Updated: Feb 25
Recently I find myself more and more irritated by some of the questions people ask me about my business, and I fully acknowledge this is because most people that don't have businesses, and have never embarked on starting one, don't know the unwritten rules of engagement and the language one should use when talking to an entrepreneur or a start-up business owner.
Just like in any other area where there is a certain language and etiquette that is politically correct, and things that are not ok to say, there are certain things you just don't say to entrepreneurs, especially if you are not one!
And just like you should be especially careful when you are on the outside and speaking to someone from a group, race, sex, gender or culture to which you don't belong, you must also acknowledge you are not in that world and, in an entrepreneurs world, their business is a sensitive area, and you must handle it with care or you risk making them feel uncomfortable, awkward, patronised or disrespected.
A lot of times, I have been told I am too sensitive, I am taking it personally or I am edgy about my business and plans, but would you say that to someone who called you out for staring at their boobs a little too long or saying someone is fat because they must eat too much?
I believe its important that we are all constantly learning and being educated about how to communicate with people that are different from us or have sensitivity about certain issues. And so, to help, I thought I would set out, from my perspective, what not to say to an entrepreneur, so that, when you are talking to a friend or loved one that is on this path, you know how best to speak about a subject that can become loaded with the unspoken assumption on the part of the entrepreneur that you, like everyone else, don't understand them or support them.
And please don't stop talking to us because you have read this post and it's made you scared! I have written this to help not hinder, so you can have a constructive conversation that makes someone feel supported (because we do need that!), and also so you don't feel awkward when having a conversation with that little entrepreneurial firecracker!
Firstly, don't ask an entrepreneur 'Have you made any money yet?' or 'When are you going to make money'
The question is extremely rude and I am not sure why people ask us this when they would never ask someone who is a salaried employee how much money they make. Why do people think this is ok? It is dismissive, glib and arrogant.
Unless we run a publicly listed company then, sorry, you don't have a right to this information unless you are our accountant! Also, not only is it intrusive, its also assuming we are doing this to make money or our venture is only valuable if it makes money.
There are lots of businesses that don't make and don't intend to make money in the way you can understand it - maybe they never will and maybe they will in the future, but not now, and maybe their business model is not a revenue generating model because they intend on pitching for investment and building technology.
These are just a few, out of hundreds of possible reasons, as to why focusing on how much money we are making is missing the point. Some entrepreneurs are doing this to make money and that is their only goal. But I would say, for the vast majority, that is not their motivation, so by focusing on money you are devaluing our creations
Asking 'Is it going well?' is also another one that is triggering because what does 'going well' mean? We don't know! I mean maybe it is ... a lot of times its not! It changes all the time. And also we can't tell the future. And and and .... you see the issue?
I never know what to say to this question! It's uncomfortable. It's kind of like the question 'How are you?' We will only ever say fine. ok. not bad. What else do you expect us to say?
A much better question to ask is 'Do you feel you are making progress?' or 'Have you had anything exciting happen recently?' We will be pleased to share this with you and will love you for making us feel so encouraged and supported. And it may also get the honest answer if we haven't made progress and may then open up a discussion as to why we are stalled or frustrated.
Secondly, don't ask an entrepreneur to tell you their business model or revenue generation model ... or how they make money or how they get customers.
Again this is encroaching on private information that we may not want to share. This is difficult for employed friends to understand because you are probably just being inquisitive about something that seems interesting or exotic in some way, but, to us, this is our business plan and that is usually something not shared with anyone except investors, our advisors, partners ... and really not many other people.
It may also be that we have an idea and we don't want to scupper a launch or announcement, it may be that we are afraid of our idea being leaked or stolen by a competitor, it may be that we don't know what the plan is because we are evolving the model as we go (which happens a lot because we are constantly testing and measuring and trying stuff out), it may be that we don't have a business model you can understand because its something novel and unique, it may be that we will eventually monetise it but not yet (remember Zuckerberg in Facebook when he says its cool precisely because it doesn't advertise and he doesn't even know what it is yet - I refer you to that scene!)
We are not being shady or secretive, and it doesn't imply we don't trust you, we just don't really like to discuss these things because they are sensitive, we don't want to invite commentary or your opinion (sorry harsh I know!), and sometimes we don't know yet.
In a similar vein, don't ask a creative entrepreneur what their next book is about or the theme of their next fashion collection. Again, we like the element of surprise and we will not tell you that information. We like to create in secret and tell you when its done. Ad also we don't want to second guess ourselves by asking everyone for their input because it puts us off when, as entrepreneurs, we like to take action, not have panel discussions. Sometimes we have a general idea and are still working out the details and we don't like to interfere with that cooking process as it grows in our mind.
Finally, (because this is getting a bit long), don't ask what an entrepreneurs 10 year plan is or what their life plan is in general - we do have a plan but we know it is going to sound nuts to you. We have big lofty goals but we feel stupid talking about them because we are well aware you think we sound deluded. And we don't want to sound like that. And yet although we have these lofty goals we also can't predict even 3 months ahead, let alone 10 years! Also in terms of our life goals, it all rests on the success of this business - but we know we can't tell you that!
To round off here are a few more things not to say ... and some things you can!
Don't say 'I knew someone that failed three times and it worked out the 4th time'. We know you are trying to be supportive but we don't want to hear the word failure. Trust me, its all we think about.
Don't say 'How much have you sunk into this.' We don't see it that way and we don't see it as wasted money and its rude. In general, avoid directly talking about money or finances.
Don't tell us what you think we should do. Your advice was unsolicited and we will find it patronising and annoying. How do you know we aren't doing that? How do you know it will work - are you suddenly Richard Branson??
Don't tell us we work too hard and need more balance - we know that. We are doing the best we can and for us, even though you don't get it, this is fun.
Don't tell us we are arrogant or remote. We are not. We just are sick of talking to people who don't get us or what we are going through right now and why would we want more of that?
Don't tell us we should be focusing on other areas of life, like our love life or having children, because we don't agree with you. This is what's important to us right now or don't you think we would be doing those things?
And now for the Dos!
Do tell us you support us and are rooting for us.
Do understand we are under pressure and don't need any more negativity or people to cause us any self-doubt.
Don't make us feel guilty for not being more available and try to make it easier for us to fit into plans.
Do try and understand this is our passion.
Do try and be sensitive about money and don't assume we are not making any.... or that we are making lots! Or we are looking for a handout or a wealthy sugar daddy or mummy!
Do understand that you don't know our road map and so you can't really judge on whether we are going in the right direction.
Do give us the benefit of the doubt that, if we completely didn't know what we were doing, we wouldn't be doing it ... and believe in our skill and ability.
Do be patient as we are always learning, testing and seeing what works - it may look to you like we are all over the place with our business, but thats just how it goes until we figure out what will make it work.
And, finally, do care enough to share this with someone who needs a little help in connecting with the entrepreneur in their life!
What do you think? Is this helpful? Are you an entrepreneur and does this resonate?
If you are interested in getting additional insight and support, I offer coaching and consultation services at the link below.