by Charlotte Oxnam, McCormick ’23
On April 7, The Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and The Garage partnered to welcome author and entrepreneur (and Kellogg/Pritzker alum) Suneel Gupta for an intimate talk and insightful discussion about his latest book, Backable. You can watch the full event below.
In Backable, Suneel boldly asserts that the secret to success isn’t defined by your innate talent, connections, or even the strength of your ideas, but the hard work and ability to persuade others to “back” you. While Suneel is no stranger to success (his startup, Rise Labs, was acquired by One Medical for $20M in 2016), Suneel began his talk with interested students by sharing that this wasn’t always the case.
In fact, if you Googled “failure” in 2013, there was a time when Suneel’s face was one of the top image results. After trying to start a few companies that didn’t take off, Suneel was approached by FailCon, a San Francisco based conference for startup founders centering around the ability to accept failure and iterate, to be their keynote speaker. Little did he know that when he was featured in a New York Times article entitled “Wearing Your Failures on Your Sleeve” about his keynote at FailCon, it would go viral.
Instead of being dissuaded by being the literal face of failure, Suneel used the experience as a starting point for a new project and began to reach out cold to the accomplished professionals he admired. In his outreach, he included a link to the article about him as a self-deprecating signal that he “didn’t know what he was doing.” The response rate to that email was higher than he had ever seen, and the conversations that ensued were so much deeper because they were not only focused on success, but also on failure - something that many entrepreneurs are much too familiar with.
Suneel realized that sharing his experience had convinced others to take a chance on him. So, he decided to do a deep dive into figuring out what actually makes a person “backable.” His findings contradicted many of our preconceived notions of what it takes to make people confident in you and your ideas. What Suneel found was that it isn’t about being an extrovert or a great public speaker - it’s about having true conviction in what you are sharing.
While a founder is probably excited about their idea early on and ready to share it with the world, sometimes it’s wiser to first do the work to build their own conviction in the idea. To that end, Suneel shared an analogy. There are two different kinds of ideas: peanut M&Ms and chocolate M&Ms. Peanut M&Ms are strong. They can stand being squeezed, while chocolate M&Ms will crack under pressure; just as some ideas are ready to be shared and scrutinized, others will fold and fall apart under the slightest pushback. A backable person, according to Suneel, knows to keep the chocolate M&M tucked away and work on it on their own before presenting it to the world. This idea requires an incubation period so that it can develop into a peanut M&M.
This incubation period is designed to give a founder the time to really flesh out their idea - strengthen it and let it evolve. But Suneel also warned not to let it go on forever! Getting feedback early on in the growth stages of a venture is vital to iterating and ensuring the product or idea is something people really want. Suneel shared a tip to find a friend and schedule time to tell them about your idea - but schedule it a few weeks away. This gives you some external pressure to really put in the thought and work, making sure there’s something to talk about during that meeting. Suneel suggested thinking like a critic: what might your friend say to you? It’s ideal to have some of this prepped in advance. After all, Suneel also reminded us ideas don’t fall apart in formal meetings in conference rooms, but in these more casual conversations.
This process of doing the leg work and talking to potential customers should lead you to find something Suneel called “earned secrets:” un-Google-able insights that show that you have a unique understanding of the problem you are trying to solve. Don’t focus on a fancy slide deck or a polished speech. Focus on having as many experiences as possible that will guide you to the best possible solution. If you truly fall in love with the problem you are trying to solve, and put the time and effort into understanding it, you’ll discover you’re holding that peanut M&M.
Beyond how an idea evolves, Suneel shared there are some other key components he found that make someone backable. “Conviction is more important than charisma,” he said. While many of us might imagine an outspoken, confident individual, there is nothing stopping you from being backable, too, even if you don’t naturally have those qualities. But before you can convince anyone else that you (or your idea) is a good one - you must first convince yourself.
Suneel left students with an anecdote of his own - his daily routine with his daughters. Taken from a Picasso quote, he asks them each day, “What is the meaning of life?” to which they respond, “To find your gift.” He then asks, “What is the purpose of life?” to which they respond, “To give your gift away.” As aspiring entrepreneurs in college, Suneel reminded us of the importance of working on ideas that truly make us feel alive and excited.
As founders, students, and people, we tend to fear failure, to believe we aren’t ready, but the opposite of success is not failure, according to Suneel. It’s boredom. While we may tell ourselves we aren’t ready to start our ventures, to share our ideas, Suneel has interviewed hundreds of extremely successful people and walked away with one core truth: you are ready.
This article was written by Charlotte Oxnam. Charlotte is an industrial engineering student at Northwestern and the founder of CuetheCurves.com, as well as a student aide at The Garage.