5 Reasons Founders Hate the Question “So What Do You Do?”
I was at dinner last night with my family, my cousin (who is a PhD biologist), and a friend who is building a very cool tech startup here in New York. My cousin asked my friend what he did, and the response was as follows: “I have a startup in the advertising market.” Obviously this response told my cousin absolutely nothing, and so my cousin began to “pry” a bit… “can you tell me what the model is, how does it work?” Again, said entrepreneur sort of deflected the question: “I help take an offline process in the advertising market online.”
Watching that interaction, I realized something that I have found to be true in my entrepreneurial endeavors: founders don’t like talking about their companies with what Chris Dixon would call “normals” (non-startup/tech types). If I think about why this is, a few possibilities come to mind:
1) We assume that an audience of non-startup types (in this case a biologist, a psychologist, a real estate guy, and a fashion guy) doesn’t have the context around our market to appreciate the “coolness” of what we’re doing.
2) Because of 1, we’re faced with this choice of the elevator pitch which tends to draw a bunch of shoulder shrugs and “sounds cool(s).” Or a half an hour explanation of the supply chain in our market and where we fit into it. We assume nobody wants to hear about our work for 30 minutes (there are more interesting conversations to be had).
- The problem with this assumption, is that “normals” are actually fascinated by the idea of a startup and entrepreneurship (it’s a dream that many, many people have), so when a founder chooses not to engage in this conversation, it can come across as rude or aloof
3) Especially with early stage startups, there is no brand equity attached to our companies. When meeting for the first time, people typically want to come across as being successful or impressive (basic human need)…this is easy to do when you have a brand like Goldman Sachs behind you…all you have to say is “I work at Goldman Sachs” and you have satisfied this human desire to be perceived as successful…Even if Philip Kaplan says “I work at Blippy,” which in our community would satisfy this need, in a room full of “normals,” this statement requires some qualification.
- The level of qualification required then depends on how much shared context exists between the “normals” and the founder. Obviously a founder focused on building optical networking infrastructure is going to need more qualification than a founder building “an ebay for food,” and it is in this volume of qualification that we start to become a bit self-conscious.
4) Founders spend an inordinate amount of time every day thinking about, talking about, and really pitching our companies to investors/partners/customers/etc… Sometimes at the end of a long day, the last thing we want to do in our “socializing time” is run through another pitch.
5) Founders end up having extremely similar conversations over a period of time. People tend to respond to startup ideas in 3-4 distinct ways…and once you talk to 500 people about what you’re doing, 80% of conversations about your company fall into one of those 3-4. When focused so singularly on one subject, founders have an outsized appreciation for new conversations and stimulus…
What I have learned is that it is important not to assume a “normal’s” level of interest or context around your project. If you really don’t feel like getting into it with someone new, extend an invitation to talk about it in the future: “I run a startup in the ad space…it’s a longer conversation, but if you are really interested, we can get into it later.” Now, if someone you meet wants the 30 minute version, they’ll remind you later, and you can go from there. My advice to founders is go the extra mile to evangelize your company to anyone who is willing to listen…it makes you better at selling your product and every person you talk to has the potential to provide unique insight into what you’re doing.