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Hey Founders: Shut Up!

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I know it’s cool to dis the “MSM” — it’s one of my favorite pastimes — but I’ve also spent years as a journalist and editor. Lately, I’ve been thinking about all the lessons I’ve learned from the journalism profession, and how they can be — and should be — embraced by startup founders.

*Lesson 1: Seek the Truth*

Founders are dreamers. They look at the world and see a problem and cannot rest until its solved. To do that, you have to be a little crazy. After all, if the problem was easily solved, it probably would have been already. So founders have to be willing to suspend their disbelief and drive toward a goal, no matter what.

Journalists live in a perpetual state of disbelief. Skepticism is the norm. Because, in journalism, nothing is true unless you can back it up. Just because one person says it, doesn’t mean it’s true. See if you can get someone else to confirm. Double, triple check. Your reputation is on the line.

*The journalist-founder needs be a dreamer and a skeptic.* You need to have the desire to pursue your crazy dream to the bitter end, but you also need to retain your skepticism. If the plan doesn’t work, what’s the fallback? Are you sure you have all the right information to make your decisions? Are you double checking what people tell you?

*Lesson 2: Be Relentless*

I was the editor of a small newspaper in Santa Cruz. When we were running a story about the local college and the provost was not returning my calls, I went and sat in her office. When her assistant told me she wasn’t in, I kept my butt in the chair anyway. When she finally left for the day, I caught her and got my interview.

*The journalist-founder needs to be dogged.* When the email isn’t returned, call. When the call isn’t returned, visit. When that doesn’t work, try something else. You have to want it more than anyone else – that’s what’ll make your startup succeed where others failed.

*Lesson 3: Shut Up!*

I can’t tell you how many startup meetings I’ve attended over the last twelve years where smart people sat in a room repeating themselves, not listing to anyone around them. The journalist-founder knows better.

The meat of journalism is the interview. Asking the right questions, at the right time, in the right way, to get the most valuable insights out of the people around you. To do that, you can’t be the one talking. In fact, *if you don’t shut up and listen, you’ll miss a valuable chance to learn from those around you*.

For exampe: I was interviewing someone on the phone the other day. He was a hard guy to get ahold of and we didn’t have much time. I asked him a few questions and then laid out a brief sketch of the idea I had. I thought he’d be an ideal customer.

“I would never use that site in a million years,” he said.

Every cell in my body screamed out at once: _He must not get it! Explain it some more!_

Instead I said: “Why?”

He started listing off the problems he saw, and I started taking notes. Of course, I had rebuttals to every one, but my job in this interview was not to convince him of my brilliant idea, it was to get his feedback. So I listened until he finished, and then repeated his main concerns back to him to make sure I got them all down correctly.

In the end, I may not change my idea at all. But if he has those concerns, chances are, other customers may, too. By listening to them now, I’ll be better prepared. That phone call, as disheartening as it was, probably saved me months of work.

*Lesson 4: Produce Something*

All of the above — seeking the truth, being relentless, talking less and listening more — are integral parts of journalism, but in the end, the product is what counts. For the process to matter, you have to produce a story to share your results with the world.

Too often, founders hoard their work too long. _We’ll put the site out once we add a few more features. We can’t share what we’ve learned because it’ll help our competitors. Sit and wait._

*The journalist founder knows that there’s nothing to fear from producing something.* It doesn’t have to be perfect — you just have to put it out there, listen to the feedback from your customers, and then do it again, making sure that each iteration gets a little better.

No one ever won a Pulitzer for the story they almost wrote.

4 Responses to “Hey Founders: Shut Up!”

  1. No question, in my view. Listening is at the heart of most successes, and the best entrepreneurs I’ve worked with are/were the best listeners. The most successful of them, moreover, usually listened to *anyone* that had something of value to add. That could be a receptionist in an office they were visiting, a casual window shopper on their property (real or virtual), an employee’s relative…

    Before you’re successful, most people will tell you how great your ideas sound, either because they like you and your enthusiasm or because they can’t picture what you’re seeing/describing.

    After you’ve become successful, it can be just as hard to find people who’ll give you an honest opinion and constructive criticism, even if for different reasons.

    When I’m working on a new project I don’t want to hear how great it is. What I value most is someone who is really paying attention and who will take the ideas/plans apart and put them back together again with me. The most successful things I’ve done have involved the greatest amount of that process.}

  2. willscott

    The old sales adage holds true: “We’ve got two ears and one mouth for a reason”.

    I used to work with a self-made millionaire who became a vendor to his own industry. He found himself selling back into a community of former colleagues and competitors.

    In short he sucked at it because he was too busy trying to prove he knew better instead of listening to customers’ needs to offer a solution.

    Much like the author – perhaps nothing needed changing, but at least by listening he’d know what rebuttals would resonate.}

  3. gillie

    One of the best things I ever did was to shut up my defensive instincts and listen when my co-founder (and husband) told me, quite bluntly, that I sucked at my job. It was hard to hear, but I sucked it up and realized that I truly was doing a ton of running to stand still rather than moving our business forward. I made it my mission to get better at what I do, and I think we’ve been a stronger team–and company–as a result.}

  4. tacanderson

    Shutting up and listening is so crucial. Criticism is by far the best feed back an entrepreneur can get. I find that if I’m getting a negative response to my business idea it’s because:
    A) They aren’t my target audience (don’t assume this too quickly though).
    B) I did a poor job on my explanation (in the early stages this is usually the case).
    C) I have some real flaws in plan (early on this is the best feed back to get)}