If everyone else could see your vision, it wouldn’t be a vision.
Makes your vision sound extra special, right?
But to people on the outside, visions often look like hallucinations. Outsiders can’t tell if your vision is brilliant and innovative or just plain crazy. And realistically, there are very few people out there who have time to make a proper analysis.
At Userlite, we’re building something audacious. We’ve shared our vision with dozens of mentors, investors, and potential employees and partners. We’ve pitched our vision from Silicon Valley to Boston, and lots of places in between. The results? Almost no one we talk to understands what we’re doing, and of the ones who do, only a few have faith that achieving our vision is remotely possible.
When you’re building a startup, it’s easy to get demoralized when no one else can see what you see. Here are some ways I’ve learned to cope with the rejection:
Get out there every day.
Last summer my co-founder and I started building our startup. I remember sweating my brains out as I walked the streets of Durham talking to anyone who was willing to listen. At first, it seemed like nothing was happening.
One of my first successful meetings was with Jay Bigelow at CED. He had skimmed through our business plan and he told me straight up: What you’re trying to do is very ambitious. (He was phrasing it nicely.)
After we met he offered to have us pitch to the CED VMS mentors. A few weeks later I was standing in front of 25 local executives, entrepreneurs, and professionals who were all passionate about helping startups in our region. I was surprised at how in-tune they were and how smart their questions were. A few days after that we had three amazing mentors reach out to us who helped us with strategy and networking as we were first getting started.
It’s not easy to get out from behind your laptop and hit the streets. But if you’re persistent, the people you talk to will see your passion and give you opportunities that can lead to amazing progress for your startup.
Anticipate the worst.
Earlier this year at BCVP’s Entrepreneurs’ Series, angel investor David Gardner told a story about the worst pitch he had ever heard. I’m pretty sure that story was about my pitch.
David was one of the first people I ever shared my idea with. I remember him patiently letting me go through my whole spiel even though it was obvious from the start that I was doing and saying all the wrong things. At the end, he politely explained how off-track I was. But then he did something I didn’t expect: he offered to help in any way he could. Specifically, he told me that he’d be happy to make any introductions I needed to help me make progress.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but I find it helpful to picture the worst thing that can happen when I’m sharing my ideas. Why? Because the worst that can happen actually isn’t that bad.
Chances are, you’ll learn something. And if your passion is genuine, a lot of people will be willing to help no matter how off-track you are.
Anticipating negative outcomes has also helped me better prepare by forcing me to think critically about how what I’m sharing will be received by my audience.
Shoot for the best.
Most startups suffer from a severe lack of structure. Founders naturally spend most of their time doing what they are passionate about and they often neglect the critical strategy and work that is required to create a viable business.
Accelerator and incubator programs are designed to help fill in the gaps for startups. If you’re creating a startup for the first time, you should try to get into one of these programs. Most of them have competitive application processes, but don’t let this deter you. The application process alone can be invaluable.
For example, the NC IDEA grant program offers up to $50,000 for your startup without taking any equity. We applied for the program and were rejected. But the application process and the rejection itself were valuable to us. We learned how to communicate our vision concisely, we learned where we had holes in our business model, and we received valuable feedback that helped us understand how experienced executives and professionals evaluate opportunities.
We also applied to and were admitted into the Citrix Innovators Program. This program transformed our business by teaching us how to cultivate enthusiastic customers before we write a single line of code.
Sure, before the Innovators Program we had read all the books on lean methodologies. But we came out of the program with an operational aptitude in lean methods, customer discovery, and design thinking. Through the program, we benefited from practical application that you simply can’t get by working alone in your startup and reading books and blogs.
On top of all this, the program delivers amazing networking opportunities, enterprise executive connections and a no-strings-attached $25,000 grant for your startup. Applying for the Innovators Program should be a no-brainer for any first-time tech entrepreneur. (Application deadline is Wednesday. Apply here.)
Over the last year I’ve seen first-hand how programs like Groundwork Labs and The Startup Factory take passionate founders with big ideas and transform them into viable, growing businesses. Local accelerators and incubators are rich pools of experience and expertise for startups. They provide critical resources like office space, internet access and some even provide free interns to help you get things done.
If you’re serious about building your first startup, don’t hesitate: keep applying until you make it into a program. You won’t regret it.
Be realistic about investors.
Most VCs are executing a process that they’ve created to maximize the number of opportunities they learn about. The number of opportunities they invest in, however, is relatively small (like less than 1%). The job of a VC partner is literally to say “no” to 99% of the deals they see. But their responsibility to say “no” doesn’t apply to everything.
On many occasions, I’ve been able to turn to Idea Fund Partners, Bull City Venture Partners, and other local investors to help me make progress with my startup. From logistical needs to critical introductions, they have always been willing to help.
My experience is that VCs and Angels in our region are hard-working and optimistic. They’re on the ground working for startups. They have a pulse on the local tech scene, which makes them an invaluable resource for any startup. Yes, they are working to create returns for their fund and they can’t invest in most of the opportunities they see. But that doesn’t stop them from passionately working to help every startup they can in any way they can.
Commune often with optimists.
My experience is that local startup communities are a safe haven for visionary thinking. When you join a community like HQ Raleigh, you can feel the positive energy. And it’s contagious. Jason Widen and Liz Tracy (at HQ) constantly supported us with connections, office space, and other resources during our time in the Innovators Program. In just a few short months our support from HQ had exploded into a flood of connections and resources from the City of Raleigh and local enterprises like Citrix, RedHat, IBM and others.
At other startup hubs like the American Underground and the Research Triangle Park, the entrepreneurial spirit is palpable. Everyone is building, inventing, innovating and willing to lend a hand whenever it’s needed.
Connecting with these communities and working side-by-side with other entrepreneurs is one of the best ways to stay motivated and energized in your own startup.
There’s plenty of support out there to help you get through all the adversity you’ll face as a startup founder. But when all is said and done, the only true way to communicate your vision to everyone is to make it a reality.
Mentors, programs, investors, and local startup communities will support you if you take the time and make the effort to reach out. But as a founder with a vision, you still have to take each step up the trail of success. It’s up to you to build a product people love. It’s up to you to generate leads, close deals, and grow a customer base. It’s up to you to transform your vision into a viable business.