"Thank you for your time today, we'll be in touch shortly with the next steps," I said to the founder, smiled and clicked "End the call". Once the camera was off, I took a deep breath, stretched and closed the laptop. It was my last meeting for the day on a late Friday afternoon, so closing the laptop also symbolically felt like closing out a tough but satisfying week. You know the feeling when you've sat on your butt in front of the laptop all day, in and out of virtual meetings doing little more than listening and talking, yet feel completely exhausted? Yeah, that was me this past Friday. Exhausted, but happy. I have met so many aspiring founders up until now, and I started wondering exactly how many, and why do some of them stand out so clearly next to others?
I checked my calendar and counted each interview I have done for Antler’s Singapore and Vietnam programs to date. I had my first founder interview at the beginning of July and counted to 90 completed interviews as of this past Friday, the 1st of October. That’s 90 founder interviews in 85 calendar days.
Interviewing that amount of people in such a short period of time has enabled me to identify certain patterns of things that the top candidates usually say or do. Here are 5 things I think the top 5% of founders always nail:
1. They always get the basics right
Being a few minutes early, sitting in a quiet space, having the camera turned on, already completed a check of the mic and speakers feels like a very easy set of basics to get right, especially as the global pandemic has brought so many conversations online. However, many people are still fumbling with these things. It’s never a great start to any conversation to have to wait a few minutes because the person who is used to Zoom can’t figure out how to get their headphones to work in Google Meet, or the other way around. This is not only a source of slight annoyance, but also kills the important initial small talk (see point 2).
If you can’t see someone, it’s not only harder to connect to them, but it also makes it harder to trust them. This is why you never see a TED talk in which the speaker is hiding behind a podium. TED speakers are always standing in the middle of a brightly lit stage with nothing but a clicker in their hand. The same principle goes for video calls. Have the camera turned on and sit facing it with the main light source from the front if possible. I’ve done so many interviews where the candidate f.ex. has placed the camera on the side, making me feel like I am having a conversation with their ear.
It’s already hard enough to create a connection with someone on a video call compared to an in-person meeting. The best candidates make sure they don’t let fundamental, easy-to-fix things hamper the experience.
2. They own the initial small talk
There is always some initial chit-chat and familiarization in any meeting or call, and just as the first 30 days are important to your customer’s onboarding experience, the first 30 seconds on a call is crucial to set the tone. We as humans make decisions quickly and research shows that 25% of recruiters make their decision within the first 5 minutes of speaking to a candidate.
Therefore, always try to proactively own the first few minutes of small talk by finding common ground (the pandemic is an easy one, but ensure you don’t use it to complain as it’ll set a negative tone), go first with sharing something personal (this gets people relaxed) and have a question or two prepared for the other party to show interest in them.
3. They call out the obvious
Kids wreaking havoc in the next room, dogs barking in the background, roosters cockadoodledoodling outside the window — I’ve heard them all when interviewing founders. It can be very disturbing and intrusive to a conversation and pretending to ignore it will only make it worse. Instead, just call it out.
By simply saying “sorry, I am home alone with my 5-year old and that’s her throwing Lego’s” or “if you hear some barking it’s just my dog when he sees the neighbor’s cat, I apologize” you do not only defuse the situation, but you will also generate empathy from the interviewer and whatever noise happens after that is usually never an issue.
4. They are clear and concise
The ability to express an idea, a business, product or service in a clear and concise way is much rarer than you think, and this is probably the most important skill of the five. Striking the right balance between short and simple enough to be comprehensible by anyone, and having enough detail and clarity to be relevant and memorable — is an art.
One of the most important and useful tips I’ve learned when communicating is the rule of threes. Always present your statements or answers in three (imaginary) bullets. Why? Three is the smallest sequence of elements your mind can recognize as a pattern. Structuring your thoughts into clusters of three clear points will make you sound coherent and competent.
The second thing great presenters do is to put the listener inside the story. Anyone listening to a story or a pitch has to be able to visualize it for themselves for it to be memorable. The honest truth is that nobody cares about your story, they care about themselves within your story. If they can’t visualize themselves within whatever you are presenting, they will not be able to fully identify with it, or remember it. Thus, if you are pitching a start-up idea to someone, you should always clearly identify the problem and make it very relatable to the audience. If you present it in a way that others can relate to easily, and see themselves using the solution you are suggesting, you’ll be the one they remember.
Lastly, your presentation will hopefully have many impressive stats and figures, perhaps related to total addressable market size, revenue run-rates or year-on-year user growth. The truly great founders make these metrics stand out and really stick with their audience using a simple trick. Consider the sentence “We had a 120% revenue growth rate year on year”. That’s an impressive result. What’s the most important part of that sentence? The “120%” part. By simply rearranging the words to “We had a year-on-year revenue growth rate of 120%” you emphasize the important part at the end, making it truly memorable. When you are presenting new information to anyone you have to give them time for that information to sink in. Natural pauses are great, but it's even more powerful to change the sentence structure and throw in a pause before that key figure. This will clearly indicate to the listener "that sounded really important, I should take a note of it" and that's when you'll see people start clicking their pens and opening their notebooks.
5. They make the most of the opportunity
I usually leave the last few minutes in any interview for candidates to ask me anything. You have my undivided attention for a few more minutes, use it. Any question will receive an honest and upfront answer. Those who ask “What do you honestly think of my idea?” or “What do you think of my profile compared to others?” are just two of the questions that I’ve received that have led to detailed and constructive feedback sessions. The first few minutes are very important, but so is closing the call on a strong note. Show that you are alert, interested, focused and hungry by making the most of the opportunity to get final insights.
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