Marc Albanese is the co-founder of Smart Vision Labs. This post is part of the Lessons Learned series featuring NYU entrepreneurs’ first-hand accounts of challenges faced in starting a business and the lessons learned along the way.


A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to the World Founder Forum hosted by FOUNDER.org in Paris. As part of the event, the incoming Founder class of 2015 (Smart Vision Labs is a member of the class of 2014) peppered our class with questions about our experiences as being entrepreneurs.

One question in particular really resonated with me — how do you deal with being told “no”? This conversation reminded me of  a key lesson I learned during my first two weeks at Summer Launchpad: hearing no, especially when holding early customer interviews, can be a good thing.

But first, getting to no can be tricky

One of the core tenants of the Lean Startup methodology is to get out of the building and test your hypothesis. This starts with interviewing prospective customers.

However, the questions asked could easily bias and taint the views of your interviewee. For instance, how would somebody respond to “Hi! I invented this really cool app that organizes 1980s music by the clothes the artists are wearing. What do you think?!? Isn’t it awesome? Don’t you just love the 80s!*”

If he or she responded “yes,” was it because they didn’t want to hurt your feelings? Or, if they answered “no” to this pointed question, did it help you understand your customer? Not really.

A better approach might start with asking “Tell me about your process for listening to music. What do you like most about how your music is organized? What do you like least? What are your views on fashion and music?”

With this line of questioning, you can gain insights that help you better understand the pain points of your customer. Then, once the core behavioral questions are answered, show the app and gauge response.

Why I like “no” (…sometimes)

Every meeting with a prospective customer, channel partner, or investor, is an opportunity to learn more about how the world views your idea, team, and business model. There is data in every interaction, and while affirmation feels good, sometimes a “no” followed by a careful explanation can provide the most useful learning for a team (though, be warned that not all data is actionable or useful).

At one end of the spectrum, a steady series of negative reactions from customer interviews can help steer a team away from targeting the wrong demographic or from even wasting capital and time on building a product nobody wants.

But in other less drastic cases, “no” can help you identify and address potential issues that can turn into strengths.

For instance, when Smart Visions Labs started discussing our technology with optometrists, several brought up accommodation as a potential roadblock for using autorefractors (a process in which the optical power of the eye changes as the subject changes focus which can play havoc with prescriptions).

This feedback lead us to the leading figure in accommodation. He indicated that our design, when used in a particular way with the smartphone, can nearly eliminate accommodation which is a huge advantage over the standard desktop autorefractors used by optometrists today. Now when we speak with optometrists, we raise the issue of accommodation.

What about hearing “no” from investors?

This one can be more difficult. But again, every meeting can have value.

There are two rules that will help lessen the blow of a “no” from investors: 1) don’t pitch to your target investor first, and 2) ask for feedback if the investor passes.

Perhaps your story wasn’t clean. Or, your go-to market wasn’t well defined. Or your team was not complete enough. Next time around, take the feedback into consideration and consider adjusting accordingly if you agree.

Are you pushing hard enough?

But, what if all your early interviews go well – and the prospective customers can’t stop shaking their head up and down. Is it possible that you are not pushing hard enough with your assumptions? Perhaps there is value to finding the upwards bounds of your target customer’s pain points.

This is fun

Sure, “no” is no fun, and ultimately the goal is to get to “yes.” But, the process of identifying what works and what doesn’t can be very rewarding and will lead to the best outcome. So get out there. Get to “no”… and then get to “yes.”