In Don’t Be A Grin F**ker, Mark Suster describes a concept that the two of us have discussed at various Board meetings. Startups often expend significant resources attempting to coax a relationship out of someone who smiles and says all the right things, yet whose inactions are inconsistent with their alleged intentions. Entrepreneurs who are self aware and have the Whole Package are less prone to being successfully grin screwed. However, even the most enlightened entrepreneur can unknowingly waste valuable time and energy pursuing non-qualified prospects. Thus, developing an ability to identify Grin F☺☺kers is a startup skill worth cultivating.
I was recently working at my kitchen table while my adolescent son was watching the History Channel’s reality TV show Pawn Stars. The show caught my attention, as a litany of extremely unsophisticated individuals sold their family heirlooms and other “treasures” at cut-rate prices to the professional negotiators who star in the show. Having appeared on a reality TV show, I am well aware of the lack of reality involved in such shows. As the Producer of the show I worked on told me, “There is very little that is real in reality TV.” Even taking into account the show’s lack of reality, I found it to be an entertaining way to coach my son regarding basic negotiating tactics.
In the first Star Wars film, released in 1977, the seemingly humble Ben Kenobi is confronted by a squad of Imperial Storm Troopers. With a slight hand gesture and a confident stare, he convinces the Storm Troopers that there is no reason to search his vehicle and to leave his droids unmolested. The audience later learns that “Ben” is actually Jedi Master Obi Wan Kenobi and the persuasion technique he deployed is called the “Force.” Unfortunately, non-fictional entrepreneurs cannot draw upon the Force. However, there are Jedi mind tricks that really do work - words, techniques and patterns of behavior that cause people to act in a highly predictable manner. Just like the Storm Troopers, victims of these mind tricks are usually unaware of the degree to which they have been manipulated.
Author Henry James understood the impact a ghost could have on a story. He also recognized that two ghosts haunting two children was even more effective than a single ghost and a single child, as his character Douglas notes in the 1898 novella, The Turn Of The Screw: "I quite agree – in regard to Griffin's ghost, or whatever it was–that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it's not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have involved a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children – ?" "We say, of course," somebody exclaimed, "that they give two turns!" (italics from original text) James understood that the introduction of each ghost and child effectively “turned the screw” – to a point. However, just as a carpenter understands that over-tightening a screw can cause it to break; James realized that too many “turns” of his metaphorical screw would render his ghosts ineffective as literary devices. Turning the screw just enough is an art in carpentry, literature and negotiation.
“Fight or flight?” Nothing is more elemental to an organism’s survival than knowing when to run and when to defend itself. In which instances should a creature pick a battle and make a stand, and when should it retreat to fight another day? Entrepreneurs often face a similar quandary, with the added wrinkle that sometimes it makes more sense to “flirt” rather than run or fight. In fact, startups, given their limited ability to effectively fight or flee, often must play nice when threatened. As such, rather than deciding between “fight or flight,” the more appropriate question for an entrepreneur is, “When should I fight, flee or flirt?” As with most business dilemmas, there is no dogmatic response that can be uniformly applied to every situation. Each threatening instance must be evaluated in light of your resources, the criticality of the threat and the probability that you could: survive a fight, escape by flight, or establish an ally by flirting. Fortunately, there are two excellent books that address the yin and the yang of this fundamental issue: Sun Zi’s The Art of War and G. Richard Shell and Mario Moussa’s The Art of Woo.
Agreements with Big Dumb Companies (BDCs) are like DC Comic’s evil villainess, Poison Ivy. Both are seductive and alluring and both are potentially fatal. As a startup, your most meaningful agreements will likely be struck with BDCs. You will no doubt craft agreements with companies of similar or even smaller size compared to your own, but the risk associated with such agreements will be tempered by the fact that you will negotiate such agreements as a relative peer. As such, your greatest risk and greatest opportunity will arise from the deals you cut with larger entities. Fortunately, it is possible to craft lucrative deals with BDCs that do not limit your adVenture’s ability to charter its own destiny. Just as Batman must avoid Poison Ivy’s kiss of death, so too must entrepreneurs avoid the Kiss of Death provisions which BDCs often attempt to include in their agreements.
Johnnie Cochran was an effective, albeit smarmy, defense lawyer who would say or do anything to defend his clients (anyone up for a glass of OJ?). He was a master at encouraging jurors to disregard facts and base their legal verdicts on emotions and conjecture. Yet, despite his exceptional courtroom theatrics, you would be foolhardy to hire good old Johnnie to review your software cross-licensing agreement. A startup-oriented lawyer may not be able to convince a jury of a guilty man’s innocence, but they can guide your adVenture through the menacing legal shoals it will no doubt face. Working with startup lawyers also minimizes the risk of losing control of your adVenture, as they can help you avoid common fundraising and investor pitfalls. Such attorneys can also add tremendous value in your negotiations with Big Dumb Companies (BDCs), as they can ensure that you focus on the deal points that are of most significance to a small entity. As such, a startup-oriented lawyer is a critical member of your extended adVenture team.
Marketers have long known that people are drawn to exclusivity. Some people pay small fortunes to attend exclusive, private colleges while others wait in line for hours for the opportunity to buy exorbitantly priced drinks in an exclusive nightclub. As noted in Kiss Of Death, exclusivity can kill a small company. Unfortunately, many Big Dumb Companies (BDCs) believe that the only way they can effectively compete is to skew the market in their favor by precluding you from freely working with anyone you choose. Exclusivity excludes the BDC from competing in the free market while excluding the startup from taking full advantage of future customer, partner and market opportunities. Such deals are not exclusive, they are excludesive.
According to Wikipedia, Backmasking is, “a recording technique in which a sound or message is recorded backwards onto a track that is meant to be played forward.” In some instances, seemingly random sounds take on questionable meaning when played backwards. In Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, Robert Plant seems to say, “Oh here’s to sweet Satan. He’ll give those with him 666.” When the Beatles’ Revoultion 9 is played in reverse, there is a brief passage that sounds something like, “Turn me on dead man,” which heightened the “Paul is dead” rumors of the early 1970s. However, backmasking is often a deliberate process, in which artists send messages to their diehard fans who relish discovering and decoding the hidden communications. It is usually arduous to discover and decipher audio backmasked messages. However, the process of decoding the hidden messages in your partner agreements is much simpler. You can perform such agreement forensics by looking for the clues outlined below. One such clue proved to be worth $20 million to one of my adVentures.
Listen. Do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell? Closer. Let me whisper in your ear. Say the words you long to hear. I can help you sell. My apologies to John and Paul, but I am sure they will get over it. The secret to effective Networking, Selling and Negotiating can be summarized in a single word. Listen.