We talk about the importance of demonstrating traction and being in a big market, but we don’t talk about founder-likability because it’s such a touchy topic.
tl;dr If an investor doesn’t like you, he/she won’t invest.
How do you know if you like someone after knowing him/her for only a short time?! Shouldn’t it be about whether you are running an awesome business or not? Seems unfair.
Actually, this is the norm in the job market as well. If you are applying to a job, you need to be likable, otherwise, regardless of how qualified you are, you won’t get the job. Ultimately, there is only a limited number of positions (or funding dollars), and there are a lot of really qualified people out there. Investors and employers can afford to choose people they like and enjoy working with.
Unfortunately, some people are just more likable than others. Some people are more gregarious and cheery. Others are wittier. Some people are just super-charismatic. Or charming. Or, less often discussed, some people just feel more connected to people who are like them in demographics or socioeconomics or pedigree.
Some of these things will take time to change, but there are a few things that every entrepreneur can practice to make themselves more likable.
1. Sell on facts not bombastic language.
“We have a genius 24 year old programmer who can code like no other.”
Someone literally said that to me last week. Given that just about every entrepreneur tells me something like this, I’m skeptical that most teams have a truly genius-amazing programmer – and that’s ok!
Saying something like, “And we have a developer who previously won a gold medal at the international math olympiad and a silver at the international computer science olympiad,” is a much stronger statement. You don’t need to tell me how smart your employee is because I now know. Tell me facts, not your opinion.
2. Address issues head-on and then explain them.
Every business is going to have flaws. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be startups!
If an issue with your business comes up in a conversation with an investor, downplaying it or sweeping it under the rug will make people trust you less. The thing to do is to briefly address that the issue exists and then confidently discuss how you are fixing the problem or how you will fix the problem.
3. Answer questions directly and concisely.
Part of this is cultural. In America, we prefer people to answer a question head-on and then elaborate rather than the opposite. We perceive the latter to be cagey and evasive.
I still talk with MANY American entrepreneurs who neither answer questions directly nor concisely. For example, last week, I was asking an entrepreneur to tell me about his team. It was a very open ended question. There are a myriad of ways to answer this question, and the challenge is to pick out the bits that are most relevant for others to know about your business. If a piece of information is not relevant, I would not recommend bringing it up. In this particular case, the entrepreneur first told me about who is NOT on his team – all the potential co-founders he had tried working with (and none of them had any relevance to any part of his business). Eventually, he got around to telling me who was on his actual team.
This was not a good way to start.
These are just a couple of tips that may be able to help. As in a job interview, I think it’s perfectly valid for entrepreneurs to practice with peers. It’s super important to come across as likable.