Don’t Deny: The Golden Rule of Improvisation and Founders

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How (and why) founders should make like an improv comic and learn to say yes a whole lot more. By Melinda Byerley (Founder & CEO, Vendorsi)

In comedy improvisation “Don’t Deny” means you must accept any offer by your partner. For example, watch this bit from “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and notice all the times the cast members say yes: to helping each other as props, to the premise of the questions themselves.

Founding a company also requires saying yes to just about everything: to giving up a stable job, a regular schedule and predictable hours. To worry as well as hope. To doing without buying new clothes, eating a lot of peanut butter and jelly, and working from the public library. To bringing a co-founder on board and sharing the future. To either making a lot of money or ending up broke.

So of course I’d never deny any offer given to me for my company, right?

Wrong.

I was invited to sit on a panel for startup founders at various stages of the startup lifecycle. Here’s what ran through my head as I considered the offer. Does any of this sound familiar?

"We’re not live yet. These other guys(!) are for real. I mean, one founder sold his company to FACEBOOK! There's a VC from a top firm! Who am I compared to these people?"

"I'm a lot older than the group. They are all guys, and I’m not an engineer. Will anyone care what I have to say?"

"What if I embarrass myself or my company in an unrecoverable way?"

"Am I being too self promoting? Too pushy?"

"Surely you can find someone better than me!"

Founding startups, like engineering, is the science of failure. Elon Musk is a great inspiration to me. Knowing little about designing cars or a space travel company, he said yes: to great financial risk and possible failure. To humiliation and jeers…and maybe, just maybe, a chance to change the world. That’s what we all do as founders.

Fortunately I recognized my insecurity, and I finally said yes.

In that spirit, I offer some ways you can say yes, whether you’re founding a company or not:

  • The next time someone in your group, or even your spouse, offers what you think is a really wacky idea, stop and think. What if you said yes?
  • Go to parties and events with people you don’t know, especially if you want to start a company some day. Make yourself meet at least three new people each day. Focus especially on where your company’s targets are: employees, customers, investors, the press. A great resource for learning to build authentic interactions is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
  • Interact with people you respect and admire on Twitter, LinkedIn, and in the comment section of their blogs. It goes without saying you bring your best behavior to these situations, but don’t be afraid to disagree and ask questions.
  • Accept all invitations to promote your company, and on occasion, yourself. Yes, you have to build a business, and it’s not a good use of time to do this constantly, but most people are not in huge demand as speakers. As CEO it is your job to be the public face of a company. Your CMO cannot do it for you. Your CTO reaches a limited audience. So you must do it.  Lack confidence in your skills? Get a coach and get better at it.
  • Apply to speak at conferences. Your staff can help you find the right venues and ideas; but ultimately you have to follow through on those opportunities. You can get help making the content TED-worthy.
  • Write publicly for your company blog, for sites like this one, for LinkedIn, anywhere that will let you speak.

We’ve all heard about lopsided gender ratios at conferences. One reason some organizers give is that they find women reluctant to speak when asked, perhaps for some of the reasons I just shared.

That’s where you and I come in. We all need to make sure we silence our inner critics and say yes to offers, because as founders, it’s our job to promote our companies to anyone and everyone who will listen. If you want to learn more about how to self advocate or about why women are reluctant to say yes, I recommend reading Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide.

Have you ever denied an opportunity to speak publicly? If so, why? As an event or conference organizer, how do you convince women to speak at your events?

How do you say YES in your life?

Thank you to Diane Bisgeier, Anne Cramer, and Ashley Binter for reading drafts of this post. Photo credit: Steve Garfield via Flickr headshotuncroppedAbout the guest blogger: Melinda Byerley (@MJB_SF) is the founder and CEO of Vendorsi, an early stage company bringing transparency to SaaS buying for business. Melinda has has held leadership roles at two startups, as well as eBay, PayPal, Check Point Software, and Linden Lab. She has an MBA from Cornell University and a BFA in Drama.