How To Be Backable By A Silicon Valley “Failure”
Suneel Gupta’s gift for storytelling comes from his experience as an immigrant.
“Stories are an important part of my background,” he told me. “As an immigrant, you don’t necessarily have artifacts from your past. My mom was a refugee; she lost everything. She couldn’t show us pictures of her childhood. These memories are preserved through the art of storytelling. And then you learn how to spice up the story a little to make it interesting, so it sticks.”
Gupta’s story is spicy by itself. He co-founded Rise, a tele-health service, and sold it to OneMedical in 2016. Before he founded Rise he unsuccessfully pitched VCs to back him. He was so good at not getting funded that he agreed to be a keynote speaker at FailCon, a conference about failure. He thought there might be investors in the audience. There weren’t. But there was a reporter from the New York Times. Unluckily or luckily, Gupta’s speech and face became a viral sensation after the New York Times featured him in an article about the conference.
In a “use what you got” move he sent the article to hundreds of people to talk about what it takes to succeed, and out of that research his book Backable was born.
I spoke to Gupta about what lessons startup founders and all leaders can learn about leading and managing their startups from the concepts in Backable: The Surprising Truth About What Makes People Take a Chance on You.
Don’t be a know-it-all
Many leaders think they have to have all the answers otherwise people will think they are weak and they won’t get behind their ideas. According to Gupta, the opposite is the case.
“What I have found in studying backable people is that they’ve thought what something could be, but not exactly how it has to be,” Gupta told me. “That leaves room for the creative possibilities that will come up inside the room. Some of the time, those creative possibilities will match what you’ve already thought as a leader, and that’s okay. Sometimes they won’t match what you’ve already thought, and maybe that’s even better.”
Give your employees room to suggest ideas and additions to the core of your idea. Celebrate their additions even if you’ve already thought of them. They are more likely to own the idea and execute better on the plan when it has their fingerprints on it.
Conviction over Charisma
“One clear thing that all backable people do, is they take the time to deeply convince themselves first before they try to convince other people,” Gupta told me. “Conviction is more important than charisma.”
Charisma is more about the show you’re putting on – how you make eye contact and how you move your hands. Those gestures can actually come across as less backable since they’re not genuine. “I expected to find that there was going to be a certain style to backable people but that did not turn out to be the case.” Your presentation skills matter less than your unshakeable faith in what you’re saying.
Another benefit of deeply convincing yourself is that it requires you to seek out perspectives from others. Their doubts and the way they highlight contradictions or nuances help you understand your own ideas at a very deep level. Others’ concerns also give you new information as well as show you what the objections will be. You won’t get blindsided by questions because you’ve thought them through already. That shows up in your confidence and confidence is a quality that’s naturally backable.
Even Google Doesn’t Know
Do the prior two concepts – the need to not know everything alongside the need to have conviction – seem at odds with each other? They did to me, so I asked Gupta how these two contradictions can live inside of one backable person.
The bridge, he said, is the earned secret. “Conviction doesn’t mean you have fallen in love with an answer,” he told me. “Conviction means you’ve fallen in love with the problem.” When you get so interested in a problem that you spend time understanding it, learning more about it, two things happen. You naturally get more convinced that it’s a worthy problem. And, you find this earned secret – an insight that only people who have gone as deep as you know.
Gupta profiled Brian Grazer, a Hollywood producer, an investor, and a leader of his own organization. He’s won over 130 Emmys and dozens of Oscars. When he met with Brian, he said “You’ve got a roomful of pretty anxious people out there. What’s one major piece of advice you would have for them?” Grazer thought about it for a moment and said “Give me something that I couldn’t find on Google. Give me something that’s not easily Googleable.” That, Gupta told me, is what backable people have.
Play Exhibition Games
The last tool Gupta told me about was practice. But, as a leader, you have to practice in a certain way.
Many leaders have an amazing improvisational ability. They’re gifted speakers and think really well on their feet. We think they’re just born that way, but Gupta told me that after studying people from Oscar-winning filmmakers, to celebrity chefs, military leaders, and founders of iconic companies, most of those people are the product of lots and lots and lots of practice.
It may sound counter-intuitive that you have to be scripted to allow you to improvise, but they go together. Great performers have mastered something at a high level, which allows them to drop their script, tune into what’s really going on in the room, and adapt.
Gupta said that he calls the practices “exhibitions” because they go through the scenarios themselves with lower stakes to be ready for the high stakes moments. Practice presentations with a close colleague or a spouse. Role play a difficult conversation before you have it.
Make sure you follow the actual script, he said, not describe what you’re going to do. That builds muscle memory. And get feedback. Gupta has some precise questions to ask to get feedback. “Don’t ask ‘what did you think’,” he said. “Instead ask: What stood out to you the most?” “If you were to describe what it is that you just heard to a friend, if you had to summarize it, how would you do that?”
That shows you what resonates with people, what they took away, and what you have to dial up or dial down in your pitch.
Your ability to get more of what you want hinges on your ability to get people to take a chance on you. Backable will show you how.