A story about a turning point in my life.
Imagine how excited I was when the New Zealand Trade Development Board arranged for me to pitch at the University of California’s San Diego Connect program, one of the world’s most successful stages for marrying entrepreneurs with capital.
If you had been with me in San Diego on 3 September that year, you would have seen a life-changing sequence of events. I was suited and booted and I looked sharp. I opened the door and I saw everyone else was in Hawaiian shirts and board shorts.
My clothes were saying, “I’ve dressed to impress.” Their clothes were saying, “I no longer have to impress anyone.”
Inside those shirts and shorts were individuals who between them had witnessed more than a thousand investment pitches. The room contained probably well over US$1 billion of net worth from people who had led multiple successful companies, and who had the means to propel an entrepreneur’s company to the next level, if the pitch was good enough.
I’d read about the importance of visualizing the outcome you want. So, I had visualized these people saying “that was great” at the end of my pitch and deciding then and there to open their checkbooks.
To complete this visualization process, once I entered the room, I zoned in on the hardest-to-impress looking investor I could find, a poker-faced, bespectacled and bearded man named Jay Kunin. He looked like a hard-nosed version of the movie director Peter Jackson. In my mind’s eye, I visualized him fixing his eye on me at the end of my pitch. In my mind’s ear, I heard him say, “That was great” and committing to invest.
This is what happened next. I had just finished my pitch. There was pin-drop silence. My heart was pounding. I was roasting inside my jacket. Then Jay, exactly as I visualized, squinted at me, peered over his glasses and said three fateful words. “Was that it?”
That wasn’t the phrase I’d written for him in my visualization. He continued. “If your technology is as good as you say it is, what’s to stop a better-funded team here in California overtaking you in six months?”
I knew how to handle this. I looked him in the eye, and I said “Jay. That’s a good question. I don’t have an answer for you right now. But I’d be happy to get back to you in a couple of days with the answer you seek.” It’s the sort of evasive answer you give when you’re stumped and are trying to minimize damage.
Then the woman, a venture capitalist, sitting next to him, began. “Given that academics are notoriously hard to sell to, how do you know that your cost of sale won’t be more than your buy price?” I can’t even remember what I said. But it wasn’t good.
What followed was a 20-minute tag-team mauling by 12 dragons in Hawaiian shirts, where I learned that my product was one of the most problematic they had seen. I was a lot further from realizing my idea than I’d hoped.
They were friendly enough when I left, and even invited me back once I had more answers (something they did to everyone, no matter how bad their pitch was). I felt so crushed that by the time I’d stumbled back onto the plane, I’d already begun rationalizing to myself reasons to give up. Of course, I didn’t admit that to myself at the time. But that’s exactly what I had started doing.
Bad as that was, it was what happened next back in New Zealand that shocked me. I told Roger, my business coach, what had happened. He looked at me through his brown beady eyes and asked, “So, what’s next?”
I opened my mouth and started telling the lies that anyone starts telling themselves when they are starting to give up on their dream, lies that sound innocent, realistic and logical – but are in fact toxic to our growth and suffocating to our dreams.
“Well it’s just too hard to get investment. And without investment, I can’t fully commit right now. But it’ll still be on the slow burner.” What he said next changed the direction of my life.
He said, “Dan, in their feedback they gave you a recipe for success. You’re seeing it as an indictment of failure. You left your job for this idea. Ever since I’ve known you this is all you’ve talked about. This idea is your baby. If you stop feeding it, it’ll die. Your idea does not deserve to die!”
Most people think the number one thing that gets between them and their idea reaching its potential is an obstacle on the outside – the economy, lack of resources, lack of capital, lack of proximity to market. That’s not it. That’s the lies we tell ourselves. What stops our idea reaching its potential is when we decide to stop feeding it. Because when that baby called your idea needs feeding, sometimes even tomorrow is too late.
I said, “See that’s why you’re my coach – my idea does not deserve to die. I’m going back into the dragon’s den.” And I found another group to pitch to. And they also tore apart my pitch. But this time they didn’t find nearly as much at fault. This time, I heard their feedback as a recipe for change, not an indictment of failure.
I kept on pitching, until nine months later I was invited into a room of angel investors who had just completed one month of due diligence on our company after hearing my pitch. The lead investor opened his mouth and said, “We’re in.”
That group was called ICE Angels. As it turned out, they were making their first ever investment. Today they are New Zealand’s largest seed investment group. And today, the company they funded is one of New Zealand’s more successful high-tech companies, and exited in 2019. It changed the way that scientists do research into virus evolution and more around the world.
My questions for you:
What ideas have you put on the slowburner?
Do you have people in your like who love you enough to challenge you when you're about to lie to yourself (as I was)
Where have you taken feedback as an indictment of failure, rather than a recipe for success?