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Hearing the word “no”

“Who would buy Coca-Cola from a gas station?” Recently, I was asked this question at a business development event by a fellow attendee after describing the company I co-founded, Hyr. Confused, the former Coca-Cola employee in me countered that gas stations are some of Coke’s most important markets. “Yes, but not when my grandfather worked for them in Louisiana, 50 years ago,” he replied. The gentleman went on to explain that his grandfather’s job back then was selling a new technology, soda fridges, to gas stations. The first few thousand times, his granddad ran into “no”, but persisted. Then, someone said yes, and then others did. Granddad went on to sell those fridges not only in Louisiana, but across the United States, and became Coke’s national sales leader.

I love this story because it perfectly encapsulates an issue that many founders face: how do you convince traditional industry experts that there is more than one way of doing something?

A lot has been written about how Uber disrupted the taxi industry, or how Airbnb disrupted the traditional hotel industry, and understandably so. If you would have asked me three years ago if I would trust getting into a stranger’s car, or stay alone at their home, I would have had the same reaction as the first thousand or so gas station owners to our Coca-Cola fridge salesman’s pitch.

I’ve been told that the Uber and Airbnb founders saw a “blue ocean” of serene, wide-open opportunity, so founders who want to be successful should also look for “blue oceans.” I’ll admit to disagreeing pretty wholeheartedly with that advice. The taxi/limo industry is a tough business and their owners and unions are very well organized and politically influential. The same goes for the hotel industry. Breaking into either field was never going to be easy. But I think those founders saw what the Coca-Cola salesman saw: the chance to force their way into or around a traditional industry by doing something a bit off-the-wall. If they saw an ocean, it was likely a stormy one.

So why were they successful? I believe it’s because those founders changed their respective marketplaces by being brave and establishing social trust in their platforms. They didn’t listen to the old hands spouting reasons why new ideas couldn’t work, particularly from a legislative or regulatory perspective. Instead, the founders focused on establishing consumer and investor trust in their platforms, understanding that demand can be created and exploited. They were brave and showed it could be done.

At Hyr, our experience has been similar to those of other founders. We’re always asked about our solution to regulation x, or problem y, and whether we have you thought about issues with z. And we constantly meet current “experts” who’ve tut-tutted our ideas. Don’t get me wrong: the first “no” we heard was disheartening. By the 10th pitch meeting, it was a little better. But by the 30th pitch meeting, we had really honed our arguments on why and how Hyr will work for its employees and businesses. I recently compared our first pitch deck — which we thought was a masterpiece — to our current one. The difference between them is striking. Our first deck reflected classic “blue ocean” thinking — it was wide open and airy and a bit naïve. Our current deck is tight and tough and addresses even the stormiest questions. As a result, four months into pitching for business development money, we are getting a lot more yeses.

To be clear, I am not advocating that anyone ignore good advice or forge ahead without thinking, listening, and tweaking your ideas based on feedback. That’s a must. In our case, when we’re asked a question we haven’t considered, we find an answer, incorporate it into our pitch, and keep moving forward. Even so, when the tough questions start to wear on me, I think about Coke fridges at gas stations, remember that stormy oceans can be weathered, and tell myself that Hyr is creating a better way for workers and companies.

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