I have spent the last fifteen years starting and running two startups. Currently, I am “on a break” to finish my book, “Survival Guide for Bootstrapping Entrepreneurs” and to experiment with an online community for open source and commercial network tools. I often find myself participating in a social-bookmarking and discussion site, Y Combinator News (YCN), where I constantly learn new things about entrepreneurship.
For those of you who are not familiar with the distinction, YCN is different from YC (Y Combinator), with the latter being an incubator for startups catered mainly to the younger generation of entrepreneurs with web-based opportunities (what I call “Entre-sumers”). YCN is an open forum run by YC, but anyone can participate.
As with many, I consider myself an YCN enthusiast but merely an YC groupie. This article is the last of my 3-part series inspired by the YC summer contest and resulting discussions at YCN, including the extreme emotions experienced by most entrepreneurs during fund raising.
Today, I will focus on rejection— not just accepting it, but embracing rejection.
Most smart engineers prefer to avoid rejection by spending more time on developing technology or products and they want to get it as perfect as possible before presenting it to a potential partner, customer or investor for critique.
My experience is that entrepreneurs don’t learn much from positive feedback. We learn a whole lot more from negative feedback. Entrepreneurs who avoid rejection are essentially depriving themselves of important “learning moments”.
Actually entrepreneurs do not purposely avoid rejection. Our primary focus is to seek validation, from our peers and from our mentors (in time also from our customers).
In our mind, rejection is merely an undesirable outcome, which we unfortunately tend to take very personally because we think of it as a failure and a painful reminder to be more prepared the next time around.
But rejection is not a failure.
To understand rejection, we must first understand the need for validation. And to understand validation, we must first understand the need for acceptance.
There is no better blueprint to understand the complexity of emotions of a young entrepreneur (I was one once) than to examine a first rate essay recently posted by Danielle Fong, who was rejected by YC. The article is entitled “One Response to Rejection” and has generated quite a bit of commentary on YCN.
“ … We had poured startling effort into building our product … entirely toward a single goal. Getting into YCombinator … We’ll get in. We’ll make sure of it … The letter arrived silently … They’re wrong! And we don’t need them anyway … They have no more dominion over truth than the rest of us … For years I’ve contemplated PG’s word as philosophy … He is a hero … YC isn’t what I know of it … And we are not what any others … can ever hope to judge us … Upon rejection … [it] took hours to move past the looming question: ‘How are we deficient?’ … looking back, there are perfectly valid reasons for skepticism … It is so easy to take rejection as a challenge to ourselves … We are unproven.”
In this 10-second summary of a rather long but extremely well-written article, we are witnessing a roller coaster ride of emotions experienced by entrepreneurs during a typical funding cycle, which ranges from excitement, determination, accomplishment, relief, apprehension, denial, reasoning, acceptance and ending with re-commitment, all of which are anchored around a much deeper human desire to be accepted into a worthy community (not unlike the desire of a caveman wanting to be inside a cave).
It takes a lot of courage and personal strength to write such an article and the author is obviously someone of tremendous intelligence (entering college at the age of 12 and starting her Ph.D. in Plasma Physics at Princeton at the age of 17). She has my utmost respect and admiration.
But I have to wonder.
My own experience as a struggling entrepreneur is that startup is not a career choice. Starting a company is very different than winning a science prize, getting accepted into a top rate University, or being on the Dean’s list.
My experience is that entrepreneurship is, in fact, a character flaw. Entrepreneurship is not something that can be rationalized and easily explained away. Entrepreneurship is a deep desire to create and destroy at the same time. It requires simultaneous distain for authorities and respect for past artisans. In fact, if I thought there was a cure, I would have taken the pill.
But if one were to accept entrepreneurship as what it really is, then there is a much less immediate need for acceptance and validation (except in the marketplace). The end result is that we would have a very different perspective on rejection, that rejection is not an undesirable and unavoidable side product, but in fact part of the journey.
To me, rejection is a tonic, much like the tonic that my mother had forced me to drink when I was a little boy. Whenever I was sick, my mom would go to the herbal shop and bring back a mix bag of medicine that looked like broken tree branches (and occasionally insect casings). She would boil it for hours and I had to drink it.
The taste was indescribably bad and what made it worse was that she would boil it again, and I would to drink it the second time. For some reason, we always had to drink it twice (first time to cure and second time to inoculate, I guess).
What I learned is that rejection and criticisms are similar. You have to drink it twice. The first time is very bitter and our body and our soul would reject them because they taste awful even though we know that they are supposed to be good for us. Then we have to boil it again. At night before we go to sleep, we would need to calmly recount the events during the day and ask ourselves a simple question,
“What were they trying to tell us by rejecting us? What is it that they are seeing that I am not seeing?”
And it is amazing how much we learn when we take down our guard and when we listen, not just with our ears but with our heart.
In summary, not only do we need to get over rejection, we must embrace rejection.
For entrepreneurs, rejections are learning moments.
Engage rejection early. Any chance you can, get in front of people who are not your family or your friends and get real feedback. If they say nice things to you, it just means that they don’t care enough to criticize you. Get them to care. Do the best you can to listen but understand that no matter how much you think you are listening, you are not because your intellect is doing its best to reject criticism in order to protect you.
Whatever you do, don’t regard rejection as a personal failure. It is not personal.
Embrace it. Go home and embrace it again. It doesn’t taste any better when you confront it the second time but at least you are in a better mindset to be able to absorb the much-needed medicine.
Denny Miu is a serial founder. He has also been a Professor, an engineer, an entrepreneur, a team leader as well as an individual contributor. Denny had published two previous articles for Found|READ: Calling YCombinators: Lessons from a “Serial First-Timer” and To YC or to VC? That is my question…. For more from Denny see his blog, StartupForLess.org.