What 15 Surgeries Taught Me About the Importance of Self-Advocating for Your Startup
There’s a surprising lesson I learned from having a lot of surgery that helped with fundraising for a startup–find out the lesson to help your business.
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I, like many other people, have had surgery. Unlike many people I have had surgery 15 times. People always ask me what they were for, and I jokingly say "everything."
Surprisingly, there is a huge overlap in what I learned from persevering through all those surgeries and fundraising with venture capitalists: be a self-advocate.
Through my surgeries, I have learned how different anesthesia and pain medications affect me, and know which ones cause complications, which ones do not work for me and what my tolerance for pain is. Opiates like Percoset and Morphine do not cut my pain, but do make me really nauseous, and anti-nausea medicine (called antiemetics) actually makes me nauseous. I know, it sounds backward, but I have had more than enough experience to know.
Going into number 14, the anesthesiologist came to meet with me, and saw the comment on my chart. He laughed, and said, "That's not true." I assured him it was despite it being strange, and he said, "Well, I use good stuff, and I know what I'm doing. You have to have the pain meds, and I can take care of the nausea easily with other drugs. You'll be fine."
This is where self-advocating became crucial because what he was insisting was going to make my recovery a lot worse. He was also clearly offended by the notion that I might have an opinion about his expertise, and felt like I was challenging his knowledge.
That made for a very tricky situation because my life is about to be in this doctor's hands, so how I deal with it really matters. Before I share how I did it, let me share how it relates to my venture capitalists experience.
This reminded me immediately of times I've been working with venture capitalists on possible investments. With a few of them, they had very strong views on how our product needed to completely pivot to address something they were interested in. It is not that they were wrong per se, but they were looking at a different market and different issue and trying to shoe horn our product into their interest.
Our product was an industrial safety Internet-of-Things (IoT) device tied to a hard hat meant to save workers lives in dangerous jobs like working in mines or oil rigs. The VC was interested in the high school football helmet space because he had just read a big expose on concussions in teenagers, and wanted us to change our solution to solve for that issue.
While both ideas are of helmets that increase safety, the applications are wildly different with different competitors and market dynamics involved. He did not realize that there were already solutions about to come to market in the sports space, so pivoting our company would mean we miss the market completely and run out of cash in the process.
Challenging the venture capitalists may not have been life or death for me like with surgery, but it could have been life or death for our company because funding was crucial. I had to be able to redirect him from his viewpoint without alienating or offending him.
With both the anesthesiologist and the venture capitalist, I followed these steps:
1. Keep a calm and respectful tone.
My tone stayed calm and there was a clear respect in my delivery. Avoid being defensive, argumentative or coming of like a know-it-all.
2. Acknowledge their knowledge.
I acknowledged the truth in what they were saying without adding any 'buts'. I told the doctor I know he has successfully helped countless people through surgery, and told the investor he was absolutely right that this was a major issue.
3. Be a succinct expert.
I stated my position clearly, simply, and non-adversarially (that is, I did not try to correct them to prove them wrong). I shared with the doctor that this was my 14th operation, so I have really gotten to know what works for me with the help of my past physicians. I told the investor about the great work the football helmet makers were doing that would very soon come to market and solve the need.
4. Offer an alternative that allows their views to remain valid.
I offered a path forward based on my view while allowing for a pivot if specific things occurred. I asked the doctor to try it my way with him being able to make a call to change if he had any early warnings that we needed to shift. For the venture capitalist, I shared how our technology could be licensed by the helmet makers to enhance their offering even further so we can play in that market, too.
Regardless of what they're an expert in or how badly you think you need them, you can push back and still move ahead.