Friday 1 December 2017

Who should you not disappoint?

One of the challenges many startups face is knowing who to disappoint.  You will never have enough time, organization, money, or energy to manage all the opportunities that come your way. Learning who you can say "no" to, and how to do it well is an important skill to have.

Who are your supporters?

Going from an idea to a company is a lot of work.  It involves meeting an immense number of people, pitching, events, design meetings, fundraising, and on and on and on. Many people will be interested in your company if you have a good base.  Some will want to know more.  A small group may make introductions for you, or maybe they have resources and are interested enough to schedule a meeting or ask for a pitch deck. Very few will be supporters.  Supporters keep you top of mind, reach out regularly, and actively help your business. Supporters are the ones you want to make sure are appreciated at all times.

One common mistake that I am guilty of having made a number of times is letting supporters fall through the cracks.  I've lost supporters for a number of reasons:

  • I was very busy and didn't respond to a supporter's email
  • I flaked out on a meeting a supporter helped set up 
  • I was a no-show at an event where I was supposed to meet a supporter
  • I made an off-colour joke and lost a supporter's respect
  • I took advantage of a supporters help but failed to communicate appreciation
  • I forgot to invite a supporter to a celebration event
  • I did not use or give feedback on helpful advice a supporter offered
Supporters are more often than not business contacts, and not necessarily friends. There's not the same depth of relationship present as with friends and family, so all it takes is one disappointment and supporters could stop returning emails.

Becoming Less Self Absorbed

Let's face it.  Startup founders are at high risk for becoming self-absorbed.  We are surrounded by problems constantly, and the stress of the situation often takes up the majority of the founder's thought space.  It's easy to let supporters slip through the cracks when you're overwhelmed from a full work week and demands from every side.

More often than not, slighting supporters is unintentional.  But in a way that doesn't matter, because a slight communicates the truth, that the supporter is giving more than they are receiving in the relationship.

Breaking out of this pattern usually involves deliberate action.  Self absorption is a side effect of the chaos of starting up, and no matter our intentions we are vulnerable to it.  A few actions we can take to help offset this are:
  • Setting regular dates in our calendar for touching base with key supporters
  • Making a supporter list in our email filters and making sure that folder is read first
  • Flagging which events are key due to supporter presence

How to reward supporters

Business relationships are more transactional than friendships.  This doesn't mean that people will only help you if they get help in return, but rather that there are fewer external ties to maintaining a business relationship that isn't delivering. There are a number of ways you can deliberately deliver value to your supporters:

Acting on their advice or help

If someone's advice is good advice, you need to act on it.  If you have an advisor with experience and a network helping you, one of the best things you can do is take their advice, thank them, and follow up with the leads they give you in a prompt timeframe.  This seems basic but is important to communicating that their help is valued.

Being publicly recognized for support

Not everyone wants their support to be known publicly, but if you have supporters who put in extra effort, time, and resources to make projects happen, publicly acknowledging that goes a long way. None of us succeed on our own, and this should not be overlooked.

Material rewards for supporters

Celebration dinners for volunteers, little gifts for board members, discounts for early customers.  Supporters should be rewarded. 

One aspect that can be overlooked is if you have investors or key customers who have put money in your cause, offer to buy lunch.  They may have given you funding, and may have an expense account on which they can charge everything, but offer anyway. I once fell into this dynamic with one of my financial supporters. He was the hand that feeds, and I wasn't at a stage where there was a return.  But the amount of appreciation I got when one day I picked up coffee for both of us reminded me that the giver in a relationship can easily feel taken for granted.  Don't let that happen.

Supporting them back

Keep a short list of supporters top of mind. Know what projects they are working on and what could help them, and actively look for ways to help them succeed.  Be the first to buy their book, attend their event, pass them a job or sales lead, and give their new project a shoutout on twitter.  

What prompted this

The event that prompted this post was that today I got a message from someone who has been incredibly supportive asking why I didn't respond to his emails.  When I checked I saw that he had sent 3 emails over a month ago inviting me to pitch at an overseas event, offering to pay for my travel to make it easier.  The subject line of the email was the name and date of the event, so I hadn't realized it was a personal email and had filed it in my "events" folder to look at later.  With a friend, this type of incident is easily patched up, but with supporters, even a misunderstanding can signal that the supporter's help is not valued. 

In the end

You're going to disappoint people.  There are too many people in your circles with too many demands and needs.  Trying to make everyone happy is a fool's errand. Instead, take the time, make a list of key supporters, the people you can count on, and the people who actively look for ways to help you.  Keep these people happy.


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