You've probably heard of the so-called "confirmation bias" to which company founders are highly susceptible: In plain English, it means that most of us are more likely to seek information that confirms what we already believe.
You can see how this could cause trouble for founders, eager as they are to screen the world for evidence favorable to their startups. How, then, can founders stay objective? After all, the passion required for entrepreneurship often stems from a founder's falling in love with his own vision or creation.
At Boston's Berklee School of Music, which has its own Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship, coaching the young artist-student-entrepreneurs how not to fall in love with their ideas is a top priority. The man responsible for teaching the lessons is Panos Panay, a musician and former Inc 500 founder who started Sonicbids with $50,000 of savings in 2000. He built it to more than $10 million in sales before selling it in 2013.
Another participant in the program is Mark Thirman, a musician and Berklee grad who is now a global VP for Vodafone. From their perspectives, here are some essential practices that can help founders get outside of their own visions, and improve their skills of self-evaluation.
- Improve your mannerisms at meetings. Thirman often notes the irony that musicians--so skilled at listening and collaborating, especially when performing on stage--often neglect these talents at business meetings. He advises musicians to act like the meeting is a serious paying gig (which, in many ways, it is): Show up on time, act and behave in a respectful manner, observe what's going on, and follow up. "A solo act is not good in an investor meeting," he says. "You need to perform like it's a duet or a small ensemble." In the same way the best concerts become participatory experiences, in which the performer and audience draw energy from each other, so are the best meetings: They are conversations, not one-sided presentations.
- Recognize that business creation is an iterative process, too. Most musicians know that songwriting seldom happens in single bursts of inspiration. Your first private recording of a song is rarely how the final product turns out. It often changes over time, in response to criticism and perfectionism. So it is, too, with business plans. "These [creative talents] are skills that [our students] know work well in the music world," says Panay. "Part of the methodology I'm using to get students to feel they can do this is drawing on these associations. The key is for them to buy into it."
- Respect the power of classical formats. Sometimes entrepreneurs believe their ideas are so game-changing, so idiosyncratic, that it becomes difficult for them to explain the ideas using conventional PowerPoint frameworks (product decks, investor decks, company overview decks). Thirman invokes musical analogies to explain the power of these frameworks. For example, most professional musicians grasp that, to earn a living in certain settings, they must learn to play classical formats: the minuet, the waltz, the polka. It's just part of the trade. In the same way musicians must learn these formats (rigid as they can be) as part of their basic training, so must entrepreneurs learn how to present ideas through PowerPoint decks. Another analogy Thirman uses is basic technology. You wouldn't release a consumer tech product today without making sure it has a potential iPhone app. Thirman tells students that using PowerPoint decks is the investor equivalent of these apps--a tool necessary for reaching the desired audience.
- Acknowledge your own vision, even as you listen to and collaborate with others. While it's vital to respond to investor feedback, Panay notes that it's also important to ignore the parts of it that feel wrong. "There's always that duality," he says. He observes that in every entrepreneur's DNA is a self-belief that persists because it has learned to fight through--or naively ignore--commonplace objections. "If you don't preserve a sense of naivete about certain things, you'll never embark on doing anything new," he says. "Knowing when to take feedback is important, yes, but learning how to call out what doesn't quite fit with your personal voice is also important."
- Give the audience what it craves. Thirman estimates that he sits through about 20 VC pitches a month. He says that investors typically want to know a few basic things: What's your goal, how are you going to get there, how much money do you need, and what will you do with the money. You're only wasting an investor's time if you do a lot of talking about your idea or product without covering these basics. Most up-and-coming musicians wouldn't risk getting booed offstage by soliloquizing about politics instead of shutting up and playing a song. Yet in business meetings, it's easy for young founders to fall prey to this solipsistic tendency, and forget why their audience is there in the first place. Thirman advises musicians to observe the participants at meetings the same way they'd observe an audience during a performance: Recognize when they're excited, and when they've lost interest--and revise your presentation accordingly. "You know you've lost them when their phones come out," he says.
On top of all this, both Thirman and Panay recommend researching an audience ahead of time. You wouldn't play a wedding without learning first what the bride and groom want to hear. Likewise, you wouldn't go to a gig at a country-and-western bar and start playing jazz. "You don't want beer cans thrown at you," says Thirman.
He suggests sending an email in advance of a meeting, asking what the other attendees hope to achieve. "Never go into a room cold," he says. "Give them a preview of what you want to say, and what would make the meeting productive for you. Then ask them what their interests are."
And when it's done, feel free to ask them how you did--and if they want to hear more.