Not Presuming to Know

Without a doubt, the best chats, meetings and get togethers I have are the ones where I take the time to get to know the other person and their business before we ever met. It makes it easier to understand what they’re saying (including their jargon) when I’ve got a context to place it in and it’s easier to develop a rapport with someone if I have a sense of where they’ve been, what they’ve studied, who they’ve worked with, which yoga style they’ve practiced and so on.

That said, I heard something at last week’s NY Enterprise Technology meetup that reminded me that thinking I actually know the other person can be limiting.

Maria Gotsch of the NYCIF was at the Meetup to spread the word about NYCIF’s FinTech Innovation Lab — their second class is starting this month and they’ll be taking applications for the third class in the fall — and she described a mistake that she sees startup companies making when they finally get in the room with the right people at the big financial institutions.

The mistake is telling the potential customer which problem of theirs your technology is going to solve rather than describing what your technology does. The danger in identifying a specific problem/use case is that, despite best efforts and due diligence, an outsider can’t really know what an opaque enterprise’s problems are. Not only will your chances of closing the deal suffer if you’re solving the wrong problem, indicating that your technology is a solution to a presumed problem might prevent the discussion from turning to ways in which your technology might be used to solve their actual problems.

I think Maria’s advice is, to some extent, specific to enterprise solutions where the potential customers probably has a very clear sense of what their problems are and, more importantly, the capacity to see how your technology (generally presented) could be used to solve their problems. It seems more or less inapplicable to cases where technology was designed from day one to solve a specific problem, in many cases problems that the founders had experienced first-hand. That said, even in the case where the technology was designed with a specific problem in mind, I would want the pitch to allow for some creative thinking about potential applications and would always want to stay open to pivoting.

Maria’s advice is also relevant to less formal meetings, networking events, et cetera and really boils down to a suggestion to be humble about what you can know about another person without asking and listening.