Harvard lecturer and author of 'Backable': 4 tips for winning over investors for your start-up

Forget yourself and connect with the person in front of you.

Suneel Gupta, author of "Backable: The Surprising Truth Behind What Makes People Take a Chance on You."
Photo by Jacob Lewkow

If you're pitching an idea for your start-up, you want potential investors to see you as a partner, so you'll benefit from having an ability to express yourself in a way that inspires people to action. Suneel Gupta, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School, founder of telemedicine start-up RISE, and the emissary for Gross National Happiness between the United States and the Kingdom of Bhutan, calls that state, one that inspires confidence in potential stakeholders, being "backable."

Gupta writes about this in his new book, "Backable: The Surprising Truth Behind What Makes People Take a Chance on You." He also describes ways to effectively communicate the value of your idea and of yourself with it. "These backable moments can change your life," Gupta tells Grow.

Here are four of his top tips to help you win investors over to your idea.

Figure out what other people want

One way to make your pitch and your product more successful is to think about the person you're trying to help, says Gupta. It can be stressful to think of how to impress someone at a meeting, but if you focus on your target customer or cause instead of your concerns in the moment, you may see greater success.

A podcast host shared with Gupta that she puts a photo of an audience member in front of her while she's podcasting, so she won't feel like she's in a lonely booth. She wants to remember the person listening on the other end so she can create the most resonant and relevant content that will best serve her audience.

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A talent agent with 20 years of experience told Gupta that he doesn't perform well when he's doing interviews for himself. But when he represents a client, he becomes compelling and persuasive.

If you're presenting your new business idea or even at a job interview, Gupta's best advice is to advocate for yourself like you would for someone else you really believe in.

The next step is to think about what the person you're speaking with needs, and how you can provide value to them. "Treating yourself as an agent for the person you're trying to serve," Gupta says, "can really take you out of your own head."

Be prepared, and then improvise

If you're going into a meeting to pitch your new business idea, you want to come prepared, but sounding too stiff and rehearsed can work against you. That's why Gupta suggests practicing what you want to do and then speaking from the heart.

Gupta cites the story of jazz musician Charlie Parker. When Parker was asked how he had so much presence when he performed, "he said, 'Here's my formula: You practice, practice, practice, and then when you get up there, you forget all of that and you just wail.'"

Parker's preparation allowed him to feel more free to express himself in the moment. When you come in that prepared, you'll seem more confident, and that's when you can inspire others to believe in you and work with you: "Speak to express, not to impress," Gupta says.

Treating yourself as an agent for the person you're trying to serve can really take you out of your own head.
Suneel Gupta
Author, “Backable: The Surprising Truth Behind What Makes People Take a Chance on You.”

Create a huddle moment

Creating a "huddle moment," where you and your potential partners can share a visual experience, even if it's virtual, can be a powerful tool, says Gupta. Not only are you all focused on the same thing, but your excitement is more likely to come through and bring others with you.

Gupta attended a venture capital pitch for a pizza app delivery service where he and the entrepreneur arrived early, and they got to talking. "He's telling me about how his great-grandfather had opened this pizzeria in Italy, he comes through this lineage of pizza shop owners, and he showed me a picture of his grandfather and he's really lit up," says Gupta.

When the investors walked into the room, "they're pretty buttoned up, and all of a sudden you see this founder's demeanor change." Trying to match the tone in the room, the man struggled with his presentation. But once he pulled out the app and started showing the different features, he gave everyone something to look at with him, and his enthusiasm came through more clearly.

People are more compelling when they are showing rather than just telling, says Gupta. "Whenever possible, taking a prop, taking a visual of any kind so that you switch from presentation mode into huddle mode, where you're actually looking at something together, is very powerful."

Let your passion carry you through the challenges

In his book, Gupta references social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who compares a person balancing different parts of the brain to a rider on top of an elephant. The rider represents your rational side that likes to analyze and solve problems, and the elephant is the emotional side that gives you the energy to run with a new idea.

"In the early days of a new concept, we may be completely in tune with our elephant," writes Gupta. "We get excited about a vision, a possibility. But as we dig deeper into practicalities like the business model and operations, our rider takes over. We become fixated on the logic of an idea and often lose sight of the emotion. But convincing yourself requires both."

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To increase your chances of success, aim to keep the enthusiasm alive after you've encountered the challenges that inevitably come with starting a new business. "You need to have that emotional feeling that no, this is something that I really want to do," he says.

In the start-up world, the term "financial runway" refers to the amount of time you have before you need to start generating cash flow. "But what we found is that there have been companies that fail not because they run out of financial runway, but because they run out of emotional runway," he says. "It's too frustrating, it's been too disheartening, and they ended up folding the company when they still had money in the bank."

Gupta references Howard Thurman, a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., who said, "Don't just ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do it, because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

Even if you are thinking about the bigger picture, you still need to maintain that part inside that has come alive because of an idea or a goal, says Gupta. "When we don't pay attention to that, we run out of steam, and we're on the other side of that doubt and rejection that will inevitably come our way."

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