Ran Ma was a couple years out from studying biomedical engineering at Northwestern University, where she'd become adept at prototyping medical projects, when she decided to create her own. She moved to a new city, San Francisco, and got to work, alone, without support from a university, or peers, or colleagues.
She lacked friends in the area, and had no contacts in the startup world. But what she did possess was a steadfast belief that she'd struck on a good idea. She'd compiled the research that documented a problem. She'd engineered a simple solution that could save lives.
The seemingly unlikely life-saving invention was a pair of socks embedded with temperature sensors. They'd be useful for certain diabetes patients who had trouble regularly monitoring their feet for inflammation--an early sign of more significant conditions, which can lead to amputations and death. Ma conceived of the socks as easy to care for--they would never need charging--and comfortable to wear. She imagined they'd help prevent some of the 100,000 limb amputations diabetes patients undergo each year.
First, she'd just have to make, manufacture, market, sell, and distribute the socks. She needed a co-founder, a staff, and funding.
She started getting in touch with Jie Fu, who had founded Ringwell, a company that advised entrepreneurs on how to manufacture their products. To Ma, Fu had everything she did not: A deep knowledge of the manufacturing scene in China, and experience working in hardware, specifically with micro-sensors.
"I think I called Jie every day for a year. I knew he was the one I needed. He had the right track record, he had the right connections," Ma says. "I knew he was the one who was going to take our company to the next level."
Persistence paid off. He joined in 2015 as co-founder of her company, Siren Care.
Ma then repeated the process to recruit Hank Jan Scholten, a third co-founder, the following year. She was tenacious, too, in pursuing funding. She met anyone she could in the startup ecosystem, and then milked friends and advisers for contacts for investment firms, seed funds, microinvestors, and government funds. She went to Meetups to expand her network, and countless networking events. She applied to 500 Startups, an incubator that helped provide more introductions. There, she says, "I was just the most obnoxious founder, constantly asking for help!"
It was a year of meeting after meeting with potential investors--meetings that each required establishing a connection, asking for a favor, and countless email follow-ups to arrange. She estimates she did 100 meetings before finding her first eager investor.
DCM Ventures in Menlo Park put in a term sheet. "All we needed was one yes, and something shifted," Ma says. Term sheets from Founders Fund and Khosla Ventures followed. Last month she and her co-founders announced they had raised $3.4 million.
Now that Siren is a company of 10 employees, Ma's perseverance continues to be as strong as ever, and has proved infectious. When one employee was given the task to assemble items for a giveaway to diabetic customers, she didn't just ask one or two other companies for donations. She asked hundreds--and successfully enlisted dozens of them to give away items through Siren, everything from an Amazon Echo Dot to assorted low-glycemic foods.
"f we need help, we ask for it," Ma says proudly. "We are probably one of the most annoying companies you will ever meet."
The power of being annoying
When starting a company, there are a lot of times you'll have to ask for help. Ma learned to not quit asking--when she needed co-founders, when she needed funding, and now, when she needs advice or favors. It's a lesson Steve Jobs once put succinctly: "About half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance."
Sometimes, perseverance a matter of survival. When Slava Rubin, the founder of Indiegogo, needed funding to continue running his crowdfunding platform, he was met with rejection after rejection from venture capitalists. He continued asking for new meetings, new introductions, and ultimately pitched his company to 90 venture capitalists before getting a single "yes." Christina Stembel, the founder of Farmgirl Flowers, endured more than 60 "nos" from investment firms and companies--many multiple times--before finding an investor.
But is there a business benefit to being so persistent it's annoying? So adamant you come off as obnoxious? Yes, probably.
Successful salespeople know this concept well. A piece of conventional wisdom they often consider is that "no" doesn't always mean no. In sales prospects, 80 percent of prospects decline a proposal four times before saying yes. When it takes five attempts to achieve a successful outcome, it's virtually impossible to not feel annoying.
Alisa Cohn, an executive coach in New York City, says when starting a company, "you have to make other people uncomfortable and make yourself uncomfortable at times." Still, getting what you want without completely alienating others requires striking a delicate balance in your approach. Marcy Swenson, a serial entrepreneur who coaches executives through her firm Startup Happiness advises founders to infuse their correspondence and questions with empathy and courtesy. "If you can combine the tenacity and persistence with grace and understanding, it is often not perceived as obnoxious."
The unselfconscious may fare better at repeatedly asking favors from others. Of course, this form of "annoying" that Ma references isn't the same genre as, say, toddler-style whining. And she's being a little self-deprecating. But she does admit that she is less concerned about what someone thinks of her than the opportunity cost for her business should she not ask.
"What's the worst that's going to happen if you ask?" Ma says. "The only thing that can get hurt is your pride--and who cares!"