Stop telling entrepreneurs that it's not personal

October 15, 2017

 

Apart from my "Empty Chair" moment (for those not yet fans of Silicon Valley, that's the moment when a founder gets told that having literally nobody in the CEO seat is preferable to having them in it, so please go away and do "founderly things"). Apart from that, the single most annoying thing people have said to me over my last 14 years as a founder and entrepreneur is: "It's not personal". Or the close variant: "It's just business, you can't take it so personally". Or the especially if you're female variant: "don't be over-emotional, it's just business". 

 

People have said this to me way too many times.

 

And they've said it to lots and lots and lots of other entrepreneurs and founders. Please believe me when I say we hate it.

 

So, as a job deprived, patience deprived entrepreneur and founder who is all out of f#@*s to give, I ask - no, I beg!! - please stop telling us that whatever unpleasant thing you are currently throwing at us is "not personal".

 

It is nothing but personal. 

 

We are the only reason the company exists. The only reason we are having this conversation. You are not being helpful.

 

Here's why:

 

  • The company was born out of the founder's brain, heart, gut and sweat glands. That's personal.

  • This person's financial, physical, mental and relationship health will almost certainly have been seriously impacted. That's personal.

  • Their company in all likelihood fills the majority of their waking hours, their sleeping hours and their hopes and fears. It is what wakes them up with a racing heart at 3am. That's personal.

  • They are almost certainly more committed, more all in, more financially and emotionally over-extended then most people can possibly conceive of ever being. That is definitely personal.

 

You want more? Here we go:

 

Investment. Indulge me here, but if equity investors are telling the truth - and I believe they are - they say they typically invest in the entrepreneur first, the team second and the idea/market opportunity after that. Investing in the person and the team suggests that this is kind of - oh what is the word I am looking for?? - personal!

 

It's called sweat equity for a reason. In all likelihood, the founder/entrepreneur gave up a potentially lucrative salary to work on their business idea for nothing or seriously below market rate, probably for years. Then - when they went out to raise money - they were told "you've just put effort in, whereas we bring cash. Your time is worth less than our cash, so you'll need to earn back those shares you already own over an X year vesting period. Y'know to prove you're committed and to keep your skin in the game." Gosh, that makes it somehow almost.... personal!

 

Vision and leadership. Their intangible 'something out of nothing' was the catalyst for all this - and it is about so much more than just the idea. A vision is simply a delusion if no one else buys into it. What the founder/entrepreneur does is to spin a reality distortion field that makes that idea into a tangible vision that others can buy into. The most successful ones also become leaders, not because they were appointed to the post but simply because other people chose to follow them. That's personal.

 

So being told that it is not personal is not just annoying and insulting, it's also dangerous. Here's why:

 

The walls come up - once you utter this phrase, whatever else you have to say next (however wise and valid it may be) will not be heard. Possibly ever again. In demonstrating your fundamental inability to recognise how the entrepreneur ticks, you will have substantially or completely invalidated all your other input in their view. So, if you are frustrated that "your" founder/entrepreneur isn't listening to you anymore, this reason should be at the top of your self-examination list. 

 

It's blame shifting - when you invoke this phrase not only are you likely telling the entrepreneur something difficult or unpleasant, you are explicitly making it their fault. Not just their fault in "taking it so personally" - the big cry babies - but their fault because simply by highlighting the personal blame/responsibility aspect, you are either accidentally or deliberately reassigning the problem from the business to them as individuals. It is now way less likely to get solved.

 

For the founder/entrepreneur it is nothing but personal, so you are triggering their primal nerve-line that fears "everything is going wrong and it is all my fault". That's not an irrational fear by the way - that is daily life in a startup! Nevertheless, your difficult conversation will go so much better if your de-personalisation technique does not involve forcing them to conclude that this is not just personal, but that they are also an abject failure. (See the above point about walls going up).

It's incredibly isolating - which is why it's one the favourite controlling phrases of the workplace narcissist or psychopath. Even when the comment is meant in a really well-meaning and supportive way, what the stressed-out entrepreneur can hear is that the way they think is wrong, that they need to think differently and that they are literally the only person "in business" anywhere, ever, who hasn't resolved such a basic weakness. That can be damaging to a person who is already potentially lonely and under intense pressure. 

 

In case you think I'm taking this all a bit personally, observe entrepreneurs in free-range environments where they are not isolated or being micro-managed. Especially incubators and accelerators. (I'm guessing the collective noun for entrepreneurs is an "explosion" or possibly an "exuberance")? These are intensely emotional, supportive, energetic, creative places precisely because there is a common understanding that this is very, very personal - and that is OK. 

 

It drains emotional resilience. Resilience - utterly essential - is a very different thing to indifference. It is impossible to care intensely and to also be indifferent. A founder or entrepreneur needs to learn how to manage the intensity and focus of their caring and to have strategies for protecting and separating the core of themselves from their external persona. That is how you survive getting rejected 20, 50, 100 times in a row without giving up. But building resilience and developing these coping strategies are not the same as "not taking it personally". It is always personal. And the entrepreneur is often more fragile than they seem. They can and do break.

 

Think about it. At the early stages of a company, who would you really want in that "Empty Chair"? Someone who cares enough to take it personally, day in day out even though there's every chance it might not succeed, or someone who says "it's just business"?

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