by Niki Agrawal

Communication is key: growth lessons learned through two startups + a job hunt

It’s been a crazy two years. I founded two startups and went through a job search. And wow, do I have some stories to tell! And more importantly, some lessons to share that I picked up along the way.

Listen 80%, talk 20%

Startup #1: Doornox

Six months into the startup journey, I was struggling to find clients. My large, personally-made Excel system that tracked all the potential customers I had cold-emailed and called was crashing my computer nearly every time I opened it.

I dialed a potential customer for the third time as a follow-up to our earlier, somewhat-hopeful conversation. As usual, when I pitched Doornox and asked if they’d be interested, I got the response that they would “think about it.” Doornox would solve some of their recruitment problems, but would still not help them fully hire new candidates.

At this point, I would typically launch into a deeply well-thought-out plan of exactly how Doornox would indeed solve all their issues. But perhaps because I was tired and disheartened or perhaps because I was people-watching through the window of the Starbucks I was sitting at, I simply didn’t respond.

Awkward silence for three seconds. And then something interesting happened.

The potential customer went on to talk about EXACTLY what she needed. She launched into her own pre-formulated monologue about every recruitment problem she faced. She even told me, specifically, what she would pay if we offered the solutions.

In 15 mins, I learned more about recruitment than I had all week. Though we didn’t offer the one thing she wanted most, we were a small nimble startup. I decided on the spot that we did offer that service, and told her the great news of “our recent pivot.” She excitedly said she would loop her other team member in and asked about next steps.

Doornox was one step closer to finding product market fit, and the secret to pivoting well was listening. With every future call, I mostly shut up. And counterintuitively, more sales happened! When I finally did talk after listening to customers for the majority of the call, I was able to customize the Doornox pitch to customers’ exact needs. In a moment they understood the value add and gave a quick yes or no (yes, you still get a lot of “no”s).

Founders are often aware that they should be listening to their customers in user interviews, but I found that listening is just as important on sales calls. Sales calls are like a big game of Minesweeper. You need to map out exactly what all the selling points are for each unique client. If you just click around and name all the features of your product, you will most definitely run into a bomb that explodes the whole game. But if you listen to the clues and build the relationship upon the information you slowly acquire, you’ll finally map out all the sweet spots and win the game.

It’s amazing what people will say and how much you’ll learn if you stay quiet just three seconds longer. Silence is uncomfortable. Embrace that discomfort. Make it your secret weapon.

“Luck favors the prepared.” — Louis Pasteur (& Edna from The Incredibles)

Startup #2: Proof Inc

The “listen 80%, talk 20%” strategy helped with many strategic pivots that brought Doornox closer and closer to product market fit. But the hard truth was that startups take a really, really long time (something many wise entrepreneurs had told me long before I started the startup journey). Doornox was going to take three times longer than we expected to become profitable. It was time to abandon the idea for my side hustle that was already impactful and generating revenue.

Proof Inc helps high school students navigate the college admissions process. What started out as my one-on-one tutoring side-gig turned into a trove of knowledge from years of experience. Clients (and their referrals!) wanted more and more access to this knowledge.

The one thing that made client relationships most successful was the detailed preparation I would conduct before every meeting. With my quick excel tracking system, I documented when every call took place and what exactly was discussed. Whether it was the student’s concerns about their personal statement or the parents’ comment that the family would be vacationing in Mexico for two weeks, I wrote down the information.

And before every meeting, I would spend a few mins skimming the notes from the past few meetings. My call might start with, “Hey, how was Mexico?” Later I’d ask, “So where are we with that concern about your personal statement?’” Small and large insights like this made the most of our time together, and clients knew they were receiving a customized service. They knew I cared.

People love being prioritized, and a few minutes of preparation generated loyalty. Over 95% of future business came through referrals, and the most frequent praise I received was that I really cared. A few minutes is all it took to create customization.

It’s not possible to remember every detail that clients tell you. But it’s possible, with a little effort, to show that you care down to the smallest detail. And if you do miss something, people are very forgiving, and things still work in your favor. Being prepared is the best way to be lucky.

The full-time job called job hunting

At the end of the day, I didn’t want to create a consulting business, and that’s more or less what Proof was turning into. I wanted to work on software that impacts thousands of people with a mission I cared about. My mentors and family suggested working at a startup.

Thus began the brutal journey of finding a Product Management job. Ironically, this was what my first start-up Doornox was trying to solve.

Here are some quick lessons from those six-plus months.

Time kills deals

A designer once told me that when she’s getting feedback from customers on new prototypes, she purposely shows them crappy, unpolished versions. These take very little time to produce and are known as “low-fidelity mocks.” When I asked why, she said that people are more likely to give honest feedback this way. People are generally too hesitant to alter mocks that look highly polished and well-thought-out.

The same low-fidelity concept is largely true in the job hunt. If a recruiter emailed me at 2pm asking a few basic questions, a response from me at 3pm would be read with lower expectations than a response 24-hours later.

Low-fidelity responses make the job search process move much faster. You start winning out over other candidates who take longer to respond. The more time you take to respond to something, the higher you’re stacking the expectations against yourself. And the higher the chances are that you’re killing that deal.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t respond well. But I’ve found that responding quickly with perhaps a small tradeoff in quality separates a candidate from the pack. You become known for your reliability in communication, and when you do need more time to respond, people let you have it.

Value time as much as quality. As they say in product management, “ship fast.”

Follow Up

Another thing that <5% of people do is follow up. Following up might take the form of a two-line thank you note after an informational interview. It might be a reminder email after a hiring manager doesn’t respond for a week. Something along the lines of “Hey, I wanted to circle back on my last note and see if you had any thoughts?” can go a long way in advancing career prospects. There were countless times when, after several follow-up reminders in a row, someone would get back to me thanking me for following up and then moving me on to the next steps.

People are human. We may concoct internal hypotheses of how recruiters are plotting against us. But they often just forget to respond. Following up in a polite, quick manner is not annoying — it actually shows that you’re organized and reliable.

Know Your Story

Communicating your journey is critical to the job search. Almost every employer starts with “tell me about yourself.” At first, I would only talk about the highlight reel of my professional journey. But I found much more success when I authentically laid out the startup struggle, the lessons learned, and how that’s shaped me into a product manager today. Good stories are personal AND professional, and they discuss both the good times AND the conflicts. Talking about my startup journey in just highlights was extremely boring for people.

Communicating your story makes a ten-fold difference in making job hunt progress. Big shout out to entrepreneur and podcast-creator Ruben Harris who helped me break into startups with story crafting!

Along the same lines, don’t stress about the precise things you should do or say when communicating your value. It’s what you make people feel that is most important. Don’t micro-manage your speech in real-time — this will free you up to communicate yourself in a way that engenders trust and a genuine awe of you in other people.

“The true spirit of conversation consists more in bringing out the cleverness of others than in showing a great deal of it yourself; he who goes away pleased with himself and his own wit is also greatly pleased with you.” -Jean de La Bruyere

No News Is Still News

Sometimes you make a promise to respond by a deadline, but for external reasons, you can’t keep that promise anymore. For example, I once told a friend who was pulling a favor referring me into her company that I would send her my resume by Thursday afternoon. Thursday afternoon rolled around, and a resume-guru whom I had asked for advice still hadn’t provided his feedback on mine. I didn’t yet feel comfortable sending the resume to my friend.

I received an awkward text from my friend later that week, asking if I still wanted a referral. Of course I did! Here was this person, who was going out of her way to help me in my job search, thinking that I didn’t care. She was following up with me! This unreliability wasn’t the impression I wanted to give. And thinking about it from her perspective, I would have done much less for a person who wasn’t reliable enough to follow-up with me.

I quickly gave her an update and realized the lesson. No news is still news. At the time of the deadline, a simple text saying that there wasn’t an update actually increased the other person’s trust in me. It hardly mattered that I was pushing back the deadline (other than the fact that time kills deals, but in that case I was gaining much more quality).

People largely understand that things take time, and they are much more forgiving about a delay that is communicated than a delay that isn’t.

Simple Emails > Complex Emails

Yep.

Communicate with yourself

The job-hunt journey can be long, and sometimes amidst all the external communication, it can be easy to forget to communicate with yourself. Journalling and guided meditation (like the app Headspace) go a long way in making communication with other people better. It enables an internal dialogue with yourself.

I highly recommend this game-changer, as it helped me center myself after every rejection and resume black hole (and there were hundreds…). Meditation is that eagle-eyed view that helps you remember that your current struggle is temporary.

Final Thoughts

Working on my communication has enabled me to make some really fantastic relationships. Their value ironically cannot be communicated because the serendipity is too random. Be it an intro, a resource, a knowledge drop, interview-practice time, career advice, or mental support along the way, I have a village of people to thank. So thank you!! You know who you are, and I could not have done it without you.

My last big piece of news is that I will be a Product Manager at the meal-kit-delivery startup, HelloFresh, and that I will have the exciting opportunity to work with a talented team at headquarters in Berlin, Germany!

If you’d like to be in touch about entrepreneurship, or talk about product, or teach me German, I’d be happy to help how I can. Please feel free to reach out. And if you just want to say hi, that’s great too.

Best way to contact me is to slide into my DMs: Twitter (@nikiagra), and Fb Messenger (@nikiagra).