About this Episode
Entrepreneur and author Suneel Gupta joins the Essential Podcast to share insights from his new book, "Backable: The Surprising Truth Behind What Makes People Take a Chance on You." Using case studies and experiences from the worlds of venture capital and entertainment and beyond, Gupta has lessons for anyone who has ideas and needs to persuade others to believe in them.
The Essential Podcast from S&P Global is dedicated to sharing essential intelligence with those working in and affected by financial markets. Host Nathan Hunt focuses on those issues of immediate importance to global financial markets—macroeconomic trends, the credit cycle, climate risk, energy transition, and global trade—in interviews with subject matter experts from around the world.
- Suneel Gupta's new book, "Backable: The Surprising Truth Behind What Makes People Take a Chance on You," features long-held secrets from producers of Oscar-winning films, members of Congress, military leaders, culinary stars, venture capitalists, founders of unicorn-status startups, and executives at iconic companies like Lego, Method, and Pixar, is now available here.
Nathan Hunt: This is The Essential Podcast from S&P Global. My name is Nathan Hunt. Before I had my present job, I was an entrepreneur and like most entrepreneurs, I was pitching investors, I was pitching customers, I was pitching employees on joining my team constantly. I confess that I wasn't always great at this. When I started my company and they didn't realize how much of my time would be focused on getting other people to take a chance on me, but through trial and repeated error, I've learned some things. Now that I work at a large company, that experience pitching my ideas and myself has served me well, but I still struggle to know how to win people over, how to be Backable.
Suneel Gupta: Hi, It's Suneel GuptaI, I'm a author of a new book called Backable. I also teach at Harvard and I'm an entrepreneur
Nathan Hunt: Suneel, welcome to The Essential Podcast.
Suneel Gupta: Nathan is so good to be here, thanks for having me on.
Nathan Hunt: Suneel, as you said, you are the author of 'Backable, the surprising truth behind what makes people take a chance on you.' The book comes out on February 23rd, the day this podcast is published. I just finished reading the book. Where was this book in 2009 when I really needed it?
Suneel Gupta: I mean, it's funny Nathan, because I wrote this book because I felt like I needed it. I was an entrepreneur going up and down Sand Hill Road, pitching investors on an idea that I thought was really valid and I was getting rejection after rejection and there are certainly books out there about fundraising, but they tend to teach sort of the mechanics of trying to get an idea across. But I wanted to understand, like, how do you win over a room? If you have an idea that, you know, may not be fully baked, whether you're pitching an investor or pitching a team, what do you need to do in order to make it Backable? And so I wrote it.
Nathan Hunt: Let's start with the basics. What does it mean to be Backable?
Suneel Gupta: There are certain people who seem to have an 'it' quality that allows them to shine inside key moments. That could be an interview that could be a meeting, an, audition a pitch. Even when they're not the obvious choice, we tend to want to take a chance on them. A couple of examples, Lady Gaga, even after she was dumped by Def Jam records, producers wanted to take a chance on her. Investors wanted to take a chance on Jeff Bezos, even though at the time he had zero entrepreneurial track record and didn't really have much experience with books. So I really wanted to figure out, could this equality be learned, even if you're not a celebrity or a CEO, how do you convince a hiring manager, a team and investor, even friends and family to believe in you.
Nathan Hunt: A lot of the examples you use in the book come in these very high pressure pitching situations like entrepreneurs pitching to venture capitalists and screenwriters pitching to studios. Let's say you are not in either of those industries. Why do you still need to be Backable?
Suneel Gupta: Yeah, I mean, I think we're constantly trying to rally people around our ideas. I think we express ourselves to the world, through our ideas, through the moves that we want to make, the change we want to create. That's true whether you're working inside a big company, whether you're running at something on your own. Yeah, I mean, a lot of these were high pressure situations, but you know, what's interesting about that, Nathan is that most of the people that I spoke to, if you were a wind, the clock in their careers,they didn't necessarily start out being Backable. And even in these low pressure situations or lower pressure situations, I should say, they realized that, wow, I have a great idea, or, you know, I'm applying to this job and I feel very qualified and yet it's not happening. And I think we all kind of come to the realization that at some point in time that you could have a great idea, you could have a great resume, you could have a great product and still be dismissed.
Nathan Hunt: These are areas that are notoriously hard places to win over an audience. You quote, a venture capitalist in the book saying that 99% of the ideas that are presented to her will end up failing and so she can have a perfect track record by rejecting a 100% of the ideas. It felt like you were talking about pitching at the highest levels, like learning how to play basketball by looking at how they play in the NBA.
Suneel Gupta: It's interesting because even when I was looking at industries like entertainment and venture capital, I thought that these were people who liked to take risk. That was something that they enjoyed about their job. And what I realized through writing this book is that I think as human beings, we just generally no matter where we are, we don't tend to like risk. It's something that we sort of accept. The studies that have been done, Daniel Conaman with loss aversion shows that the potential pain and fear of making a bad decision is twice as powerful as the pleasure we get from making the right decision. And the reason that matters is because again, it doesn't matter whether you're in an entertainment studio on a Hollywood lot, or you're pitching a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley or wherever you are, it's important that when you're trying to rally people around anything new you can't just excite them about the possibilities. You have to neutralize the negative as well. In the book, we talk about this as steering directly into the objections of an idea.
Nathan Hunt: Suneel it would be possible for someone who just Googled you to look at you and say, this guy was a highly successful entrepreneur who sold his startup for a great deal of money, written a book, teaches at Harvard. I think it would be possible for a lot of people to listen to this podcast and think this is a guy who simply doesn't know what it's like for most of us who routinely try to be backable to try and pitch our ideas and fail. How would you answer that?
Suneel Gupta: Yeah. I'm speaking to you right now, outside of Detroit, Michigan. This is my home. And while I did spend a lot of time studying Oscar winning filmmakers and celebrity chefs and iconic founders, I spent a lot of time just inside companies like Ford motor company and General motors, and just understanding how ideas get created, what ideas get dismissed and why it was something that I really empathized with. It's funny that you say all this Nathan that you know, most of my career has been rooted in failure. I spent years trying to get ideas off the ground that never went anywhere and never got funded, I ran for Congress and I lost, there were a whole host of jobs where I felt really qualified, I felt like I got this one in the bag and it didn't happen. I think when you write a book, you have to come at it from the perspective of either an expert or a student. And for me, this was coming at the book from the perspective of a student. I was taking these tools and I was putting them into practice immediately and it was wild. I'll tell you because I was pitching actively and incorporating some of these techniques and realizing that as soon as I put these into place, because they're, they're actually very like immediately actionable. As soon as I was putting them into place, I was getting different responses and the idea didn't change. My idea for my startup, which was a one-on-one nutrition coaching service right over your mobile phone stayed exactly the same but the way that I talked about it changed.
Nathan Hunt: I want to dive into some of those specific recommendations you shared in your book to help people become more backable, starting with convince yourself first. I feel like this is place where a lot of us struggle.
Suneel Gupta: Yeah. When I first started writing the book, I really assumed that there was going to be a certain style to backable people. They were going to have a certain way of using hand gestures and eye contact pacing, but I didn't find that to be the case. I found that there were plenty of backable people out there that spoke in a very shy, quiet, introverted way. I mean, if you want an example of that, look up the number one most popular Ted Talk of all time. It's a guy named sir Ken Robinson who gives a talk on education and it's a brilliant talk, but it's also a very un-Ted like. He sort of has a hand in his pocket and he's got a slouch and he sort of meanders a little bit, but it's a brilliant talk. The same thing is true . When we look at the original iPhone launch, Steve jobs uses the word, "uh," 80 times and that speech and Elon Musk is considered to be a notoriously poor communicator. These are highly, highly backable people. The point is that it's not charisma that makes a person convincing, it's conviction. Backable people take the time to convince themselves first, and then they let that conviction shine through whatever style it is that feels most natural to them.
Nathan Hunt: The recommendation you shared was "make it feel inevitable." Some of the ideas we need to pitch are new or different from the way things have been done before. How can you make something new and different feel inevitable when the status quo always feels inevitable?
Suneel Gupta: It was really interesting, especially when I was looking at this inside bigger companies, when people were trying to pitch and rally teams and boards around their ideas. It wasn't that they were going into a room and saying, look, I've got a brand new idea. They were excited about the possibilities of doing something that didn't exist, but what they were really pitching and what really made the difference was when they could say, look, it's not that I'm saying that this is the way the world should go. I'm saying that this is the way the world is already going, and here's why. And if we don't get ahead of that, or if we don't move fast, then the world is going to pass us by. And what that does, is it triggers what is commonly known as FOMO, which stands for the fear of missing out. No one wants to miss out. I think that one of the only things that can neutralize the fear of missing is the fear of missing out. This is why, when you look at venture capital fundraising, as soon as a startup has one investor, all of a sudden it makes it that much easier for the other investors to come in and to gather more funding. The same thing is true when you're trying to pitch inside a company, when you're trying to rally teams to be able to say, "look, here's credibly, let me tell you why this is already going to happen, why it's inevitable, we just want to make sure that we don't miss the boat."
Nathan Hunt: The toughest recommendation you share was let go of your ego, or maybe that's just the toughest for me. I loved an example you gave from your own life when you had an important meeting at Apple.
Suneel Gupta: Apple had reached out and said, "Hey, we might be interested in doing some kind of partnership with your startup." Now for a startup founder at this point in time, I've gotten a little bit of funding in the bank, but we're quickly running out of funding. And for me as a startup founder, to hear that Apple might be interested in partnering is like, it's the biggest potential deal, I'm very excited about this meeting. At the time I was living in San Francisco and so I drove from San Francisco to the headquarters in Cupertino and while I'm on my way, I receive a message and the message says that Tim cook might actually be in the meeting because he's interested in healthcare and there's a possibility he'll come by and that to me should have been this moment of excitement, but it triggered so much anxiety that by the time I pulled into the Cupertino parking lot, I felt like I was having a full-out panic attack. And so one of the techniques that I learned when I was writing this book was from a guy named Jerry Colonna who coaches founders and what he said was that when you had this thought of fear, that's running through your head, instead of trying to push it out, pul it in a little bit closer and examine it. And the way that you do that is what I did in that moment is I pulled out a piece of paper and I wrote the fear at the top of the piece of paper. And that fear said,"you're going to bomb this meeting, you're going to tank." And using Jerry's technique, I then wrote underneath that, "okay, well, if that's true, then what?" And the fear said, "well, then you're not going to get this partnership with Apple." And I said, "okay, if that's true, then what?" And I continue to write down on the piece of paper, "if that's true, then what?" And the fear said, "well, then your startup is going to fail. You're going to run out of funding." And I said, "okay, if that's true, then what?" And fear said, "well, no, one's going to want to work with you again. No one's ever going to want to fund you again." And I continued to go down the list until I hit this like rock bottom moment where it was like, you know, your wife's going to leave you, your kids are gone. Like, you're your failure. Everybody believes you're a failure. You would think that an exercise like that, Nathan, would only rev up your anxiety. But it is amazing what I found, the relief that I felt in that moment when I got to the bottom of that list, I thought to myself, my gosh, I've got all these butterflies in my stomach, but it's not because I think I'm going to bomb this meeting with Apple it's because I think as a result of all that, like my wife and kids are gonna leave me somehow down the line. I think our mind has this mysterious ability to combine all of that in one sort of lump. Going through an exercise like this really helps you parse it out and to contextualize, like, what are like the real stakes here? Of course it's an important meeting, but it's an important meeting and you want to do well so focus on that as opposed to feeling all the anxiety of the things that will happen downstream in the book.
Nathan Hunt: You talk about playing the game of now. Do you think it is those fears that sort of free floating, deep anxiety that keeps people from playing that game from seizing the moment?
Suneel Gupta: I think the thing that has held me back, and I think that holds a lot of us back are three words, "I'm not ready." I'm not ready to speak up, I'm not ready to apply for that leadership role, I'm not ready to run with my idea. "I'm not ready" is a very powerful phrase that I think holds a lot of potential back and the thing that continued to surprise me as I was writing this book is that if you look at some of the most extraordinary people and you rewind the tape to the beginning of their journey, very few of them were ready. I mean, three friends from design school were not ready to start Airbnb, the hedge fund manager from Wall Street wasn't necessarily ready to start Amazon and a 15 year old from Stockholm, Sweden wasn't ready to start an environmental movement, but today Gretta Thunberg is Time magazine's youngest-ever person of the year. And so I think that the thing that tends to bind people together who play the game of now is this idea that long-term success comes from short-term embarrassment. You're going to have the failures are going to have the setbacks along the way. But you're only going to be able to put yourself out there if you play the game of now.
Nathan Hunt: I'd like to end this interview where your book begins. You tell the story of a young woman in India and her journey to becoming backable. I'd love it if you would share that story.
Suneel Gupta: It's my favorite 'game of now' story and it's about a woman named Damyanti Rani, she was featured by Time Magazine last year. There was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania that called her the Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the engineering world. But she grew up largely in a refugee camp on the border of Pakistan, India, without any running water, no electricity, and just decided at some point in her adolescence that she wanted to move to the United States and she wanted to become an engineer with Ford motor company which is a very improbable, if not impossible vision for somebody like her to have. Her parents really rallied around it, the family saved every penny they had and eventually she got on the boat and she got to the United States, she got a scholarship at the Oklahoma State University and literally the day after she graduates, she drives to Detroit, Michigan, where she applies for a job. She gets into a room with a hiring manager at Ford motor company and he looks at her resume, he looks at her application, and he says, "I'm sorry. I actually didn't realize you were applying for the job of an engineer. We actually don't have any female engineers working here." Now this was the 1960s and while Ford motor company was really in its heyday, had thousands of engineers working at the company, but not a single one of them was a woman. And so Damyanti Rani in that moment is deflated. She gets up, she picks up her crumpled resume and her purse, and she begins to walk out of the room, but it's almost this last ditch moment, she turns around and she looks this hiring manager in the eyes and she tells him her story about all the struggle that went into her journey to be in this country, to be in this city and to be in this very room with him. And it was in that moment she says to him, "look, if you, if you don't have any female engineers then do yourself a favor, then hire me now." And it was in that moment that a hiring manager from suburban Michigan took a chance on a refugee from the other side of the world. Just in that moment, it changed a lot of things, it changed things for immigrants who are looking to take her journey, it changed things for women in the engineering world and, and it changed things for me, Nathan, because Damyanti Rani is my mom.
The Essential Podcast is produced by Molly Mintz with assistance from Kurt Burger and Lundon Lafci at S&P Global. We accelerate progress in the world by providing intelligence that is essential for companies, governments, and individuals to make decisions with conviction. This is Nathan Hunt from my home studio above Manhattan's Greenwich Village. Thank you for listening.
The Essential Podcast is edited and produced by Molly Mintz.