The Founder’s Secret Weapon: Listening

As a Founder, I used to get pretty hyped up for big meetings — whether raising money, trying to land a large partnership or customer, or important board meetings. I focused a lot on our presentation or sales materials, and thought hard about what I would say, trying to anticipate what might come back at me and how I could best respond. It was critical to use the right words, speak them the right way, and ultimately to use that to persuade or assure others that I knew what I was talking about.

That focus is understandable, and pretty universally believed to be a trait required for success…not just in leading startups but many roles in life.

These days, as an investor, especially one working with early stage companies, I’m spending a lot of time with Founders who are in that same position and focused on doing what I used to do — instilling confidence and conviction by delivering the right words or materials.

What’s become clear to me is that there is an even more powerful tool for Founders: listening.

· You’re at that big customer meeting with your polished materials, value proposition and competitive differentiation locked and loaded. Why not start the meeting asking the customer about their challenges, and what was it about your solution that caused them to want to meet with you in the first place?

· Pitching for funding, I can’t over-emphasise how important it is to ask about a fund’s focus, strategy, typical investment size/stage and what else they’ve seen in your space that they’ve liked or not.

· Board meetings are not just a chance for you to show your investors and non-exec directors you know what you’re talking about and can solve every problem, they are a chance to seek input and ask opinions. Isn’t that why you have these experienced people around you in the first place?

Asking the right questions can give you new insights into customer pain, the buying process or competitive intel. Pausing during a presentation and asking whether there are any questions or comments will give you realtime input you will otherwise miss. And if you take time at the end of a meeting to ask for feedback and next steps, you will be shocked at how honest people will be with you.

Unfortunately, some Founders (and VC’s!) love to hear themselves talk, some talk a lot when they are nervous, but most are convinced that the more they speak the more confidence they’ll instill. Wrong. Every decent Founder can talk. Asking thoughtful questions and being a good listener is rare, and shows me that a founder is confident, experienced and a learner.

Listening is a secret weapon.