Suneel Gupta walks through his 7 steps for becoming “backable”–worthy of others backing your ideas.
- Why you don’t need charisma to be backable
- How to make your idea stand out with an “earned secret”
- Why you don’t want to have everything figured out
Suneel Gupta teaches Innovation at Harvard University. His bestselling book Backable is rooted in Suneel’s journey from a twice-failed entrepreneur to a leader behind two IPOs, and to being named “The New Face of Innovation” by the New York Stock Exchange. Suneel has personally backed startups including Impossible Foods, AirBnB, 23&Me, Calm, and SpaceX.
- Suneel’s book: Backable: The Surprising Truth Behind What Makes People Take a Chance on You
- Suneel’s website: SuneelGupta.com
- Study: The IKEA effect
- Study: The Scar Experiment
- Video: “Steve Jobs introduces iPhone in 2007”
- TED Talk: “Do schools kill creativity? | Sir Ken Robinson”
- Book: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
- Past episode: 642: How to Identify Your Career Season and Land Your Dream Job with Ramit Sethi
Thank you Sponsors!
Suneel, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.
Pete, it’s great to be here.
Well, I’m so excited to hear your wisdom. And, first, you got to tell us the story about you being the face of failure from New York Times.
Yeah, I got a call a few years ago from an organizer of an event, and it was cool for me because at that time I had just started public speaking. Just trying to get up in front of audiences. I really enjoy that type of work. And I get a call and this event organizer says, “Hey, you’ve been nominated twice to speak at this conference.” And I said, “Hey, that’s fantastic. What’s the name of the conference?” And she says, “It’s FailCon,” which stands for Failure Conference.
And let me tell you, Pete, it’s a humbling experience when somebody calls you and says, “Look, we’re doing a conference on failure and we would love for you to be the keynote speaker.” And to make matters worse, I’m up on stage and I didn’t realize this at that time but there was a reporter from the New York Times in the audience, and this reporter decides to do a full-length story on failure, and uses my face as the cover of this article, and the article goes viral. It goes so viral that you could literally have Googled failure at the time and my face would’ve been one of your top search results.
And so, funny enough, I always tell people this, when it comes to writing a book, people tend to come from either the point of view of having a solution or having a problem. And, for me, at that time, I definitely had a problem. And my problem was that when I was inside companies, when I was trying to get jobs, at that time when I was trying to raise funding for my own company, I just wasn’t having any luck. I wasn’t getting people to listen to my ideas. And even when I got inside a room, I was having a very difficult time winning people over.
And that article turned out to be a real gift for me because it opened the door to all these conversations with people who I consider to be the top of their game, extraordinary people from Oscar-winning filmmakers, to celebrity chefs, to CEOs of big companies. And what I learned through the conversations was that coming up with an idea is really only half of sort of the dynamic of being innovative. The other half is really getting people bought into it, and that is much more learned than anything else.
Usually, backable people who I studied were not naturals at this. There was a series of steps that they learned how to take in order to get people excited about their ideas. And once I started to put these practices into play, it really changed everything for me, and I said, “Gosh, I got to put this on paper and share this with other people.” And that formed the basis for the book.
And, indeed, you put it on paper in the book Backable: The Surprising Truth Behind What Makes People Take a Chance on You. And so, I’d love to go through each of the seven steps and get a little bit of a demo in terms of what does okay look like versus great look like inside these worlds. But could you kick us off by sharing perhaps the most surprising or counterintuitive piece of your approach?
Yeah, one of the things I really expected to find is that backable people were going to be just generally charismatic. And as I started to sort of broaden the spectrum and I looked at backable people everywhere from all different fields, I thought they were going to have a certain style of communication. They were going to be people who had great eye contact, and great hand gestures, and just did all the sort of things we think about when it comes to great speakers, but more and more, I found that to not be the case.
And I would venture to say, Pete, that probably the majority of backable people that I was able to study did not have the classic communication styles that we might expect. But what I did find is a common denominator, is that it wasn’t charisma. It was conviction. Backable people took the time to convince themselves of their own ideas, and then they let that conviction shine through in whatever communication style it is that feels most natural to them.
And so, just a couple of examples. One is you just go back and watch the original launch of the iPhone. So, this is the 2007 Steve Jobs product launch. And what you might be surprised to find is that it doesn’t come off as charismatic or at least classically charismatic as we might remember. He uses the word “uh” over 80 times in that speech, he’s staring down at his feet quite a bit, and he kind of sort of almost wanders a little bit here and there. And, again, it’s not a crisp sort of TED-style presentation.
Or, let’s take another example from TED itself. If you look at the number one most popular TED Talk of all time right now, what you’ll find is…
How to get some creativity?
Sir Ken Robinson, exactly. Sir Ken Robinson, it’s a brilliant, brilliant talk but what we might be surprised by is that it’s just not sort of a classic TED-style presentation. Sir Ken Robinson, he has one hand in his pocket, he sort of meanders on and off script, he naturally walked with a bit of a hunch and so he’s got a bit of a slouch as he stands up there on stage, but it’s an amazing presentation.
And, again, the reason that I bring that up is because, oftentimes, when we think about winning people over, when we think about sort of being inside a room, we focus on these classic communication styles – make direct eye contact, use specific hand gestures – but I didn’t find that to be the case at all. I found more to be the case of figure out what your natural style is, but then build conviction around that. Take the time to convince yourself first because if you don’t believe in what you’re saying, then they can’t believe.
That’s beautiful. Well, so that is step one, convince yourself. And so, let’s kind of walk through all seven of those. But while we’re talking about convince yourself, I think I look back on my own entrepreneurial journey. I think I’ve been too good at convincing myself. I talked myself into some things. I had some natural enthusiasm and passion for the thing, but I think I talked myself into pursuing initiatives that, on second thought, probably should’ve done a better job validating the value proposition upfront and maybe gone in another direction. So, how do we think about convincing ourselves versus not deluding ourselves, shall we say?
Yeah, it’s a great question. I think it is a balance. One of the ways I try to think about this is you don’t want to share your idea too early. And so, when we talk about convincing ourselves first, we want to build enough conviction where we feel comfortable getting into a room and people can poke holes at our ideas and we don’t immediately get deflated.
Because here’s the thing, what we found is that, especially if you look inside big companies and the way that ideas are shared, most ideas actually don’t get killed inside the conference room, they don’t get killed inside formal meetings. They get killed inside casual conversations around the water cooler, or through side conversations, or in the parking lot. That’s where the vast majority of great ideas end up sort of finding their stop.
Why is that? Well, typically, it’s because when we come up with something, we tend to sort of blurt out the idea right as it comes up, and we get really excited about it but then we look around the room, or we look on the screen the way you and I are right now, and we see that the other person isn’t quite as excited about the idea as we are. And when that happens, it can be a very deflating experience.
And so, when we think about convincing ourselves, it’s not saying, “Hey, I’m no matter what wedded to this idea,” but it’s building up enough conviction where we feel like we can walk into a room and not be afraid of the possibilities and sort of the challenges that will come up. So, one fun way to think about it is when you are in that moment when you get excited about an idea, just asking yourself, “Is this a chocolate M&M or is this a peanut M&M?”
A chocolate M&M, if you squeeze a chocolate M&M, it cracks immediately. A peanut M&M is not a piece of steel but you can squeeze it, other people can squeeze it, and it’s not going to break immediately. Again, you’re not looking for it to be bullet-proof but you’re looking to put a peanut inside. And so, one of the things we talk about in the book is backable people have sort of learned to kind of ask themselves that question in the heat of moment, right before they are about to share an idea. They sort of ask themselves that question, “Chocolate M&M versus peanut M&M.”
If it’s chocolate M&M, they’ll resist the temptation to share in that moment and go take, what we call in the book, incubation time to put peanut inside. And that can be done through all forms of things. It could be through drawing out your idea, it could be through taking long walks and thinking about the idea, it could be journaling. I know, Pete, that’s something you like to do as well. And so, there are many ways to do that, but, again, it really comes back to that moment of resisting the temptation to share an idea too early because, oftentimes, that can be the death knell of some really creative things.
Okay. So, you convince yourself first, you take some time before putting it out there because if you put it out there too early, they might deflate you before you’re able to take a hard look at the stuff in advance and kind of get inoculated, you’re like, “Oh.” It’s so funny. I had an idea for…it was basically Airbnb. I had this with a couple of my friends, actually.
And then I think we talked to a consulting friend of ours who worked at Hyatt, he moved on, he said, “Oh, my gosh, you could have some crazy liabilities. Say, a crime happens or someone’s stuff gets stolen,” and we’re like, “Oh, yeah. Yeah, you’re right. That sounds really risky.” We just let it go. And he’s like, “And, oh, Couchsurfing is already a thing, and that’s not a really big deal, and people do it for free. It’s kind of a fun vibe.” It was like, “Okay, there’s Couchsurfing and there’s liability, oh, never mind. Oops.”
Yeah, exactly. And I think that it’s so much better when…By the way, all those things your friends brought up, they’re all valid. They weren’t invalid objections, right?
Liabilities, for sure.
All that stuff is real, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s a reason not to do it. And what ends up happening is that when someone points out an objection that we haven’t thought of ourselves, what that tends to have is a lot more charge to it. It just tends to have much more of a deflating effect versus if you’ve gone through, then you’ve actually thought through some of these objections yourself, and you walk into the room knowing that, “Hey, this, this, and this may come up.”
They probably will come up but they’re not going to have as much of a charge to them. You’re going to have thought through, “Hey, yeah, that is a thing. Maybe here are a couple of things that we need to consider as a result of that.” And, again, you’re able to walk in and have a discussion rather than the sort of, again, crossing your fingers, hoping they’re not going to point out something that you haven’t thought of yourself.
Yeah, that is great, and the answer to liability is insurance, that insurance writers love to take that on for a price. And so, it’s not a deal killer; it’s just, “Oh, that’s a new thing.” And you’re right, well-said in terms of having less charge when you think about it yourself as opposed to, “Oh, the super smart guy who was a director at Hyatt thinks that this is a big thing, then it must be a really big thing.” Yeah, well-said.
Yeah, and I think, also, gosh, the curse of knowledge is just so important to factor in here because, oftentimes, and what we mean by that is, look, the deeper we go into a subject matter, we are going to be more resistant to innovative ideas in that matter because we know how hard it is. I was talking to somebody the other day, who was an investor, and he comes from a financial tech background, really knocked it out of the park in that space, actually started a company, in one of the sorts of original fintech companies, had a massive exit.
And then I was talking to him about what it’s like to be an investor, and he said, “Look, you know what, I’ve passed on every single great fintech deal. I passed on PayPal, I passed on Square, I passed on Stripe because I had this knowledge of how hard it really is to do a fintech company that that sort of got in my way from taking a risk on these other ideas.”
And the point here is that, look, oftentimes, when we come up with something, you come up with an idea in the housing space, you came up with an idea for Airbnb, you went immediately, as most people would, to somebody who kind of knows that space, you went to a friend at Hyatt. And that person is going to tell you what they have discovered, which, in most cases, is going to be reasons not to do something because they’ve spent a lot of time.
And, Pete, it all comes back to something I know that is probably obvious but worth restating, which is that the fresher an idea, the newer an idea, the less obvious it’s going to be. And that’s the trap that I think we sort of fall into whether we’re an entrepreneur or whether we work inside a big company and we’re trying to do things that are unique and cool and different, is that those tend to be the ideas that make the biggest difference, but they also tend to be the hardest ideas to sell.
Yeah. That’s great. Well, we’re just on step one here. So, we talked about convincing yourself. Could you maybe give us a quick overview of steps two through seven? And then we’ll spend a couple minutes hearing a bit of detail for each.
Yeah, sure. So, step one was to convince yourself first. Step two is to cast a central character. So, what we mean by that is who is the person you’re trying to serve, and sort of bringing them into the story and making them the hero of your story. The third is to find an earned secret. So, this is something that you have gone out and you’ve learned that most people probably don’t know. And there’s lots of examples of how to do that, and we can get into that.
The next is to make it feel inevitable. So, instead of just making a new idea feel fresh and exciting, you also want to make it feel inevitable, that we’re inevitably heading in a certain direction. The fifth is that we want to flip outsiders into insiders. So, how do we actually make people feel like they are a part of the idea. Another way to think about this is, “How do we make people feel like they’re builders instead of buyers?”
The sixth is to play exhibition matches, and these are practice sessions before you walk into the final event, playing lots and lots of these exhibition matches, and there are specific ways on how to do this effectively. Then the final is to let go of your ego. So, the ego can very much get in the way when it comes to creating new ideas, and we really unpack that and talk about how to get around it. So, those are the seven.
Okay. Cool. Well, could you maybe give us a demonstration then in terms of how an abbreviated pitch might go, and then kind of annotate it for us, like, “Hey, see, that was step two, we cast a central character. Oh, and that was step three. See that earned secret?” so we kind of see it in action?
Yeah. I’ll give you sort of the Michael Dubin Dollar Shave Club pitch. And for those of you who aren’t familiar, Dollar Shave Club was an online razor blade company that sort of expanded from there, sold for a billion dollars to Gillette, but it’s sort of a folklore story in a startup world. I think the thing that isn’t well known is that Michael Dubin struggled quite a bit to get a lot of funding for his company, to get investors to care at all.
And one of the ways that Michael Dubin sort of thought about this, and one of the ways that he was able to flip investors who didn’t care to saying yes – and, by the way, I think this is important whoever you are, you don’t have to be an entrepreneur – is he took people through the storyboard of what happens to his target customer.
So, one of the first things that he did was he went out and he built conviction behind this idea by actually thinking about, “What is it that my customer actually goes through?” And he literally storyboarded this at home. And then he would go to the stores and he would watch people in action, and then when he was in front of investors, he sort of walked them through the storyboard of, “Hey, my average customer is a 20-something male, who cares a lot more about his health than his father ever did, and that includes what he puts in his body, that includes what he puts on his body. And he’s used to a certain level of convenience when it comes to buying products.”
“But all of that sort of goes out the door the moment that he sort of thinks about buying razor blades because, now, he goes to this sort of pharmacy or grocery store, he has to locate the aisle that these are in. When he finally locates the product, he realizes that, in many cases, it’s behind a locked security case. He has to push a button in order to get somebody’s attention. He waits there until an annoyed worker sort of shows up, unlocks the security case, and, by the way, everybody is sort of watching, and behind that case isn’t just razor blades but there’s condoms and there’s laxatives, and nobody knows exactly what you’re there to buy, but now all attention is sort of on you.”
“He unlocks the case and then sort of watches over your shoulder as you make this purchasing decision.” And that is so fundamentally different than the way that this generation, the way that his target customer was used to buying products. And so, when we he went in with the pitch of, “Hey, we want to disrupt a multi-billion-dollar industry through an online platform,” it didn’t do very well.
But when he shifted that to, “This is the moment-by-moment experience, and here’s how we’re going to change that,” it really shifted the way that investors sort of looked at him. Because, as it turns out, stories sort of bring us in, and then substance sort of keeps us there. So, if he were to stop there in that pitch and just ended it, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere. But when he went from there, it’s like, “Look, there are millions of young men who are going through this experience every single week, and that’s translating to this number of dollars and this amount of market share, and this is what we can pick up.”
And so, he’s bringing them in with story, he’s keeping them there with substance. Convincing himself first, casting a central character, and let’s go through some of the other…we’ll go through some of the other principles too, and we can show how this story relates.
Let’s do it, yeah. And so then, that earned secret. So, you highlight some information that goes beyond Google or what just about everybody would know. And, in a way, that story, in and of itself, has you thinking, like, “Yeah, you know what, you’re right. It does kind of take a lot to get these razors. Haven’t thought about it.” So, I don’t know if that counts quite…well, you tell me. Is that earned enough or do we have some more juicy insider info to go for there?
Yeah, I think the key thing with an earned secret is I would underline the word earned. And the reason for that is you want to show, when you walk into a room, whether that be for an interview, whether that be for a product presentation, team presentation, whatever it is, that you had sort of put yourself into the story in a way that most people have not because that counts for a lot.
I was talking to somebody, this was shortly before I published my book, so her story is not in the book, but she was talking about how she was returning to the workforce. She was a single mom and returning to the workforce and ready to sort of get a job, and she’d found a role at a company that sounded perfect for her except for one thing. And that is that she wasn’t really a user of the product but the role itself was perfect, and she was very excited about this.
Most people in that situation would do the following. They would research the company, they would maybe download the product onto their phone, start playing with it a little bit, and then they would go into the interview and start asking some questions, and be prepared as much as they possibly can be. She did something unique, which is that she talked to every single one of her daughters’ friends because this is very much like a Gen-Z social product, and she talked to every single one of their friends. She interviewed them about what they liked, about what they didn’t like, she took careful notes.
And then when she walked into this interview, she walked in with all these observations, all these sorts of insights. And this hiring manager that was talking to her was so impressed that not only did she get the job, but right in the middle of the interview, he ended up patching in one of their UX designers because a couple of the things that she had found and discovered through these interviews were things that actually were not on top of their mind, and it was coming from a very fresh voice, and she was able to sort of come in with this earned sense of information.
And, by the way, these don’t need to be sort of big monumental things. They can, oftentimes, be small. But I think the key is that asking yourself when you go into a situation, “What’s the sort of typical level of research that people would do to prepare for this moment?” Again, whether it’s an interview, or a pitch, or a presentation, it’s figure out how to go one step further. It could be test driving a competitor’s product, it could be talking to customers, but just doing something that ordinarily most people wouldn’t do.
Oh, that’s good. I’m reminded we interviewed Ramit Sethi, and he calls this the briefcase technique because you, like, dramatically remove slides, or research, or something. You sort of have like a deliverable inside your bag, and most people don’t, and they’re just like, “Wow, this person…we’re impressed.” And it can often lead to great opportunities opening up there. That’s good.
Yeah, one of the people that I talked to for the book is a guy named Jonathan Karp, who was a publisher, and he really wanted Howard Stern to write a book, but Howard Stern had no interest in writing another book. He had already written a couple of bestsellers, and he was like, “It’s a lot of work. I really don’t want to do this.” And Karp kept asking him, he was year after year, he continued to be on Howard Stern’s tail about the idea of, like, “You got to write a book.”
And, finally, Karp decides to do something really clever and unique, which is that he thought to himself, “Most of what Howard Stern would end up writing is already kind of out there. It’s going to be sort of a summation of a lot of the interviews that he’s done. So, why don’t we take the transcripts of those interviews, then why don’t we actually sort of extract what we think could be really good content for a book, then we’ll actually create the book?”
And so, the next time that he actually goes and pitches to Howard Stern on the idea of writing a book, which Howard Stern is prepared again to say, “Gosh, I’ve told you many times I don’t want to write a book,” right in that moment, Jonathan Karp literally pulls out a finished book, a leather-bound book, and says, “Look, Howard, I know one of your objections to all these is that you don’t want to write a book, but we’ve kind of just taken the liberty of writing 90% of it for you.”
“All you got to do is write an opener, write some the language around some of these interviews, and you got yourself a book,” which, of course, it ended up being a lot more work than that, but what Howard Stern said was, “Look, I was so in that moment, I was so intoxicated by the effort, so intoxicated by effort that Jonathan Karp had put into this process that I could not say no.”
And that’s kind of, in some ways, how you want people to feel inside the room, which is like, again, you have intoxicated them with effort. You’ve gone out and done things that most people wouldn’t do, then you’ve taken insights from that experience and you’ve brought that into the room.
That’s great. Well, let’s hear about step four, make it feel inevitable.
Yeah, this is a big one because I think that, oftentimes, when we think about new ideas, we get excited about how shiny it is, and we want to talk about why it’s exciting. But the thing that is important I think to realize is that, as human beings, we tend not to be risk takers. We don’t like to take risks. And that’s true even, I have found, Pete, for people who take risk for a living. You look at venture capitalists, you look at Hollywood producers, people who are betting on uncertainty, they don’t like to take risks either. It’s really, in the vast majority of the cases, it’s just something that they sort of accept as part of their job but they’ll do whatever they can to sort of de-risk a project.
And so, this sort of, I think, gets to a Noble Prize-winning theory around loss aversion, that the pain that we get from making a bad decision is twice as powerful as the pleasure that we get from making the right decision. And if you keep that in mind when you walk into a room to pitch someone anything new, we’re not just trying to sell them on why an idea is good. We’re also trying to make sure that we cover sort of why an idea might be bad, and making sure that we can sort of minimize that risk. And one of the ways that we can do that is by talking about why an idea is inevitable. Not why it’s new but why it’s inevitably going to happen.
There was an executive that I talked to at Comcast who talked about this idea of having Comcast not be just a service that’s inside the home but outside the home as well, connected over mobile, which, today, is like one of those, yeah, that’s sort of a passe sort of idea. But ten years ago, when he was sort of inside Comcast trying to get people behind the idea, it was actually very hard because there were a lot of people who were sort of wedded to the idea, they’re like, “Look, we’re an in-home business and we don’t want to dilute ourselves, we don’t want to focus on anything else.”
And he continued to sort of pound the table on the idea of, like, “Look, this is new, this is exciting,” and he wasn’t getting anywhere. But when he re-jiggered the presentation to show a couple of things, everything changed. And those couple of things were, “Here’s what’s happening in Europe. And Europe tends to be a few years ahead of us when it comes to mobile, and they’ve started to have these integrated services, which tell us that, look, if history continues to repeat itself, we’re going to be heading in that direction.”
The second thing was there were certain sort of plays that some competitors were making that were starting to hint at the idea that they were going to have an integrated service as well. And when he combined that in his presentation, he showed, “Hey, look, this isn’t where I think the world is going. This is where the world is going, and I think we need to get ahead of it or we’re going to get left behind.” That’s when executives started to change their minds, that’s when people started to get bought into this idea of, “Look, we don’t want to miss out,” because we all sort of have that fear.
I think if you believe that fear is one of the biggest things that we need to sort of face when we’re trying to sell people on anything new, well, then we can’t neutralize fear with excitement. We sort of, in some ways, have to neutralize fear with fear, and, in this case, it’s the fear of missing out.
So, in making it feel inevitable, it’s not just a matter of saying, “Hey, here’s the trend,” but rather, “Hey, here is overwhelmingly the trend, and woe to us if we don’t get on board with that.”
Yeah, and I don’t think it necessarily need to be overwhelming either. I think that it gets easier if it’s overwhelming, and you can point to, “Hey, this is obviously going to happen,” but a lot of times it’s not obvious but there are indicators that things are going to happen, that you start to see little signals of that.
You look at sort of Zappos, for example, as a company. There wasn’t a lot that they could show at that time in terms of trends but there were little datapoints, like there was the notion that Amazon was expanding beyond just books, and they were expanding to get at products. That wasn’t necessarily at the time.
Today, again, that sounds obvious. At the time, it didn’t but there were little datapoints that were showing, to say, “Look, not only is this growing in a certain category, not only are we selling books online, we’re going to be selling other things online. There are all these sorts of niches out there.” Or, back to your example about Airbnb. When Airbnb went into the room, they didn’t really have another Airbnb to point to but they had Couchsurfing.
Couchsurfing was starting to pick up and there were 600,00 or so listings on Couchsurfing, and there was a lot of activity around sort of Airbnb-like offerings happening on Craigslist. Again, these aren’t necessarily overwhelming datapoints but they collected enough of these datapoints to show that, like, in combination, there’s something happening here.
In the book, we talk about putting on your anthropologist hat because that’s effectively what you’re doing at this stage. You are sort of looking at the direction the world is heading, and that can be hard sometimes for people because whenever we get excited about an idea, we want to just stay focused on that idea, and we want to say, “Our idea is going to change the world.” Whereas, I think what backable people are doing is they’re saying, “Well, here’s the way the world is changing through these datapoints, and then here’s how my idea would fit into that change.”
That’s cool. Thank you. Well, let’s hear about step five, flip outsiders into insiders.
Yeah, this is one of my favorites because we, oftentimes, think that when we go into a room, we need to have sort of a bullet-proof presentation, and the more bullet-proof our presentation, the more backable it’s going to be. But the more and more I look at sort of the way that backable people were operating, what I realized is that they didn’t have that at all. They would walk in with a pretty clear vision of what they wanted to do but they wouldn’t have every single detail necessarily sorted out, and that was on purpose.
And the reason for that is because you want to bring people in when you’re inside a room. You want people to feel like they are part of it as well. And one my favorite stories from the book is the story of Betty Crocker, and how in the 1940s, they came up with the idea of cake mix. And they had done all the focused group testing, and the believed that cake mixes were just going to be like this hot sensational product. And so, they were shocked, like all the executives at Betty Crocker were shocked when they found out that cake mix was just not selling, and they couldn’t figure out why.
And so, they hired this psychologist named Ernest Dichter to go out into the field and start interviewing homemakers. And what Dichter founds out, what he comes back with was, “I think you have made the process of making a cake too simple, too easy, because you have basically removed the customer from the creative process. All they have to do is pour water into a mix and then they pop it into the oven, and the cake comes out of the oven, and they don’t really feel like it’s theirs. They don’t really feel ownership over it.”
So, Dichter has a recommendation, and the recommendation is, “Why don’t you remove one key ingredient and see what happens?” And so, they do, they removed the egg. And so, now, if you are a customer, you have to go out and you have to buy fresh eggs, you have to crack them into the mix, and you stir it in, and then you pop it into the oven, and sales completely take off. Because, now, when the cake comes out of the oven, people actually felt like ownership of the cake. They felt like it was theirs too.
And researchers have unpacked this over and over again. There’s a group out of Harvard that calls this the IKEA effect. And the IKEA effect basically tells us that we place up to five times the amount of value on something that we help build than something that we simply buy off the shelf, because we made it ourselves. So, what does this have anything to do with innovation or ideas?
I think, Pete, we kind of have been told that innovation is a two-step formula. You come up with a great idea and then you execute on it well, but there’s this hidden step in between. And this hidden step is where we get other people, we get fellow employees, we get bosses, we get investors, we get shareholders, we get other people involved before it reaches execution stage where the idea is still imperfect, where they get to crack their own egg into the mix and be part of it so that way, when we show up to execution phase, we actually show up together.
And I believe you can trace, literally, every product, every successful product, every successful business, every successful political movement, back to this hidden step, where we know it wasn’t just one person, we know it wasn’t just the person that came up with the idea. It was a group of people who felt founder-level ownership over that idea even though they didn’t come up with the idea itself because they were able to be a part of it from the earliest stages.
And so then, in the Betty Crocker example, you let them crack an egg into it, and so, likewise, if you’re putting forward a proposal to folks, you don’t want to have everything nailed down. So, let’s just say, someone brought up, like, “Hey, what about liability?” It’s like, “Hey, you’re right. That’s going to be a key issue we need to solve, and we’d love your expertise to help.” Is that kind of the vibe that you’re going for?
Yeah, and I think you can go one step beyond that, which is like, Pete, if I’m coming to pitch you on an idea, and you are an expert at taking content, great content, at creating great content and distributing it. And maybe I have an idea for something that requires that, ultimately is going to require that. I would come into the room and to say, “Look, we’ve got a few details figured out here. But, Pete, one thing actually we don’t have figured out is how are we actually going to craft this in a way that people are going to listen, that people are actually going to watch. And I know that that’s something you’ve been focused on. We’d love to get your thoughts on that.”
Now, a couple things to keep in mind. That does not mean that I haven’t spent my own time thinking about what the answer might be. It takes a lot more preparation to have a discussion than to give a presentation because I have to ask you the right questions, I have to pull you in the right way, I have to be able to go back and forth with you, you’re going to say something, you’re going to have an answer to that question, and I’m going to want to ask follow-up questions.
And so, there’s a lot more preparation that goes into the details that you don’t know than the details you know, which I know it sounds counterintuitive but it’s really important to know, which is you’re not sort of shrugging your shoulders or hand-waving at sort of these unknowns. You’re actually spending real time thinking about that, uncovering the possibilities, thinking through pros and cons, but the difference is you’re not coming to the room, saying, “I absolutely believe that this is the right way to go for every single detail.” You’re saying, “I think I have these details figured out, but I don’t have these details figured out. Let’s talk through them.”
All right. And how do you recommend we do the step six, play exhibition matches?
Yeah, exhibition matches, I think, were surprising for me because, again, I look at backable people and I felt like, originally, these are people who are just, off the cuff, who were just naturally great communicators. And what I found is that people who tend to be off the cuff, people who come off with more of sort of an improvisational style, they actually tend to be the product of lots and lots and lots of practice. And it’s that lots of practice that actually lets them be off the cuff, which I know sounds a little bit weird but let me share what I learned.
When we practice something enough, what it allows us to do is it allows us to sort of loosen the grip on our script. Because, oftentimes, when we walk into a room, we walk in with a script. We have a sense of what we want to say and we kind of sort of almost follow that script. But the problem with that is that there’s always something that’s going to come up, a question that we didn’t expect, or an interruption, or something’s going to happen, and it’s really our ability to adapt to those moments. It’s really our ability to adapt to those moments that create these sorts of backable situations where a tough question is answered, and where we sort of go off script and we start having a discussion about something else. Then that’s really when we start to win audiences over.
The other thing is this. Like, I thought if you practice something, by the way, the average person that I talk to for this book, practice something 21 times before they got into a room, that could be for an interview, that could be for a pitch, but 21 practice sessions. Then there were a couple of things to keep in mind when they were doing these practice sessions. The first thing is that, really, no venue is too small.
Like, you can ask anyone for a practice session. That could be a friend, that could be a family member, but the key is that when you’re doing this practice session, you want to deliver it as if it’s the real thing. You don’t want to give sort of editorial or commentary, and say like, “So, hey, what I’m planning on doing is I’m planning on walking them through this and then I was going to go through that.” You actually want to give it as if it’s the real thing because you’re building the muscle memory that you want inside the room.
The second thing is it’s really important to be able to get good feedback. So, when you’re finished with the practice sessions, say, you’re pitching like a colleague, a friendly colleague, before you walk into the room to talk to somebody who’s leading the team. When you’re getting that feedback, what we typically tend to ask is the question, “Hey, so what did you think?” That’s the typical question we ask. And when we ask that question, we very rarely get the kind of feedback we need to make ourselves better. It’s kind of an imprecise question, people may want to be nice so they may not give you the feedback that you need.
A better question to ask is, “What stood out to you the most? Of what you just heard, what stood out to you the most?” Now, they have to sort of think through the highlights of the moments that really resonated or landed. But the question I like even more is, “How would you describe what you just heard to someone else? Like, what would be the headline of what you just heard?” And what I find is when I ask people to do that, the description that they have, in a lot of cases, is actually better than what I had.
Like, I’ll learn a new way of how to describe my own idea. Like, when I was coming up with the idea for Backable I went to Daniel Pink, another author who’s written a few great books that I really like, and I shared my idea, and it was pretty half-baked at the time. But then I asked him, like, “How would you describe this to someone else?” And one of the things he said was, “I would say that the most exceptional people aren’t just brilliant, they’re backable.” And that ended up becoming sort of one of the taglines of the book, and literally is on the back cover of my book. So, I really appreciate the idea of asking people, “How would you describe this to someone else?”
The final thing I’ll say about this, Pete, about exhibition matches and practicing over and over again, is one of my big hiccups, one of the reasons I was skeptical about this, is because I felt like, “Well, if you practice something 21 times, isn’t that going to make you robotic? Isn’t that going to make you sound too sort of planned or scripted?” But what I found is that the opposite tends to happen. Because when you’ve mastered your material at that level, you really understand what you want to communicate, what you want to say, and sort of the ways you want to get there.
What that allows you to do is it allows you to sort of drop the script when you’re inside the room. You’d be fully tuned in, be fully present with the other people who are there. And when you’re fully present at that level, it allows you to pick up on cues that you may not otherwise pick up on. Oftentimes, you see people who walk into a room and they have a set of slides to get through, and they just sort of get through those slides.
But when you’re fully tuned into what’s happening inside the room, you can pick up on little gestures, like little, “Oh, I’m pretty sure they did not get that part, so I’m going to spend a little longer on that,” or, “I’m pretty sure that’s an area where they’re really excited about, so I’m going to double-down on that or maybe come back to it later on.” And being tuned into that level is really what tends to create these backable moments.
Yeah. And then with 21 practice sessions, that’s plenty, and I think that’s encouraging. It’s funny, it’s both daunting and encouraging in terms of, “Oh, you don’t think you’re polished quite yet? Well, how many practice runs have you done? Oh, three. Well, to be expected. There’s a long way to go.” I find that oddly comforting.
Yeah. Well, look, 21 does seem daunting, for sure. And the way that I sort of like to think about it is, the other way that somebody pointed out to me, I still remember the first time I started to hear about exhibition matches is the former chief technology officer of Pixar, and spent 20 years at the company, and so he spent a good amount of his time sort of bringing together all these disparate groups – technology, and business, and storytelling, and creative, and design.
So, he’s telling me about the idea of practicing 21 times, and I told him about the time that I went in to interview for a role at Square, the company Square, and my interview was with Jack Dorsey. And I told him about how I just bombed that interview, completely bombed it, completely tanked it.
And even though I kind of knew the answers to all of Dorsey’s questions, the role was for a product role, I’d spent a bunch of time working in product development, I kind of just knew the content but I bombed the interview. And I asked him why, “Like, why did that happen? Tell me, Oren, why did that happen?” And he said, “Well, how much time did you spend preparing for that?” And I said, “Well, I wrote out some questions for him. I spent a bunch of time researching the company.”
And he’s like, “Yeah, but preparing, like that was preparing. But how much time did you spend practicing, actually practicing what you’re going to say?” And I said, “None. I didn’t practice what I was going to say. I didn’t do any mock interviews or anything like that.” And he’s like, “Let me ask you a question. When you were in law school,” because he knew I went to law school, “how much time would you spend preparing for a test?” And I was like, “I don’t know. I would do practice tests. I would do probably spend at least 10, 20 hours preparing for a law school examination.”
And he’s like, “So, let me get this straight. You spent all that time preparing for a law school test, for a single law school test, that may or may not have had a true influence on your career. But for an interview with Jack Dorsey, you didn’t spend any time actually practicing before that interview.” And it was like sort of this punch in the gut moment where I was like, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” So, yeah, we spend a lot of time, I think, preparing for these moments, but we don’t spend enough time practicing for these moments, 21 times.
All right. And the final step, let go of your ego.
Yeah, let go of your ego is about making it about somebody else. Like, who are you there to serve? How is this about somebody else? One of the best pieces of advice that I think about all the time before I walk into a room, and I think as I talk to different audiences now, I always get really positive sort of feedback on like, “Wow, that one thing really changed things for me.” It was like when you walk into a room to give a pitch or a presentation or an interview, whatever it might be, you’re going to feel like the spotlight is on you, normally. You are the person delivering the content.
Find a way to take that spotlight and to put it on something else. Put it on someone else, ideally. That could be the person you’re there to serve, that could be the primary customer of the company. But how do you take sort of everything you’re talking about and make it about someone else? So, if it’s an interview, it could be knowing who the customer is, like knowing deeply who that customer is, and then walking in as somebody who’s looking to serve that customer. Every question you’re answering, everything you’re doing is about the service to that customer.
If you’re there to pitch an idea for a company, again, who is the person you’re trying to serve, who is the central character, and making it about that person. It’s taking the spotlight that’s on you and putting it on someone else.
Beautiful. Well, Suneel, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear a couple of your favorite things?
I will say that one of the things I continue to hear is that, especially as we’re coming out of the pandemic now, is so many people are looking to start new ventures. They’re looking to do something new. And that doesn’t necessarily, by the way, means starting a company, leaving a company, and starting a new one. It could be starting a new venture inside the company as well.
But one of the things I hear often are three words, which is, “I’m not ready for that just yet. I’m not ready.” Three common words. And the thing that I would leave you with is as I went and studied all of these people, backable people from all different fields, none of them were really ready. None of them were really ready to do what they did.
Three friends from design school were not ready to start Airbnb. A mid-level talent manager wasn’t ready to start SoulCycle. A 15-year-old from Stockholm, Sweden wasn’t ready to build an environmental movement but today, Greta Thunberg, is Time magazine’s youngest ever person of the year. And, sure, there were setbacks and there were failures and there were mistakes along the way, but I think the mantra that they all tended to adopt in their own way, which I try to remember as well, is that the opposite of success is not failure; it’s boredom.
So, let’s run with the things that make us come alive and let’s bring good people along the way to join us along the path, because, if there’s anything that I’ve learned, wherever you are listening to this, you are ready.
Thank you. Well, how about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Long-term success often comes from short-term setbacks.
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
Yeah, there was a great experiment that was done in the 1980s at Dartmouth University, and it was called The Scar Experiment. Well, basically, what they did is they asked people to come into a room, a group of people, and, one by one, they would put a scar, an artificial scar, on their face. And then they would send them into another room where they would interact with other folks.
But there was a trick, which was right before they walked into the other room, they would say to the person, “Hey, can we get the makeup artist in here just to touch up your scar, just to do a little touchup?” But instead of doing a touchup, they would actually wipe the scar off completely. So, you walked into the room believing that you still had this scar on your face, but you didn’t. And then they had you come back into sort of the study room where you sat down with the researcher, and the researcher say, “How did that go? What happened?”
And nearly everybody was like, “They couldn’t stop staring at my scar. Everybody was completely obsessed with my scar.” And I just love that. I just love, love, love that because it just shows what we believe in ourselves internally is what we believe the world is looking at us for externally, and the power of that connection. So, look it up, The Scar Experiment.
Yeah, that’s something to think about, for sure. And a favorite book?
The Alchemist Paulo Coelho, one of my all-time favorites.
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?
I would just say my whiteboard. I know people can’t see this right now but I’m staring at it right now. Just a simple whiteboard has just changed everything for me. One of my favorite things to do in the morning is when I have my cup of coffee, sometimes I just stare at my whiteboard and I’ll just see what comes up. Sometimes it’s nothing. Most of the times it’s gibberish. But, every once in a while, the things that that whiteboard pulls out of me is amazing.
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
Come to SuneelGupta.com. There’s a bunch of free stuff out there, some new thoughts, and a way for us to keep in touch.
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
I would say, as we think about sort of how to be backable, which I think nearly all of us are, let’s also think about how to make other people backable. Like, I’ll leave you with one story, which is about a woman named Damyanti Hingorani, she was a refugee on the border of India and Pakistan, under dire conditions, impoverished conditions, had this unlikely dream, which was that she wanted to become an engineer with Ford Motor Company, and this was the 1950s, and Ford Motor Company was in its heyday. And Detroit was the Silicon Valley of the world at the time.
And so, her parents get behind the dream. They saved every penny they have. She’s able to get on a boat to the United States. She gets a scholarship to Oklahoma State University. The day after she graduated, she grabs a train to Detroit, Michigan and finds her way to get into a room with a hiring manager to apply for her dream job.
But when this hiring manager looks at her application, he looks at her resume, he says, “Wait a second. Are you applying for the job of an engineer?” And she says, “Yeah.” And he says, “Well, look, I’m sorry. We actually don’t have any female engineers working here right now,” which is crazy, right? Ford Motor Company, at that time, had thousands and thousands of engineers on staff but not a single one of them was a woman.
And so, Damyanti Hingorani is really deflated in this moment, and she gets up, and she picks up her purse, and she picks up her resume, and she starts to walk out of the room. And then, almost in this last minute of courage, she turns around, she summons all of the grit that she possibly can, she looks this guy in the eye, and she tells him her story about all the struggle and sacrifice that it took for her to get to this country, to get to Detroit, to get to this very room. And then she says to him, “Look, if you don’t have any female engineers on staff, do yourself a favor and hire me now because things are changing.”
And this hiring manager, so inspired by that conversation, that he goes out and he fights with everybody around him, fights with his colleagues, fights with his superiors, and eventually he gets her the job. And in 1967, Damyanti Hingorani becomes Ford Motor Company’s first ever female engineer. It was a great story, honored in Time magazine pretty recently because it inspires people. It inspired other immigrants. It inspired women in the workforce. And it’s the story that has inspired me the most because Damyanti Hingorani is my mom. And had a middle manager from suburban Michigan had not taken a chance on a refugee from the other side of the world, then, Pete, I wouldn’t be here right now chatting with you. I wouldn’t be able to share any of this with you.
So, my final message to anybody who’s listening is, hey, as we get out into the world now, let’s think about how to make ourselves backable but let’s also think about how to find good people and help them become backable.
All right. Suneel, what a beautiful closing note. Powerful stuff. Thank you so much for spending the time and sharing the goods. I wish you lots of luck in your backable adventures.
Well, thanks so much, Pete.