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With Scott Orn

A Startup Podcast by Kruze Consulting

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Scott Orn

Scott Orn, CFA

Suneel Gupta - Entrepreneur, activist, and author of BACKABLE. The opposite of success isn’t failure. It’s boredom

Posted on: 05/18/2021

Suneel Gupta

Suneel Gupta


Suneel Gupta of BACKABLE - Podcast Summary

Suneel Gupta, Entrepreneur, activist, and author of BACKABLE stops by Founders & Friends to chat about his book and how the opposite of success isn’t failure. It’s boredom.

Suneel Gupta of BACKABLE - Podcast Transcript

Scott: Hey, it’s Scott Orn at Kruze Consulting and welcome to another episode of Founders & Friends. And before we start the podcast, let’s give a quick shout out to Rippling. Rippling is the new cool payroll tool that we see a lot of startups using. Rippling is great for your traditional HR and payroll, they integrate very nicely. But guess what? They did another thing, they integrate into your IT infrastructure. They make it really easy for when you hire someone to spin up all the web services in their computer. Which sounds kind of like not a huge deal, but actually we did the study at Kruze, we spent $420 on average, just getting a new employee’s computer up and running and their web servers up and running. It’s actually a really big deal, it saves a lot of money and the dogs are eating the dogwood. We see a lot of startups coming in to Kruze now using Rippling so please check out Rippling great service, we love it. I think we have a podcast with Parker Conrad, you can hear it from his own words. But we’re seeing them take market share so shout to Rippling. And now to another awesome podcast at Kruze Consulting’s Founders & Friends. Thanks.
Singer: So, when your troubles are mounting in tax or accounting, you go to Kruze, Founders & Friends. It’s Kruze Consulting Founders & Friends with your host Scotty Orn.
Scott: Welcome to Founders & Friends Podcast with Scott Orn at Kruze Consulting. And today my very special guest is Suneel Gupta author of Backable. Welcome, Suneel.
Suneel: Hey, it’s good to be here.
Scott: You are here along with Matt Ziser VP of operations at Kruze Consulting. Welcome, Matt.
Matt: Hey, guys.
Scott: And Matt and Suneel are old friends and we were both reading Backable and wanted to have you on the podcast to talk about it. Suneel, do you mind just kind of retracing your career a little bit and then talking about how you had the idea for Backable?
Suneel: Yeah, sure. Well, probably about a year before I met Matt or a couple of years maybe, I was starting out my career really as a writer. I was working for the Democratic National Committee at that time. So, 2004 was the convention in Boston, Democratic National Convention and I’m backstage and I’m basically helping people get ready for their speeches. And there are all the usual suspects back there, it’s John Kerry at the time, it’s the Gores, it’s the Clintons. But there was one face that nobody seemed to recognize and it was a state Senator from Illinois. He goes up and gives his speech and completely just mystifies everyone in the audience and then everybody watching and millions and millions of people. And I think one of many, many young people that night that sort of became obsessed with Barack Obama, wanted to understand his story and a lot of his stories featured in this book. But I also decided that I wanted to go to Chicago and really just be a part of what ended up being his presidential campaign. So, knocking on doors, but also spending time at headquarters helping out with all sorts of things, including what was happening on the technology side. And along the way, I got a chance to meet some folks in Silicon Valley. One of which was Reed Hoffman, very interested in politics himself and started to share ideas with him. And eventually, he was at the time chairman of Mozilla, he’d started LinkedIn but he was also chairman at Mozilla and he asked me if I’d be interested in coming on board over there. Because they had this sort of activist mentality at Mozilla, it was basically activist who code and I loved it. And I went out there and I spent time with the team and I felt like this was really home for me. And really kind of what just happened from there was it just kind of laid this groundwork for kind of a strange career that my family still doesn’t quite understand. That’s kind of this mix of politics and tech and startups and writing now and it’s kind of all brought me full circle to that night I was backstage in 2004. Along the way, I would say that one thing that happened across every sort of situation that I was in is I noticed something that I think we all sort of kind of get, which is that creativity and persuasion are two different things. You can have a brilliant idea, you could be a great candidate for a job and you can still be dismissed, it happens all of the time. I was just speaking to an audience before this conversation and we were talking about penicillin and how in the 1920s, Dr. Alexander Fleming invented penicillin and he was like, my gosh, I have this cure that could save hundreds of thousands of lives immediately and he was dismissed. It took 10 years for people to come around on the idea that penicillin was a lifesaving medication. To date, it has saved 200 million lives and it almost never came to exist and so it happens all the time. And it got me interested in this idea of backable people and backable people are people who are able to get inside a room and they’re able to really just rally us, they’re able to convince us to take a chance on them. And I wanted to understand like, what is this mysterious it quality that helps people perform so well in an interview, in an audition, in a sales pitch that you get investors. And so I started to spend time with backable people across all different walks of life, from Oscar winning filmmakers, to celebrity chefs, to founders of iconic companies and what I began to realize is that this it quality very much can be learned, because if you rewind the clock back to when these people got their start they weren’t born backable, they weren’t naturally backable, they learned how to do it along the way. And so, what this book is about, is about the seven most surprising qualities that I observed that seemed to be common amongst all backable people.
Scott: That’s really incredible. And there’s a lot in there but you’re right, I actually feel it with you just interviewing you now, you have a certain charisma, a certain clarity of communication and it’s like, I want to be involved, I want to work with you, I want to do something with you. And that is a really powerful feeling because you’re right, especially in the startup world, like that penicillin example you have, like VC funding and investing in a startup to help the founder kind of pursue their dream and change the world, it’s not equal. And I always tell startup, like a lot of the clients we work with, sometimes it depends how good of a sales person you are or how good you are at convincing someone that they should get behind you. So, it’s really cool that you wrote this book. One of the things I really enjoyed about the book was this concept of emotional runway and letting your ego go and maybe you can kind of talk about. Because it’s a very humbling experience, whether you’re running for president and asking people to vote for you or asking people to use Mozilla, which is like the open source version of a browser, or asking VCs to invest in you. How do you think about that emotional runway and letting go?
Suneel: Yeah. The concept was first introduced to me when I was leaving Groupon. I had been at Groupon for a little over three years at that point, I was there from 2009 when it was pre-Series A and I left in 2012 when we’d gone public as a company and over 10,000 employees, it was a really wild ride. But I knew at that time that I really wanted to go start my own thing. And what I decided to do was I think what a lot of people who have been to business school, what will do is they’ll kind of make a spreadsheet of their ideas. I just had this spreadsheet of ideas and I had these columns to the spreadsheet and column B was market size, bigger the better, column C was competition, smaller the better, right? Just classic sort of business school analysis. And I went and shared this spreadsheet with a mentor of mine, and she looks at the ideas on the spreadsheet and she looks at me and she says, “Let me ask you a question, which of these ideas really makes you come alive?” And I look back at the spreadsheet and I realize that none of them really made me come alive. My past several years had been spent in the e-commerce world and so most of the ideas were sort of e-commerce related. And at an intellectual level, I felt like, hey, these were ideas that could fit the market, we could do something here, but was I really passionate about it? No, I really wasn’t. And she told me a story in that moment that I’ll never forget which is about Martin Luther King. And a lot of people don’t realize this, I didn’t, that MLK was very young when he decided that he was going to step into this leadership role, the civil rights movement. He was like in his late 20s or early 30s. And he went to go see a mentor of his, a guy named Howard Thurman and he was asking him, should I do this? Is this something I should go do? And one of the things that MLK said to Howard Thurman is I think the world really obviously needs this movement. And Howard Thurman said to him, “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.” And so, I had to take this step back and say, what actually makes me come alive? And that’s what really took me into healthcare, right? Healthcare made me come alive, I remembered how my father struggled with his health. And it all comes to this idea of emotional runway, right? We talk a lot about financial runway, right? And companies running out of financial runway, do I have enough money in the bank to make my idea work? But there’s another type of runway that we don’t talk about enough, which is emotional runway. Do you have enough gas in the tank to get through the rejections, to get through the inevitable failures and setbacks that you’re going to go through whenever you’re trying to bring something new into the world, and that can only happen if your idea truly makes you come alive.
Scott: Yeah. It’s actually some of the best advice, I think. I agree with you so much because I know at Kruze, Vanessa started Kruze nine years ago and I joined six years ago. And even when we’re pretty successful but it’s still really hard and there’s still curve balls out of nowhere that you can never anticipate or real lows and that fulfillment, or I always kind think of the concept of filling up your gas tank. For us or for me, when we do something to help a founder get funded or help them get bought, or just solve simple problems or stressful problems like IRS stuff or financial models, whatever it is, it fills up my gas tank and then I can drive a little bit farther, and even if I had a couple of potholes, I’m okay. It’s like that mentor who gave you that advice, was really great advice because otherwise you run out of gas and you don’t make it to the finish line. I mean, did you ever check back in with that mentor and be like, oh gosh, thank you so much and it’s okay and obviously writing now is a big part of that for you.
Suneel: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s an interesting point you bring up because when I’m talking to audiences now, one of the things I ask people is like, who took a chance on you in your career? Right? Who mentored you? Who really was a difference maker? And then I ask exactly what you just asked, which is, have you gone back to them and let them know? And it’s really, really surprising. It’s almost always that maybe 20 to 30% will say yes, the vast majority are like, no, I haven’t actually, and this is a good reminder, let me take a note to do that. And it’s kind of just makes me realize, Matt and I we went to the same grad school, we had some professors there that probably made a huge difference in our lives, I know I did. There’s quite a few of them that I still haven’t gone back to and said like, hey, I just want to let you know you a big difference, right? And the chances are, you have probably made a big difference in other people’s lives and they haven’t had an opportunity to come back to you which just shows us that the impact that we have sometimes, there’s a lot of times it’s invisible.
Scott: Yeah. Well, with Backable, the book, you’re going to have that. And I hope people who read this or hear this interview, shoot you emails and kind of fill up your gas tank a little bit more too. Because it’s a really cool book and there’s a lot of really good stories in here. Matt and I will kind of trade off here a little bit but Matt had an item in the book that he was really excited about talking to you.
Matt: Yeah. Well, there’s a couple of things. But before I get to that, I want to go back to this concept of emotional runway because there’s also an anecdote you share in the book, I think when you’re on the way to Apple and you find out that Tim Cook is going to be in your meeting and you didn’t know that he was going to be there and you kind of start to have a mini panic attack. And I loved your exercise which is basically this concept of what’s the worst that can happen kind of thing. And it’s funny because I remember years ago I was going through some kind of career decision or something, I was talking to my mom actually, and she kind of walked me through a similar thing. She was like, what’s the worst can happen, you could be homeless and have to move back home, which for her was probably would have been awesome. But I was like, okay so yeah, you’re right. So, I just want to call that particular point out because I think it’s almost like just facing your fear and just putting it all down on paper, all right, what’s the worst that can happen? And then you can kind of look at it and sort of visualize it and then move on from there.
Suneel: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s a shift in the way that I think about fear and doubt, because the way that I used to deal with any type of negative emotion is I would tend to sort of argue against it, right? So, I’ll have a thought that will say, hey, this thing is not going to work and then I’ll argue against it and I’ll say, actually it is going to work, and would kind of just ping pong back and forth and that’s typically just how I handled any type of doubt that would arise in my mind. Well, somebody gave me a piece of advice as I was writing this book which was, instead of trying to push fear out, actually pull it in and just examine it a little bit more closely because when you can do that then you can actually see how absurd some of these thoughts really are, some of these things that are causing you physically to feel anxious. And so, I got to put it into practice and the way that it happened was at that time I had started a company called Rise, it was a one-on-one nutrition coaching company. And we were doing some pretty early stuff when it came to tele-health, especially on a mobile phone. And so, Apple got pretty interested in what we were building and I get an email one day saying, hey, would you like to come to headquarters in Cupertino and share some ideas with the team. And I said, yeah, and gosh, I’d be really excited to go do that. And I’m thinking to myself, maybe there can be a great partnership out of this so I really prepped for the meeting. As I’m on my way to Cupertino, I’m driving down 280, I get an email and I’m checking my phone and it says, Tim Cook maybe in this meeting, just so you know, just FYI.
Matt: That’s awesome.
Suneel: And Tim Cook is really into healthcare and Apple is trying to figure out its health strategy at this point in time. And I get one of those thoughts in my head, which is, you’re going to blow this meeting. And it starts as a whisper and by the time I’m in Apple’s headquarter parking lot, it had turned into this shriek, right? Like you’re going to mess everything up. And so, I do not know what to do because the meetings can start in like 10 minutes and I’ve got to get myself into the right mindset. And so, I decided, hey, let me try this technique of instead of trying to push it out, let me try to pull it in. And I pull out a piece of paper and I write down at the top of piece of paper, you’re going to blow this meeting. And then I followed this technique that the friend had taught me and I asked myself, all right, if that’s true, then what happens? And I write it down. I write, well, then Apple is not going to want to partner with you. And I, write, okay, if that’s true, then what happens? I write, well, you missed out on a huge opportunity and maybe your startup goes under and I write, okay, if that’s true, then what happens? And it’s like, well then, no VC is ever going to want to invest in you again. And I continue down the list, if that’s true, then what happens? And I kept writing it down till finally, I’m like, well, you’re going to die alone and your family is going to leave you. And you would think that an exercise like this would make you far more anxious, but I have now done this over and over again, I’ve coached people who’ve done this over and over again and what it does is it just makes you realize the absurdity that it’s actually driving the anxiety sometimes. It’s not to say that it’s completely all good, it was a big meeting, I needed to do well in that meeting. But I didn’t want to walk into that room feeling like if I lost or if that didn’t go well, I was going to lose my family and yet that’s the type of anxiety that we sometimes hide in these moments. And if you can unpack that, what it allows you to do is walk in with, I think, the right mindset, with a fresh pair of eyes as to truly what’s at stake here.
Scott: I totally agree. That happens to me sometimes, it’s just, I’ll wake up at three in the morning and I find that the writing it down or just really thinking through it helps me cycle through it and actually just process it, almost like a computer iterating back and forth between programs and never gets anything done, by actually focusing on it and actually writing it down, it really helps me just get through it. So that’s a really good tip. And for all the entrepreneurs who are listening to this, you are going to have like 50 of these moments a year that you’re just going to need to get good at processing and using your technique. Hey, it’s Scott Orn at Kruze Consulting. And before we get back to the podcast, quick shout out to ChartHop, ChartHop is one of my favorite new SAS tools on the market. And basically, what ChartHop does is it puts your org chart in the cloud. And I always like to say, it brings transparency to your organization. And so, everyone in your organization can see who they report to, they can see the full org chart of the company and how their group relates to other groups. It also has a lot of information on the individuals in the company and so you can click on the ChartHop profile and just get where people live, their experience, Slack handles, all those kinds of stuff and it’s just a really great tool. The other thing is, ChartHop has started doing some cool stuff around compensation and budgeting planning. And so, you can actually start seeing what the cost structure of the company looks like during certain kind of scenarios. So, I’m loving ChartHop, check it out at charthop.com. We use it at Kruze, we really like it and I can’t recommend it enough. All right. Back to the podcast. Matt, what was one of your other favorite moments?
Matt: Yeah. So the emphasis on when an entrepreneur is creating their story, this emphasis on telling the story versus just sharing data, I think is really important because I think a lot of people, depending on what background you might be coming from, just think, okay, I’m going to put together some really great big total addressable market slides and some really great numbers and the story is just going to kind of tell itself. And so, I really love that emphasis that, no, make sure the numbers are good but really focus on an emotional connection with your audience to get them to walk out of that meeting and remember something versus some up into the right chart that you share. But one thing that I wanted to kind of just talk about is, recently, right? WeWork is the most classic example of one of these stories that maybe went over indexed on the emotion, right? This guy was obviously very charismatic and able to really get people behind him but when you kind of look under the hood maybe there was some things that didn’t justify the evaluations and everything that he ended up getting. So just curious how you balance this need to tell the story and connect emotionally but also be rooted in reality, it’s like that fine line between aspiration and reality.
Suneel: Yeah. Because we need both, it’s a story that brings us in, its substance that keeps us there. And the first time that I sort of realized this was when I was actually pitching Tim Ferriss on my startup. And at that point in time, I’d gone like zero for over 12, I was getting no luck with investors. And as it turns out, Tim Ferriss passed as well but I was really interested in trying to get his help because he had just written The 4-Hour Body and I was doing this nutrition focused company and he was investing in tech companies. And the way that my pitch sort of was laid out for Tim is that I had spent probably the first 80 to 90% really talking mainly about the market and talking about sort of the substance of the idea and talking about the rising rates of diabetes and hypertension and obesity. And at the very end of my pitch, I told a story and it was about my father who in his early 40s had a triple bypass surgery. It was an emergency, they’ve rushed in the hospital, he’s in the OR before we know it. I remember visiting the hospital the next day and it felt like he had aged 20 years overnight. And when we left the hospital, what I remember is that they gave us a couple of pieces of paper and on those couple of pieces of paper were things like eat broccoli, eat Brussels sprouts. We were an Indian family, we didn’t eat broccoli, we didn’t eat Brussels sprouts, there was nothing on that piece of paper about chicken tikka masala. And so lucky for us insurance helped pay for the cost of a nutritionist to really kind of help us customize our lifestyle into something that would actually stick. And I believe that’s the reason that my dad is alive today is because we got the help of that person. And so, I’m telling this story to Tim, and he listened, and he’s like, why the hell did you save that story for the very end, almost as a footnote of your presentation, you should tell that story upfront and then talk about the market and talk about the number, talk about the millions of people out there who are going through their own version of your father’s story. And so, I did, and part of the hesitation by the way of doing that was like, well, we’re talking about an Indian guy here. Like, if I’m talking to a white male investor are they going to get that? Is that something that they’re going to resonate with? And as it turns out, I think this idea of what we call in the book, casting a central character for your idea becomes even more important when the person across the table doesn’t really know the use case very well, because you’re really walking them through the storyboard of what this person is really going through, right? And then of course, you’re talking about the numbers, you’re talking about, again, the millions of people out there that are going through the same exact problem, it’s both. The story brings you in and the substance keeps you there.
Scott: Yeah. That’s such a good algebra. I mean, people love stories, they remember stories, they connect with the stories, that is really, really well done. And then we don’t have a ton of time but there was something and Matt loved this too, but the idea of incorporating participation in your product or service that you’re doing, and you have this great anecdote about cake mix, and maybe you can just share that one but I think it’s really powerful. I know at Kruze we kind of try to indoctrinate new clients into doing things the right way and we’ll be there but we need you to meet us halfway, instead of just promising we’re going to solve every problem with them without them having to participate. I think participation actually goes a really long way when you’re providing a service or selling something. You want to talk about that a little bit?
Suneel: Yeah. But I’m curious Scott, can you tell me more about that? Why is it that you want them to meet you halfway?
Scott: Because I think it gets them to buy-in. First of all, it’s very difficult for us to do their taxes correctly or their financials correctly, but getting them to participate a little bit, gets them to take ownership of the process and with their buy-in we can actually do a better job and they can do a better job. And the final part of that is, they actually tend to appreciate us a little bit more if they can kind of see behind the curtain. One might think like, oh, this is all just numbers or dumping a spreadsheet into something else, but it’s actually not, there’s a lot of human judgment involved. And so, by them owning part of the process, we’re on the same team together and they actually tend to have a much better outcome with us.
Suneel: I love that. Yeah. The story which is highly relevant to what everything you just said is that in the 1940s, Betty Crocker introduced instant cake mix to the market. And they were so excited about this product because it was so simple, all you had to do was pour water into a mix, pop it in the oven and you get this really tasty treat. So, they are stunned when they find out that sales just are abysmal, no one is really buying this instant cake mix and they can’t figure out why. And so, they hire this psychologist, a guy named Ernest Dichter to go out into the field and start talking to homes around the United States. And what Dichter comes back with is really fascinating, he says, “I think that you have made the process of making a cake too easy, too simple. You have basically removed the customer from the creative process so much so that when the cake comes out of the oven they actually don’t feel like it’s really theirs, they actually don’t feel any ownership over it.” So Dichter’s recommendation is, why don’t you remove one key ingredient, and just see what happens. And so, they do, they remove the egg. So now as a customer, you have to crack and mix in your own fresh egg and sales just take off because now when the cake comes out of the oven people feel like they had ownership of it as well. And this is something that’s kind of just been unpacked over and over again, there was a group of Harvard economists that called this the IKEA effect, which basically tells us that we place up to five times the amount of value on something that we help build than something that we simply buy, which gets directly into what you just said about doing it together. Because look, we’ve been told that creativity innovation is kind of a two-step formula, you come up with a great idea and you execute on it really well. But there is this hidden step in between, and this is where you get your early employees, you get customers, you get partners involved in the process, you allow them to crack their own egg into the mix. In the book we call these flipping outsiders into insiders, so that when you show up to execution phase, you show up together and everybody feels ownership over the cake that comes out of the oven. I really think that you can trace every successful organization, every successful product, every successful political movement, back to that hidden step.
Scott: I totally believe that. Before we turned on the recording, Matt was talking about how Facebook applied that. Matt you want to share that really fast?
Matt: Yeah, well, it’s the classic poke functionality. Early on in Facebook days to get people engaged, it was sort of a useless functionality but they’ll credit it as something that really, really lit a fire under their users and got engagement. And then they’ve since abandoned it because I think it probably got out of control at some point but to me it’s a classic tech related example and I’m sure there’s others out there where you add something sort of human to the product to kind of… Again, that even it goes back to that emotional connection too. It’s like you add this human element, it creates an emotional connection, it gives them participation, it just brings everybody closer in to what you’re trying to do.
Scott: It’s really amazing. Well, Suneel, I’ve talked to you all day but we’ve got to be respectful of your time. Maybe you can just tell everyone how they can find Backable, where they can buy it and just kind of talk about the book a little bit.
Suneel: Sure, yeah. The website is backable.com. So, if you go there, there’s all different ways to buy the book, there’s some free content there as well and we can connect there too. Yeah. If I could leave you with one thing, it’s really this little routine I play with my daughters every morning. I have two daughters, eight-year-old and a four-year-old and I ask them every morning, what is the meaning of life? And they say to find your gift. And then I ask, well, what is the purpose of life? And they say to give it away. And it’s based on this quote from Picasso, meaning of life is to find your gift, the purpose of life is to give it away. And Backable really at its core is all about how do we give our gift away? And what I realized is that there are three words, I think, that tend to hold us back from doing that. And I’m not ready, I’m not ready to step into that leadership role, I’m not ready to run with that new idea, I’m not ready to speak my mind. And what I can tell you now after spending over five years writing this book, studying hundreds of extraordinary people, I think the one common denominator is that none of them were really ready. Three friends from design school were not ready to start Airbnb, a mid-level talent manager wasn’t ready to start SoulCycle, a 15-year-old from Stockholm, Sweden, wasn’t ready to build an environmental movement but today Greta Thunberg is Time magazine’s youngest person of the year. And there were setbacks and there were failures along the way but they all tended to play what I call the game of now. And in the game of now, the opposite of success is not failure, it’s boredom. So, let’s do the things that make us come alive and let’s find good people to join us along the way because if you’re listening to this and you haven’t been told, let me be the first person to tell you, you are ready.
Scott: That’s really beautiful. And just the concept of giving your gift away to the world, I think is really beautiful. And I have a little one at home too and so I’ll start talking to her about that too, that’s a really great thought. So, I highly recommended Backable, I think I bought the Kindle version on Amazon so it’s definitely on Amazon but also check out backable.com. Suneel, thank you so much for coming by, I really appreciate your time and thanks for all the wisdom and the enthusiasm really appreciate it.
Suneel: This has been great guys. Thanks so much for having me. Thank you.
Singer: So, when your troubles are mounting in tax or accounting you go to Kruze, Founders & Friends. It’s Kruze Consulting Founders & Friends with your host Scotty Orn.

Kruze Cares More - We take our clients’ success - and happiness - seriously. Kruze has worked with hundreds of early-stage companies, many of which have gone on to raise tens to hundreds of millions in venture financing - and a number of which have been successfully acquired by major public companies.

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