‘Innovative ideas are not the problem, it is getting people to back them’

US tech entrepreneur Suneel Gupta shares his experience on how to get investors and supporters on-side

Suneel Gupta: ‘When you’re sharing the insight that led you to your idea, ask yourself, is this Google-able? If it is, then take your research deeper.’

Suneel Gupta: ‘When you’re sharing the insight that led you to your idea, ask yourself, is this Google-able? If it is, then take your research deeper.’

 

Many potentially great ideas don’t get realised because their excited promoters reveal them before they are properly thought through instead of doing the hard work of testing their hypothesis. That’s the view of successful US tech entrepreneur Suneel Gupta, in his book, Backable, which shares his experience and research on how to get investors and supporters on-side.

“If we share an idea too quickly and it doesn’t get the response we are looking for, it can be very deflating. Getting innovative ideas isn’t the problem, it is bubbling them up to the top where people are excited about them.

“Ideas don’t just get killed inside boardrooms. They get killed in hallways and parking lots in informal brief conversations where people throw their ideas out,” he tells The Irish Times.

Gupta has plenty of experience of both the highs and lows involved in pitching. He is best known as the co-founder of mobile healthcare company Rise, a very successful disrupter backed by Google Ventures before it was acquired by One Medical.

Previously, he played a major part in growing Groupon from a tiny start-up to a multibillion dollar venture, served in the White House as a speechwriter for Bill Clinton and later ran – unsuccessfully – for the Democratic Party in a Michigan Congressional primary in 2018.

He now teaches innovation programmes at Harvard Business School.

In an earlier life, a self-deprecating speech at FailCon, the conference for start-ups to learn from failure, once earned him notoriety as a poster figure for failure when it was splashed in the New York Times. But the entrepreneur has learned his own lessons well and has spoken to many other successful figures in research for this book which has much to teach business promoters.

To convince backers, start by convincing yourself, he says, adding that “faking it to make it” won’t work.

“What moves people isn’t charisma but conviction. Backable people earnestly believe in what they are saying and they simply let that belief shine through. If you don’t truly believe in what you are saying, there is no slide fancy enough, no gesture compelling enough to save you.”

Conviction comes from really knowing what you are talking about so taking the time to do the research, including fieldwork, is what’s needed. An idea that comes from hands-on experience is way more backable than if it simply came from your desk.

Not Google-able

Gupta asked multi-Oscar and Emmy Award winning Hollywood producer Brian Glazer what he likes to see in a pitch. Something that isn’t Google-able was the response.

Gupta develops this further in the book: “When you’re sharing the insight that led you to your idea, ask yourself, is this Google-able? If it is, then take your research deeper. Set up interviews with experts, take a trip, join a non-profit that’s relevant to your idea.

“If you’re interested in cryptocurrency don’t just read a report, set up an account and start making trades. If you’re interested in autonomous vehicles, don’t just subscribe to a newsletter, visit a factory, drive a car. If you’re interested in cannabis, well...in a growing number of states you now have options.”

When pitching his venture Rise, which involves an app to target obesity, a clearly bored investor was making his excuses to leave the conference room early but, as a final aside, asked how Gupta got his initial customer sign-ups. With nothing to lose, Gupta levelled about button-holing people on their way into Weight Watchers meetings. Intrigued, the investor stayed in the room and subsequently invested.

Practice your presentation multiple times before you make it is Gupta’s advice and he dismisses the notion that can make it look stilted and contrived. When you know the script inside out, you have the luxury of being able to depart from it comfortably, is his counterintuitive take on this.

The practice Jeff Bezos implemented at Amazon of asking idea promoters to make their case in traditional written business reports rather than PowerPoint decks is a good one to adopt, he says.

“Writing things out is a really good practice as it stops you speaking in bullets with half-baked thinking. It forces you to explain your thinking even if, ultimately, you end up using a PowerPoint presentation.”

Step ahead

Getting one step ahead on a trend coming down the tracks is another trick. Backable people work like anthropologists, he says. To pitch Airbnb, for example, the founders demonstrated how the idea of sharing your house with a stranger had changed from creepy to widely accepted, with 630,000 listings at the time on the site couchsurfing.com. They then convey the sense of inevitability around this trend, introducing a FOMO (fear of missing out) factor with potential backers.

As Gupta puts it: “This feeling of inevitability rarely comes from the argument that we should change the world but rather the argument that the world is already changing – with or without us.”

Showing that change is inevitable means showing that your vision isn’t unique just slightly ahead and that it is in forward motion, even if it is still below the radar in terms of scale, he explains.

Personality is also an issue in pitching, with extroverts generally seen as having an in-built advantage through their obvious sense of confidence. Gupta says he wrote the book as an introvert himself and with introverts in mind as they need to work harder when others are pounding the table and speaking much louder than they are. A classic investor ploy of telling a promoter, “that’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard”, in an attempt to test their resilience, is a case in point.

The ability to read emotions and build empathy, a classic introvert characteristic is, however, a more important card in the deck of a promoter.

Winning investors over so that they become collaborators rather than critics is crucial. With this in mind, Gupta suggests that proposals should have sufficient elasticity that investors can mould them in ways that suit. It can often be useful to identify a gap in your idea that can be plugged from the strengths and advantages of a backer.

“My best pitches tended to be with at least one open question which I posed to the room. These meetings would begin with the backers on the opposite side of the table and typically end with us huddled around my laptop or phone.”

Suneel Gupta: How to make yourself more backable

Steer into objections

Put yourself into the shoes of potential investors and anticipate three good objections to your idea. Lean into them. Avoidance only causes problems later and risks the investor tuning out for the rest of the pitch. If you get ahead of these criticisms, you gain credibility and capture people’s attention for the rest of the pitch.

Measure your emotional runway

Bringing a new idea to fruition requires great stamina. You are on the receiving end of doubts, conflicts and deadlines and yet you are still required to maintain a high level of conviction and confidence. The only way your energy remains high is if it’s replenished by your own passion for the idea.

Visualise your customer and articulate that

Share your customer’s step-by-step experience including their pain points. Use storyboards as a tool to build empathy towards the person you are trying to serve. Maintain the character in the story until the end.

Share your journey

How you arrived at the ideas can be as memorable and powerful as the idea itself. Make sure to weave this into the pitch.

Leverage the fear factor

Our fear of betting on the wrong idea is twice as powerful as our pleasure from betting on the right idea. Neutralise fear with fear and create a sense of FOMO around the idea by showing backers how inevitable it is.

Master the follow-up

Even if they pass on your initial idea, there is still a chance to win a backer over later. Find out why they said “no”, listen carefully to any feedback and, if given a second opportunity, show how you have addressed their concerns.

Backable, the surprising truth behind what makes people take a chance on you, by Suneel Gupta and Carlye Adler, is published by Little Brown and Company.

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