A number of years back, I was running a 3D animation studio. One of our projects was a feature film. This thing was the cheesey Count Dracula of projects that wouldn’t die. We’d try and sell it, try and sell it, push push push push, get somewhere and then see it come crumbling down. It was absurd how many times that happened. And just when we thought it was dead and buried, it would leap back into life and threaten to bite us in our collective delicates…
I was a fundraising green-bean back then, but I learned a valuable lesson from the Hollywood folks we were dealing with.
I could understand why we weren’t getting a yes. We were asking for a fair sum of money for something that hadn’t been seen before. But I could not, for the life of me, understand why we never got a straight no. Until I had my revelation…
In Hollywood, the only sin bigger than greenlighting a turkey is passing on the next big thing.
So most Hollywood types strive to keep you in maybe-land. The idea seems to be that if they stand back and watch for long enough, you will reach a point where it is obvious whether your film is a winner or a loser. And at that point, assuming it is a winner, they all come rushing in ready to help.
And maybe-land is a foggy place filled with ghosts and visions. It is almost impossible to tell what’s real and what’s not.
For example, we always got a warm reception and everyone seemed to like the team and the concept. But for the first few months, everyone we met with didn’t seem to think we could make something that would look good on film. Fine. We spent the money and did a film test. It was gorgeous. The MaybeBabies agreed. But what about the characters — could they really be believable? Fine, six months spent on character tests. But is that realistic in production? Fine, 300+ page Microsoft Project Gannt chart showing how it would run (that freaked them out). But what about the script? Fine, we’ll hire some allegedly A-list writers*. What about the producer? Fine, we’ll hire a veteran. What about the <insert random roadblock here>? Fine, we’ll <insert zealous attempt to please here>.
The point is that none of it was real. Sure, there were broad concerns that needed some answers, but they weren’t the real roadblock between us and a yes decision. They were just ways of keeping us in the game until the mystery of our fate would reveal itself…
I see a lot of similarity between my Hollywood experiences and early stage fundraising. The more I talk to local early-stage CEOs the more I hear the same theme repeated again and again.
I was meeting with someone today who has an interesting business. They meet a real need and have a working product. What’s more, they have paying customers and have done a TON of leg work to make sure the product is compliant with both the letter of the law and their customer’s expectations.
The initial feedback they got from funding targets was "Come back when you have customers". Then it was "come back when you have a corporate customer." Followed by "Come back when you have a corporate customer that’s a better example of your broader model"…
The point is that most of us startup CEOs have pretty thick skins. We may not like a "No", but we can take it without going postal and hunting you down like a rabid dog. What is likely to push us over the edge however is a plethora of roadblocks that have nothing to do with the big picture of what we do.
Just say no, folks, it’s okay. We can handle the truth.
BTW, this is a good, although not recommended, method to get a firm "no".
* As an interesting side note, these alleged A-list writers were boneheads. The script they turned in was awful. It was so awful, and they were so highly recommended, I started to wonder if I really knew nothing about good scripts at all. We had an in-house meeting to discuss their draft. Several folks were making polite "it was a a good first pass" kind of noises when my then partner in crime stood up and delivered my all time favorite serious meeting quote: "I could have eaten a bowl of Alphabettis and sh*t a better script".