VAT anecdotes and other crap stories

Or why startups and small talk don’t go

The BrighterBox team making GREAT small talk

One of the oddities of starting your own business is the sudden appearance of a new question in the lexicon of small talk at social gatherings.

Layperson: “How are you?”
Me: “Yeah, good thanks, you?”
Layperson: “Not bad, not bad. How’s your business?”

…Oh. Well, since you ask, it’s really good thanks. We’ve just had a great week, closed a few deals that our competitors were sniffing around and had a load of unexpected inbound enquiries and referrals. Really starting to think we’re getting some traction and are on a healthy upward trajectory. So pleased I took the plunge and started BrighterBox, it’s just so rewarding.

…Oh. Well, since you ask, not great. Couple of deals fell through last minute yesterday, finding new clients feels like a constant uphill struggle, I sometimes wonder if it’s really worth all the hassle — it must be so easy doing 9–5 then going home free as a bird.

Me: “Yeah, it’s pretty good thanks”

Is invariably my reply.

So goes a year of running a startup. On top of the world and poised to rub shoulders with Zuckerberg, Gates et al one moment, all alone and swimming against the tide the next. But asking someone how business is going in a small talk scenario is like asking someone ‘How are you?’. You want a quick, positive response, not a potted history of their recent ailments.

I will, Benedict, I will.

I learnt this having, not long after getting BrighterBox off the ground, launched into several in-depth, highly detailed accounts of CRM system problems or VAT return issues with unsuspecting victims at dinner parties who were predominantly interested in the novelty of talking to a startup owner, not the minutiae of everyday tedium.

Now, just over a year into our adventure/journey/company/lifestyle choice, I know full well that I just say business is fine and the conversation will trip merrily onwards, safe in the ignorance of whatever soul-destroying corporate job my conversational partner has settled for. [NB In the absence of a clear ‘tongue-in-cheek’ formatting option on Medium, please forgive this clunky note explaining the last line is written with tongue, if not in, then very much hovering around cheek]

Rules for social startup small talk

So, if you’re someone who isn’t involved in the startup world my message is this: please excuse an entrepreneur prattling around 10x longer than the 6 second response you expected when you asked about their business. Smile politely. It’s their baby.

If you are someone thinking of casting off the shackles of financial security imposed by your brutal corporate overlords in favour of austere, hand-to-mouth startup living: don’t assume the two guys you recently met at a drinks thing who started a company were telling you the entire story when they said running a startup is fun and going well.

And if you, like me, are already there: let’s chat. I love a good VAT return anecdote.

— — —

Andrew Scherer is cofounder of BrighterBox, which helps startups find brilliant junior talent.

If you want a slightly more practical article on what we’ve learnt in our first year, you can find one on our blog.