a hustling sales guy and a sincere honest person who is keen to move fast. Don't try and pull the wool over people's eyes, it rarely works.
10. Listen and ask questions before you start talking
This is something I've also blogged about separately.I often ask a founder, "What do you know about us?" And more often than not, the answer is, "I know everything.Let me tell you about our product". #EPICFAIL. My immediate assessment is that this person is never going to listen to a customer - the single biggest reason why startups fail.
11. Read the tea leaves
Founders are passionate people and eternal optimists,and they should be. There have been many times when I ask someone, "How'd it go?" and they're confident they nailed the meeting.However, often it’s because they want to believe they did. Be conservative.Watch the body language of the other party, and ask them directly. I also feel too much time is spent in trying to posture. In my opinion, it's not a sign of weakness to ask someone what they think.Rather, it’s a way of verifying that they did understand. If youworry they may say that they didn't like it, well, not asking them isn't going to make them like it!
These rules of operation have worked well for me - and on the (hopefully rare) occasions where I’ve let my guard down, I’ve regretted doing so. As they say, it’s often the little things that matter and most of these are common sense!
I hope you find some of the tips useful. What are some of the things that have worked well for you? Do share!
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)