We’ve all been at a birthday party where one of the guests barely touches a balloon and it pops. It explodes because the balloon is full. That is the way we entrepreneurs feel all the time.
Entrepreneurs are “full balloons.” The pressures and activities of early-stage business ventures constantly add air to the balloon. What also inflates the balloon is that we experience every detail of every aspect of the business on a daily, visceral level. We have hundreds of conversations with others and thousands with ourselves about every part of the business. I used to say to my assistant, “I start my day with 95 percent of my brain full.” Part of that was certainly due to the limited grey matter of my gender, but most of it was the overwhelming number of things on my plate. I told her that unless something was important, anything she told me had an excellent chance of bouncing off my skull.
When your balloon is full, you need a place for the air to go or the balloon will pop. When given an opportunity to do so, we will eagerly take the chance to let air out of the balloon. Ask an entrepreneur how the business is going, and you will be lucky if you escape before hearing thirty minutes of details about the business. Ask us about the price of our product, and you are likely to get theories of products, philosophies of products, and the long sordid history of the product.
Have you seen entrepreneurs participate in a demo day or Shark Tank where they have five to ten minutes to present their business? After their presentation, they take questions from the judges. Notice how many entrepreneurs can wait until the judge finishes asking the questions before they answer. Not many. Ask an entrepreneur, “What’s the weather for the weekend?” To your surprise, the answer won’t have anything to do with Doppler radar or the chance of rain, but rather the latest jewelry design and the details of why the rhinestones aren’t fitting properly.
Try asking a simple question like, “What is the price for the product?” The answer, which should be something like “$25,000 per year,” sounds something like this:
“We considered several pricing models and bounced back and forth between an advertising model and a subscription model. One of our investors was a big proponent of a subscription model because of the valuation implications. When we ran our financial model, which still needs a lot of work, our assumptions were based on customer growth of 20 percent and customer attrition of 5 percent over the first two years. Keep in mind that we have not done a cost of goods sold on the product, so we are making educated guesses. We won’t be able to do that until we get our finance team set which we hope to do as part of our Series A raise.”
So, what was the price of the product?
Full balloons make us give silly answers to simple questions:
Questioner: “Do you prefer Michael or Mike?”
Entrepreneur: “When I was growing up no one called me Mike or Michael—I always had a nickname. It eventually landed on “Derm” but along the way it was dermatologist, which is interesting because I thought nicknames were supposed to be shorter than the actual name. Anyway, Derm was a win because other nicknames were words that rhymed with “Derm”—use your imagination. Anyway, Mike never worked because there was a commercial when I was a kid when they were trying to get a family to try a new cereal and they had a son—Mikey—that would eat anything. The commercial said, “Give it to Mikey. Mikey likes everything.” I think if people called me Mike it would be too much like being a kid. After all Michael is one of the most popular names in the nation every year. It is always in the top ten. Truth be told, my Jewish name is “Moshe” which is Moses. I guess Michael or Mike is better than Moses.
Questioner: I’m sorry, which do you prefer Michael or Mike?
What are the consequences of all this trapped air that is dying to escape?
- We create confusion by not giving simple answers. It’s critical to create clarity and simplicity in a chaotic and unstructured environment. When we give simple responses, we make things easy. Unfortunately, simple answers do not release air from the balloon. When we give long complicated answers to simple questions, those we interact with lack the clarity they need to help the business.
- We mismanage time. Issues that come across our desks that don’t need attention are tended to anyway. This distracts us from our priorities. We tend to jump in and out of email, text messages and other communications throughout the day to help release air from the balloon. Needless to say, this is counterproductive.
- We drain our teams and others with whom we do business. During the early days of my company when my parents, board members, or friends asked me a question, I’m sure they dreaded the long, complex, nuanced and boring answer. I am also sure that when my three-year-old niece asked, “How are you, Muck?” (what she used to call me), she quickly regretted it. More than likely, I responded with an explanation of why we thought biometric screening partners would be a good strategic fit for incentives. When we “brain dump” this behavior weighs on our resources, and can make interactions with employees, vendors, clients, and investors awkward and inefficient.
- We react inappropriately to issues. With all the tension, we tend to react quickly, emotionally, haphazardly, aggressively or inappropriately. For example, we had spent long hours building a financial model for our health rewards business. The model was based on the total number of lives on our platform, which would interact with assumptions to drive five-year income statements, balance sheets and cash flow statements. It was all based on the number of lives. We asked our Board and advisors for feedback on the model by a certain date. One of our Board members provided feedback a week after we asked for feedback. My reaction should have been, “This is a perspective we need to consider.” My reaction was to let air out of the balloon with a long and somewhat nasty explanation of our process and that while we appreciated the feedback, we asked for feedback on the model a week ago. The response I gave was more a reflection of the air in my balloon than anything else.
- We struggle to make deliberate decisions. We react instead of act. Careful analysis, weighing multiple opinions, and balancing risk often don’t get the attention they deserve in the decision-making process—especially when letting the air out quickly provides immediate relief.
- We negatively impact the investment process. Investors want to understand a business quickly and want the leader to briefly and efficiently communicate the value of that business. When we unload unnecessarily detailed and circular answers, it lets some air out, but the lack of brevity often conveys a missing clarity about our own business.
- We impact our team’s perception of our leadership skills. When team members see calm, thoughtful, reasoned and deliberate action, they feel secure and reassured. When they hear conversations that are reactive, rambling and unfocused, and lead to unclear decision-making, they start to feel like the ship could sink at any time.
I recently got this phone call from an entrepreneur. I said, “What’s up?” and she said
“I’m fine. I’m fine.I’m fine.I’m fine.I’m fine.I’m fine.I’m fine.I’m fine.I’m fine.I’m fine.I’m fine.I’m fine.I’m fine.I’m fine.“
Recognizing that our mind is full almost all of the time is key. Once we understand that, we can catch ourselves letting out too much air, and take the time to be more thoughtful and deliberate.