Putting your best foot forward- Does it work all the time?

As a startup founder, if you were to make a presentation to your potential investors, with an opening slide: Few Reasons why you should NOT Invest in our Company, what would be the outcome? You would sum it up as nothing but a disaster!

Rufus Groscom and Alisa Volkman started a company in the US called Babble which was an online magazine with blog network. The company had positioned on the new paradigm of parenting by  challenging  the dominant parental clichés. In 2009 when they approached for the Venture Capital (VC) funding, their first slide was:  Five reasons why not to invest in Babble. They received a $3.3 Mn funding.

Looks a bit counterintuitive! Isn’t it? Normally the convention is to highlight your strengths which works well when your target audience is either neutral or has a positive disposition towards your offerings. But does a typical investor look upon you in a similar way?

Just imagine when you say that you have a ‘killer idea’ and that you will reach your breakeven in the first year and  will scale up to 20x revenue in the next two years what must be going on in the investors’ mind? Rather than getting impressed, a conventional sales pitch is normally looked down with scepticism. The investor is also operating from a position of strength which is due to the funds at his disposal as well as the number of ‘killer ideas’ he has encountered in the past.  Psychologically he is tuned to find out the follies in your sales pitch. What happens when you take a counterintuitive approach of focussing on your weaknesses?

  1. You create Trust: When you put your cards on the table you look vulnerable which makes you look trustworthy. Your investor feels that if you are speaking about something wrong, there might be a lot of things you may be doing right. You are perceived with a positive intent. In the conventional sales pitch, the intent is perceived as getting the funding by hook or by crook! (for details refer Trust: The Difference that Creates the Difference, from Contextual Selling)
  2. You look smart: You may speak about your strengths but if they are hyped the investor may feel you are beating your own trumpets. However, when you critique yourself, you may be perceived as smart.

Teresa Amabile, professor of Business administration at the Harvard Business School conducted an experiment on how a writer is perceived by her audiences. A sample of a New York Times book review was taken. The book review which was primarily of a complimentary nature was modified with a critical tone; major part of the content remaining the same. Minor modifications were made from inspiring to uninspiring, tremendous impact to negligible impact etc.

People rated the ‘critical’ reviewer 14% more intelligent and having 16% greater literary expertise vis-à-vis the ‘complimentary’ reviewer. After all an amateur can appreciate art but only a professional can critique it!

  1. Objections are Pre-empted: There are two groups who have been given a task of identifying reasons for being happy.  Group A has to list three reasons whereas group B has to list for 12 reasons. Which group according to you should be happier between the two? Most of us would opt for group B.

Norbert Schwarz (Professor, Department of Psychology, University of California) in his article Ease of retrieval as information has given an interesting example on Availability Heuristics.  Also called as availability bias, it refers to the mental short cuts that come to people’s mind while evaluating and solving a problem. Group A may think the reasons of happiness can be attributed to spouse, children and the career. The available answers which were quick to find makes them happy. Group B may explore possibilities beyond the first three which may include vacation, hobbies etc. but may find it hard to reach the magical number of 12 and they start questioning themselves whether they are happy in the first place or not. So, the counterintuitive answer is A.

Looking at the Startup founder’s admission about his challenges the investor now has to struggle hard to find out new problems (as those have been already pre-empted in the first slide) and he concludes that the startup’ s problems are not that significant!

Coming back to the Babble story, a few years later Rufus and Alisa approached Disney for a takeover. The opening slide was:  Why you should NOT buy Babble? And the reasons included

  1. Poor user engagement,
  2. Only 3-page views per visit
  3. despite being a parenting website 40% of posts were from celebrities etc…

Disney bought Babble for $40 Mn.

A note of caution: Aspects like technology model, IP, revenue stream, scaling, breakeven, competition, manpower cost, future disruption etc are going to be equally important and the presenter needs to be focusing on the strengths too. The article only wishes to point out that speaking about the negatives may be also relevant at appropriate times!

Rajan Parulekar, rajan@paradigm-info.com

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