When reflecting on a certain period in his life, Suneel Gupta refers to himself as literally the “face of failure.” Several years ago, an infamous New York Times article detailed his experiences at failing early in his career. But Gupta’s experiences with failure served as the fuel for his later successes. Those early experiences taught him critical lessons on how visionary thinkers can become “backable,” and how their ideas can be cultivated and nurtured into reality.
To further explore the concept of being backable, Cresset hosted a webinar on May 20, 2021, with Gupta, who delved into what he has learned and the research that led to his book, “Backable.” Below is a summary of what he had to share:
The importance of talking about failure
I received a phone call a few years ago from the organizer of a conference called FailCon. It’s a humbling experience when someone calls you and says, “Hey, we are doing a conference about failure, and we want you to be the keynote speaker.” Well, I decided to do it and share some of my missteps and mishaps, and what I learned from them. I didn’t realize it at the time, but there was a New York Times reporter in the audience. Later, I opened the Times, and there is a full-length story about failure … with my face plastered on it … and the story goes viral.
For me, it was the start of a long and open conversation about failure. That article really broke some ground, in a good way. What I decided to do with it was to reach out to people I admired and break the ice in hopes of having a conversation. I asked for just 15 minutes of their time, and the response rate was extraordinarily high, and from people I never thought would respond. I found myself in these really interesting, yet vulnerable, conversations with these amazing leaders – Oscar-winning filmmakers, military leaders, founders of iconic companies. They opened up to me in a really meaningful way, and what I began to realize is that these are ordinary people with an extraordinary outlook. They didn’t just come up with great ideas, but they knew how to explain them and persuade others.
What it means to be “backable”
Often when we hear the word “backable,” it can come off as being a very founder- or celebrity-focused term. The reality is being “backable” is for anyone who wants to create change. Anyone who has an idea. Backable people have a mysterious “it” quality. We tend to want to rally around them and take a chance on them.
I used to think that all backable people were charismatic. The reality is that many people who are backable are NOT charismatic. After studying hundreds of backable people, what I realized is that it’s not charisma that makes a person convincing … it’s conviction.
Developing conviction for your ideas
Most ideas don’t get killed in conference rooms. They get killed in hallways, around water coolers, in parking lots. It’s those informal, spontaneous interactions where we don’t get the response we are looking for, and then we tuck our idea away or give up on it completely.
Backable people seem to know that and resist the impulse to share an idea immediately if they don’t yet have high conviction for it. Instead, they take the time to nurture and incubate their ideas. They do that until they muster up enough of the conviction they need to share an idea with others and feel comfortable having a back-and-forth dialogue. It’s not about having bullet-proof answers, but being able to defend your idea with conviction. That takes time and deep thinking.
Casting a “central character” in telling your story
When you have an idea, it’s critical to identify a “central character” and stay focused on that. Who are you serving? What problem are you solving? Successful entrepreneurs are laser focused on why their companies exist and who they help or serve.
Also, you need to bring your “why story” upfront. When you have a central character, your pitch becomes so much more compelling. You need both stories and substance, of course. Stories pull you in, but substance keeps you there.
Successful founders put themselves into their stories. Those stories are based on having gone out in the world and truly experiencing a problem, as well as the solution. They’ve gone beyond Google to find an “Earned Secret” — something not a lot of people know, but that they’ve experienced first-hand. They build their ideas around those insights and truly live them.
I should also note that entrepreneurs like to talk about how they are going to change the world. But we also need to talk about how the world is changing, and how our idea fits into that change.
Rethinking risk through the lens of inevitability
If you look at how we make decisions as human beings, generally speaking we don’t like to take risk. Sure, we’ll accept risk, but we don’t enjoy taking it. And the pain we feel from making bad decisions can feel twice as powerful as the reward we receive when we make good decisions. All of this plays into the concept that some ideas are inevitable. There is risk of action, of course, but there is an even greater risk of inaction. If you don’t take action on your idea, you get left behind. Someone else will take your idea and make it happen. That creates a whole new paradigm of considering risk when you think about the inevitability of an idea coming to life.
Letting go of your ego
Ego and fear have an intimate relationship. We often fear what other people are going to think of us. How will others perceive us if we fail? What if they don’t believe in our idea?
The reality is backable people don’t push fear out; they have a way of almost pulling fear in. By that I mean that when you inspect fear more closely, what you begin to realize is that the anxiety you feel isn’t about the fear at the top of your list, the most immediate, present thing that you are afraid of. It’s the fear at the bottom of the list. It’s the fear of being known as a failure. To the extent you can, put all those fears on paper. When you unpack them, you realize that what you need to focus on is not what’s at the bottom of the list, but what’s at the top. That becomes doable.
In summary, we shouldn’t just try to make ourselves backable; we should try to make other people backable, too. Sometimes the simplest way to change the world is to take a chance on someone else.