Lessons from a young founder trying to sell the dream
Blog post by ELP Student Jack Griffin (Business Admin | Class of 2019)
I love public speaking. I love pitching. I love sharing my story. In these scenarios, it’s dreadfully easy for entrepreneurs to seem less like driven and passionate innovators and more like used car salesmen. No one is charmed by the person who seems a little too amped up about their company or too quick to write off the risks.
That’s why I’m thankful to convey the sincerity of my story whenever I go into my spiel. I’m not merely repeating a pre-written script in my head. I’m welcoming other people into my vision for the future. I’m also making a point to let them know that I appreciate them for even taking the time to listen.
My name is Jack Griffin, and for the past five years I’ve been growing FoodFinder. FoodFinder is the nonprofit I founded at 16 to help food insecure families easily find food pantries and other food assistance programs near them. The takeaways below are four of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from not only working on FoodFinder but also from talking about my work to partners, donors, and good ol’ regular folks. These can apply to any cause, project, or initiative you care about. Whatever your circumstances may be, for whatever dream you want to make a reality, I wish you the best of luck!
Lesson 1: It’s Not What You Do, It’s Why You Do It
In theory, why you devoted your life to a certain cause doesn’t mean a lot in the long run. The work itself and the opportunities that lie in the future are the most important pieces of puzzle, right? Well as I’ve come to discover, it’s the “why” that leaves the greatest impression on the people you talk to. The answer to “Why did you start on this path?” tends to be far more compelling than “What does your average day look like?”
An example: Scott Harrison is the founder of Charity: Water, an extremely effective nonprofit that has raised a quarter of a billion dollars to go towards clean water access for impoverished communities. How’d he get the idea? He was a nightclub promoter for 10 years and sick of it, took a humanitarian trip to Africa, saw how hard it was to get clean water, and realized his new purpose.
Now that’s good stuff.
The catalyst that led you to the first day of your journey is what will keep you going on the thousandth day.
Lesson 2: All You Need is a Smile and a Name Tag
Stickers help too. But this is to say that a meaningful interaction with someone regarding your venture is independent of the setting, the duration, or the context. All you need is a smile that invites other people in. It’s tempting to fall victim to the siren song of PowerPoint and other tools that tell your story for you. At the end of the day, you are what people care about. It might take on a hundred different forms, but your story is best told by you, in person, to people who care about your work.
Apart from spontaneous instances like the namesake happenstance of an elevator pitch, there are times when you have to talk more frequently about your work than others. Take conferences and trade shows. Once you’ve carved out your slice of paradise (aka a 3’x5’ table in a convention hall in the corner by the bathrooms), you’ll talk to anyone who stops by.
This is where the name tag comes in. Sight is an extremely powerful sense that affects our perception of the world.
The bad news is that people suck at remembering names. Myself included. It doesn’t matter if you hand them a business card or tell the best story in the world. Chances are, people will walk away thinking “wow, whats-his-face sure is doing cool work.” Put your name on a name tag. Visibly attach your brand to the brand of your organization. Small things usually lay the groundwork for big things to be set in motion, even as exhausting as trade shows are. Speaking of trade shows…
Lesson 3: If Your Feet are Sore, That’s a Good Sign
How tired your legs are and how lucky you get are positively correlated. Especially for events and meetings that have nothing remotely close to a guaranteed ROI, putting in the work gets you there. The world is a big place with a whole bunch of people. A lot of them want to help you out, but you’ve got to go out and meet them. Rather, you need to show up so that they can find you. The luckiest thing to ever happen to your business might come from your 400th conversation with someone stopping by your table. You’ll only ever have that happen if you interact with 399 people before that.
Keep in mind that legwork is tiring for the brain too. If you’re at an event ready and willing to share your purpose with the world, not everyone (if anyone) is going to shower you with praise and affection. It’s a good sign if the passersby seem genuinely impressed, but there are also those among us who will poke holes in your solution.
Everyone’s a critic. It’s worth remembering though that the New York Times restaurant critic is going to be more articulate than Linda H. on Yelp who just torched the new Thai place with a 1-star review. When you put in the legwork, you build a thick skin. You drown out the naysayers and accept that a whole bunch of people are going to give you non-constructive feedback.
The good news is that exposure to different kinds of people makes us that more prepared for the next interaction. Even after 20 people try to catch you off-guard, the next 10 might have really sincere suggestions or might raise a point that you’ve never actually considered before. You need to remain open to those 10 and what they have to say. And that brings us to lesson 4.
Lesson 4: Valuable Feedback is Rare and Precious
It’s tempting to say that the reason you fail is something along the lines of “these people just don’t understand my vision.”
Well, as alluring a belief that may be for a founder, you have to listen to what people say. You just have to. You don’t need to act on it, but listening is essential. Cynicism can creep its way in, but you need to fight it. In listening to the endless tidal wave of people’s opinions about your work, they’ll give you suggestions that start with one of these classics:
“Well, have you tried X?”
“You know, you could do Y.”
“You should do Z.”
Yes, there are an infinite number of things you “could” do. Want to know the truth? There are very few things you should do. Figuring out what those tasks are is incredibly important. Mentors, advisors, and friends help shape your frame of reference here, and they have the most valuable feedback. Mainly because they know you better than any stranger does.
Finding valuable feedback among the distractions and unnecessary pursuits can make or break your journey. Nevertheless, your eye for it will grow sharper and sharper with time.
After all, watchful eyes, open ears, and a warm smile make for an entrepreneur with a good head on their shoulders. A name tag doesn’t hurt either.