To earn an opportunity, steer into the concerns

In Backable, Suneel Gupta recalls a time when he was seeking funding for his startup Rise. He’d recently met Reid Hoffman and sought his advice:

When Rise was being rejected by investors, Hoffman shared one of the keys to his success in the pitch room. “There will be one to three issues that are potentially problematic for your financing,” Hoffman said to me. “Address them head on.”

Hoffman had first put this into practice as a junior-level employee inside Apple. “I wanted to be a product manager, but I didn’t have the right background,” he told me. That was a problem because the hiring team was inundated with qualified candidates. Hoffman knew that trying to outcompete the others based on his résumé wasn’t going to work. So when he approached James Isaacs, Apple’s eWorld group’s head of product management, Hoffman told me that he decided to try something new—he steered straight into the obvious objection. “Look, I know I don’t have any product management experience,” he said. “So, what if I pulled together a detailed document outlining my ideas? If I did that, would you take a look?”

Isaacs agreed, and a few days later, Hoffman returned with his ideas. The document clearly wasn’t written by someone with highly relevant experience, but it showed Isaacs that Hoffman had real potential. That was the start of Hoffman’s career in product management. By addressing his lack of experience head on, rather than trying to hide it, he turned a potential skeptic into one of his earliest professional backers—someone who helped lay the foundation for his career.

Years later, when Hoffman co-founded LinkedIn, he knew investors’ biggest concern would be revenue. “They were still licking their wounds from the dot-com bust,” he said. Investors were now focused on “proven business models” and “we didn’t have a dime of revenue.” 

But instead of veering away from the revenue question, he hit it directly. He began his pitch by acknowledging the lack of revenue and then quickly showcased three potential ways LinkedIn could make money—from ads, listings, and subscriptions. By addressing the objection before the investors could even bring it up, Hoffman earned enough trust that he would be able to figure it out. 

One final note from Hoffman (for now) is to hit the objections sooner rather than later. “You have the most attention from investors in the first few minutes,” he says. “Most investors arrive with questions, and if you proactively show you understand their principal concerns, you earn their attention for the rest of the pitch.”

This is exactly what one of my good friends did when he was applying for an account management job at Facebook, before Backable was even published. While he had some relevant internship experiences, he hadn’t even completed his undergraduate degree yet, and it was in an unrelated field (science). 

He wrote about all of this in his cover letter, highlighting the objections and sharing three reasons they should still consider hiring him. He even offered a money-back guarantee; if they weren’t satisfied with his performance on the team, he’d return the compensation.

That got him into the interview process, and it eventually got him the job as well.

It’s generally intuitive to try to steer away from objections; to try to weasel out of what you think someone might anticipate as your weak spots. For example, if you took a year or two, or even a decade, away from the workforce, and you anticipate that might be a problem (it will), then steer into it—discuss what you’ve learned in that time, how you’ve managed to keep up with the industry, and demonstrate that in a take home project.

While you might be able to gloss over concerns from careless people, you won’t get it past people who take their work seriously (and will succeed at their jobs and make you accountable for success as well). Instead, you want to consider how to reposition your work (or your product, or whatever you’re pitching) against the most important objections and criticisms

In my friend’s case, he even offered to take the risk off the people hiring him; he’d return the budget they would spend if they didn’t like his work. I don’t think they’d actually do that, of course—but just the fact that he was willing to try made his application stand out.

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