Mix it, pour it, just don’t drink it

It’s important for entrepreneurs to believe in what they are selling — in essence, to create a field of distortion around themselves that makes it seem like anything is possible with their solution. They just need to make sure they don’t believe what they’re saying to the point of distorting their own view.

I often find myself saying to entrepreneurs “your job is to mix it and serve it, just don’t drink it yourself!” This usually slips out of my mouth when I’m talking to an entrepreneur who is pushing their idea so hard that it seems like they are trying to convince themselves of its brilliance, though in most cases I think they actually believe it, which is what concerns me.

This doesn’t mean it’s bad to serve the Kool-Aid to others (metaphorically speaking, of course). Really, as an entrepreneur that’s a huge part of your job: selling others on your dream. And while it’s absolutely critical that you make a case for your product or service that has people fighting to buy it, you have to make sure you critically assess the reality of your situation.

If you build it, they might not come

I met an extremely intelligent entrepreneur recently who has spent years of his life building a business that he feels is “necessary”. It’s great to create something you think the world needs — it’s critical really. But don’t convince yourself that just because you think the world needs it other people also think that and are willing to pay for it.

In this case, the entrepreneur has poured so much of himself into the startup that he is at risk of being lost personally if it doesn’t work out well. At this point he has spent so much time working on the business idea that he feels like he has thought of everything, even though he doesn’t have any real market validation. When I brought up significant risks to the business, he quickly disregarded them as something they have already thought through.

One of the many challenges of the “if you build it, they will come” mentality is that you spend so much time building up the business before actually testing it in the market that you become closed off to feedback. I’m not saying everything I say should be agreed with — most of it should be refuted, really — but every entrepreneur should be open to talking about the risks associated with their business. All businesses have risks, significant ones, and startups’ risks increase exponentially because they are new to the market.

If you aren’t open to discussing the many risks to your businesses, it probably means you have been sipping at the Kool-Aid and really think that you are somehow so different that the rules of business don’t apply to you.

How to take a “step back” and be more critical

There are many ways you can take a “step back” to more objectively assess whether what you’re building will actually be of value to the market. Of course, the best way is to put it in front of customers to see if they like it. Even better, see if it’s something they are willing to pay for. And don’t just take their word for it, by willing to pay I mean they pull out their wallet (or click a checkout button) and really show they want to buy whatever you are selling. If you don’t test it out with real customers who are paying real money, you don’t really have the feedback you need.

I recommend you spend time critically assessing your business once every two weeks, or even weekly during the validation stage. If you’re having trouble weaning yourself off the Kool-Aid, here are a few things you can think about that might help:

  • See your offering from your competitors’ perspectives. How does your offering compare to their’s? What are they telling potential customers makes their products or services better than yours?
  • What would a sceptical customer say about your product or service? What would concern them the most and keep them from signing up?
  • How about a sceptical investor? What would keep them from investing in your business?
  • Another option is to add some rivals to your team, which could mean people you hire or just advisors or investors who have a different perspective on the business than your own.

Entrepreneurship is a messy but exciting thing. It’s a roller coaster ride without a seatbelt. If you’re not prepared to sell the dream you’re not going to make it. And you need to believe in that dream! But you also have to balance that with being ruthlessly critical of your business so you can assess the reality while you bring your dream to life.

Do you have other ways of staying critical while selling your dream? Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

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  • Pete

    Agreed. Right now I’m involved in an ODI deal between HK and the U.S. The selling side (US) CEO thinks she has the best project, blah blah. The project is in fact sound, however the lack of humbleness turns me off. In fact the HK side keeps urging them to provide professional third-party generated or validated proof, but the project CEO insists her documentation has higher merits as all internal hires are “experts” who have the most intimate details on the project. Oh, man! What a bunch of …Thanks for this timely article

    The question I may ask is how do you get the entrepreneur off the self made Kool-Aid?

  • http://startingupinchina.com/ Sameer Karim

    Thanks for your comment, Pete. Getting the entrepreneur to even understand they are on their own Kool-Aid can be quite tough. If they aren’t too far gone you can try some thought exercises by saying something like: “Let’s pretend for a minute you were a competitor, what holes would you poke in our project?” I’ve found that trying to be too direct can just make them more entrenched, so it’s ideal to try to get them to think through things more realistically with some incisive questioning.

    Sorry, I know that’s quite vague. Maybe the real answer is I haven’t found a good way to do this yet.

    Maybe in your case playing to the CEO’s ego could work? Something like “Those guys in HK just need to check some boxes and obviously this is a great deal, so we can just find some third party experts to review it and confirm it for them so we can get this thing closed.”

  • http://www.agilestartup.com/ Matt Richter-Sand

    I would add that there’s a big difference between getting feedback and selling your product/service. If you want feedback, take off your sales hat and ask for objective feedback. Don’t get defensive, and don’t try to convince the person that your company has potential. Get feedback and be objective.

    Once you think you’ve got the right feature set (ideally after dozens of customer interviews), you can put that sales hat back on and start pounding the pavement :)

  • http://startingupinchina.com/ Sameer Karim

    Thanks for the excellent addition, Matt!

  • Anna

    Oh man, this is so tough. As an entrepreneur, the abyss is always staring at you, so some Kool-Aid can be really helpful in keeping it together! But, of course, not at the expense of objectivity. I love the idea of viewing your product as a competitor would – not only for today’s battles, but as a way to anticipate what could come over the hill tomorrow.

  • http://startingupinchina.com/ Sameer Karim

    There’s definitely a balance to be struck. Really, if entrepreneurs never drank the Kool-Aid they would probably never launch anything in the first place. You have to believe in the dream, that’s for sure. But balance is the key, I suppose. Maybe just small sips, then. 😉