5 Reasons Founders Hate the Question “So What Do You Do?”

Posted on February 16, 2010. Filed under: startups, venture capital | Tags: , , , |

I was at dinner last night with my family, my cousin (who is a PhD biologist), and a friend who is building a very cool tech startup here in New York.  My cousin asked my friend what he did, and the response was as follows: “I have a startup in the advertising market.”  Obviously this response told my cousin absolutely nothing, and so my cousin began to “pry” a bit… “can you tell me what the model is, how does it work?” Again, said entrepreneur sort of deflected the question: “I help take an offline process in the advertising market online.”

Watching that interaction, I realized something that I have found to be true in my entrepreneurial endeavors: founders don’t like talking about their companies with what Chris Dixon would call “normals” (non-startup/tech types).  If I think about why this is, a few possibilities come to mind:

1) We assume that an audience of non-startup types (in this case a biologist, a psychologist, a real estate guy, and a fashion guy) doesn’t have the context around our market to appreciate the “coolness” of what we’re doing.

2) Because of 1, we’re faced with this choice of the elevator pitch which tends to draw a bunch of shoulder shrugs and “sounds cool(s).”  Or a half an hour explanation of the supply chain in our market and where we fit into it.  We assume nobody wants to hear about our work for 30 minutes (there are more interesting conversations to be had).

  1. The problem with this assumption, is that “normals” are actually fascinated by the idea of a startup and entrepreneurship (it’s a dream that many, many people have), so when a founder chooses not to engage in this conversation, it can come across as rude or aloof

3) Especially with early stage startups, there is no brand equity attached to our companies.  When meeting for the first time, people typically want to come across as being successful or impressive (basic human need)…this is easy to do when you have a brand like Goldman Sachs behind you…all you have to say is “I work at Goldman Sachs” and you have satisfied this human desire to be perceived as successful…Even if Philip Kaplan says “I work at Blippy,” which in our community would satisfy this need, in a room full of “normals,” this statement requires some qualification.

  1. The level of qualification required then depends on how much shared context exists between the “normals” and the founder.  Obviously a founder focused on building optical networking infrastructure is going to need more qualification than a founder building “an ebay for food,” and it is in this volume of qualification that we start to become a bit self-conscious.

4) Founders spend an inordinate amount of time every day thinking about, talking about, and really pitching our companies to investors/partners/customers/etc… Sometimes at the end of a long day, the last thing we want to do in our “socializing time” is run through another pitch.

5) Founders end up having extremely similar conversations over a period of time.  People tend to respond to startup ideas in 3-4 distinct ways…and once you talk to 500 people about what you’re doing, 80% of conversations about your company fall into one of those 3-4.  When focused so singularly on one subject, founders have an outsized appreciation for new conversations and stimulus…

What I have learned is that it is important not to assume a “normal’s” level of interest or context around your project.  If you really don’t feel like getting into it with someone new, extend an invitation to talk about it in the future: “I run a startup in the ad space…it’s a longer conversation, but if you are really interested, we can get into it later.”  Now, if someone you meet wants the 30 minute version, they’ll remind you later, and you can go from there.  My advice to founders is go the extra mile to evangelize your company to anyone who is willing to listen…it makes you better at selling your product and every person you talk to has the potential to provide unique insight into what you’re doing.

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13 Responses to “5 Reasons Founders Hate the Question “So What Do You Do?””

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This never bothered me. Actually, it gets me excited just thinking about it.

My move was to use such an opportunity to learn something about my customers. Obviously this is easier if you are Foodzie than said optical networking company (i don’t even know what that is), but every business is somehow connected to the consumer at the end of the day so why not run an improptu focus group? Your job as founder is to create a connection between your company and your customers – it would be foolish to turn down a an invitation to try, even if the person in question was just trying to be polite.

right attitude for sure…

Nice post, Jordan. I was just thinking about the exact same thing last night and wrote a lighthearted post about it.

I like your conclusion– always make the effort. Until you share your startup, you never really know if Aunt Matilda has an interesting idea for you, or if she plays bridge on Tuesdays with the mom of the CEO of a potential partner company.



your dialog in your post is funny

I’m the founder of a NY ad startup and I’m proud of it!

One other contextual element that comes into play is the significant other. They listen to us blow through ideas every day of our life and then talk about our business at every social interaction possible. I see my fiances body language pull back when I dig into the elevator pitch, again. Thanks for listening significant others!

Good post. Truth be told, I felt a little weird about that interaction in the moment and did a little self-analysis right there at the dinner table. I guess I do try to avoid talking about my business to people I meet in casual settings. It’s not a lack of passion or pride. It’s not a arrogant sense of “you wouldn’t understand.” It’s just that at the earliest stages of a company before your thesis is totally proven in the market, convincing someone can be real work. As a founder, you never want to hear a ho-hum reaction. You always want to hear – “yeah, that’s amazing. I’d buy that!” Until you get that, your natural state is to continue pushing on any objection – doesn’t matter if you’re talking to a random stranger or your most important potential customer. You just want to win. In a social setting, that can be a little annoying so I guess I’ve begun to deflect. I hear your point though – open is better.

the mystery friend revealed 🙂

I never felt this way. It forces you to explain what you do in a jargon-free way and connects you to real people.

Full discussion on YC HackerNews pasted below:

Am I the only person who hates this imagined dichotomy between “founders” and “normals?” It assumes that non-founders are somehow lesser beings. And perhaps that’s where the reluctance to talk about your business comes from: why discuss it with someone you’ve already assumed won’t care or understand?
Look, if you’re starting a business, discusss it with everyone who asks. If nothing else, it gives you practice explaining it and just maybe, that bored guy may turn out to be an expert in the field or a valuable contact. If you can’t explain it, the problem is most likely you not them. Find a way to simplify the explanation without being condescending.
Honestly, I don’t see how this is any harder than explaining what you do to a non-programmer.

2 points by tom_ilsinszki 4 hours ago | link

There might be no single word for what you do, so you have to explain, which might sound like you’re explaining yourself (and trying to convince others, that you are successful).
I think there _is_ a valid argument in this post.

1 point by mhartl 3 hours ago | link

I agree that entrepreneurs tend to be a bit self- (or at least startup-) absorbed, but I’d bet most normal people don’t mind being called “normal”.
In any case, the dichotomy is real, though the “non-normal” side is not restricted to startup founders. I’ve heard the term “real person” used as a near-synonym for “normal”; a “real person” has a job, probably has a mortgage, and is either married with children or well on the way. In other words, a “real person” is conventional. Unconventional people tend to think of “conventional” as an insult, but it’s simply not the case; by definition, most people are conventional, and most of them are perfectly happy that way.

8 points by sumeetjain 6 hours ago | link

Two things that have helped me answer this question:
1. Smile. It’s amazing how many people have a half or full frown when they answer this question. Keeping a positive expression on your face helps send the message that 1) you’re interested in your work, 2) you don’t begrudge the asker for her question. The result will be less pressure on both you and the asker, because you eliminate the assumption that an inconvenient conversation is about to happen.
2. Be direct. If you’re smiling, it comes across as charming. I might ask, “How much time have you got?” or “How much would you like to know?” Neither question is a masterstroke (and some of you might even be thinking the questions are lame), but with the right attitude, you’ll be entering a warm conversation where neither party is unprepared. I usually begin my explanation with a brief summary of my product’s most interesting user story.
One additional note: If you work at a company with a good deal of access/transparency, ask your CEO or Founder how they answer when people ask them what their company is about. They get asked this question more than anyone, and they’ll have several good options to share with you. It will help you model your own response.

9 points by jasonlbaptiste 7 hours ago | link

I hate having this conversation with family members and normal people. It’s just excruciating and everyone likes to play devil’s advocate. The best is the: “oh yeah but isn’t that like [insert well known company here]”.
They’d rather hear something like: “yeah, im a junior analyst at Goldman Sachs.” or “yeah, im in law school”. They can comprehend that stuff a lot easier.
It’s great practice, but it just gets really annoying. It’s caused me to be a very defensive person at times.

3 points by idiopathic 6 hours ago | link

I agree, the devil’s advocates irritate me the most. It’s not just the combative nature of the questioning (does no one know about the other five hats of de Bono!?), it’s the underlying assumption by the “advocate” that they are doing me a favour by bringing this new point of view to my attention.
In fact, they are saying the first superficial thing that comes into their head, which is pretty much the same thing every other person before them had said. If I am trying to close a sale, then great, I love a challenge. But when I am trying to relax, it is just tiring to have to run the gauntlet again without any benefits.

2 points by randombit 6 hours ago | link

This is why when asked I just tell people I’m a hobo. Usually shuts down any followup questions.

1 point by jasonlbaptiste 6 hours ago | link

sometimes i go with “magician”. same thing sorta.

6 points by ErrantX 7 hours ago | link

My cousin asked my friend what he did, and the response was as follows: “I have a startup in the advertising market.” Obviously this response told my cousin absolutely nothing, and so my cousin began to “pry” a bit… “can you tell me what the model is, how does it work?” Again, said entrepreneur sort of deflected the question: “I help take an offline process in the advertising market online.”
Well as the final response told the questioner nothing I’m not surprised..
I love talking about my projects – you just have to talk about it in a clear way!
There is no such thing as “founders” and “normals”. The same scenario’s would develop if the founder pressured the PHD Biologist about his research work! It’s just social dynamics.


1 point by jordancooper 7 hours ago | link

I agree with the concept of same thing happening in other direction…but at least “PhD” is a known vocation…easier for non PhD to classify him as “scientist, academic, Brown University, Smart, etc…”

2 points by ErrantX 6 hours ago | link

Well… “I run a company” then. That is an understandable concept.
Or “I am a programmer, I have my own company working in X field”
The key is in the communication.


1 point by jordancooper 6 hours ago | link

yea, i hear you…would be interesting to hear some non-founder accounts of their experience w this question…

4 points by batty 5 hours ago | link

As someone pursuing a PhD, I can tell that you that if you say “I’m doing a PhD in computer science” or “I’m doing a PhD in human geography,” you still get the follow-up question, “so what exactly are you studying?” It’s natural for people to want to engage you in conversation about your career, even if you both know that the minute nitty-gritty details are going to be far more involved than anyone would really want to hear about at a social gathering. I give my “elevator pitch” about my research, just like any founder would about his startup. If they are genuinely interested, then I talk about it, if not, I move on without getting hung up worrying about it. I also think that in this area at least, the “founder” vs. “normal” distinction is a bit unhelpful; many of the points you raise can be applied to most occupations.


1 point by jordancooper 5 hours ago | link

thanks for this…maybe you’re right re: founder v normal…maybe its more just distance btwn your and the other party’s worlds

5 points by rue 6 hours ago | link

Hm, this is an interesting peek into your world view for me.
To me, it does not make sense to describe yourself as a “founder”, “startup builder” or even “entrepeneur.” That is not what you do. You are a founder of something, and that is what I am interested in if I ask that question.
I have no idea whether people actually say something like that, but I can certainly understand someone asking for more information if the answer to “what do you do?” is “I am a founder” or “I work at a startup” instead of “I work for Goldman Sachs.” I would!
So, anyway, perhaps part of why you seem to get into the types of conversations described is the way you initially respond.


1 point by jordancooper 6 hours ago | link

totally agree…it’s just there aren’t any crystal clear one line answers…

3 points by mseebach 6 hours ago | link

we’re faced with this choice of the elevator pitch which tends to draw a bunch of shoulder shrugs and “sounds cool(s).” Or a half an hour explanation of the supply chain in our market and where we fit into it.
BS. If you can make an elevator pitch for investors, you can make one for friends and family. If you can’t explain to mortals what you do in 30 seconds, I’d say that’s a bit of a red flag.
“I run/work for a small company. We’re developing software that helps people in business XX do YY smarter. It’s a really exciting project, next month we’re going to unveil a new feature we think is going to change the way people in business XX think about their work.”
.. there is no brand equity attached to our companies. (…) all you have to say is “I work at Goldman Sachs” and you have satisfied this human desire to be perceived as successful …
I’ve met someone who works at Goldman Sachs. I know that to be a sign of successfulness, but I have no idea what he does there. He told me, and I still don’t know. If his goal is to be an interesting conversation partner, he’d need as much of a pitch as the guy working for “Blippy”.
Sometimes at the end of a long day, the last thing we want to do in our “socializing time” is run through another pitch.
Bleh. Socializing is about who you are. If you spend 10 hours a day working on a start-up, that work is part of who you are. Otherwise, you’re just a guy with a 10-hours black hole in his day.


1 point by jordancooper 5 hours ago | link

i like the sentiment of all your comments…i just tried to articulate challenges, not at all justifying them…

2 points by wheels 5 hours ago | link

I think the point of said question has been missed. Very rarely do people actually care about the answer being given; it’s just so that you provide enough context for (a) small-talk and (b) so that you can be pigeon-holed.
In non-business settings (i.e. not including startup mixers and the like) I give as simple an answer as possible: “internet stuff”, usually. If people care, they’ll ask.
The worst is when someone starts into a 10 minute monolog, oblivious to the fact that the other person is looking for an excuse to walk away.

1 point by jazzychad 2 hours ago | link

Watching that interaction, I realized something that I have found to be true in my entrepreneurial endeavors: founders don’t like talking about their companies with … “normals.”
If that is the case for you, then you know what? Too bad for you! You should take advantage of every opportunity where somebody shows an interest in learning about what you are doing, if only at the introductory level. I have learned this lesson over the last 9 months after venturing out on my own.
When friends or family would ask what I was doing, initially I would get annoyed because I didn’t think they would understand or care, so I would try to side-step the question and move on. This backfires because later on when you are ready to launch or announce something, they have no idea what it is and they are less inclined to be excited about it.
Then, when asked the question, I started to give long-winded speeches trying to explain everything. This turns out to be overkill for most people and they glaze over. After quickly realizing this, I started giving a paired-down version (I even did some verbal A/B testing to see which explanations got the most reaction/understanding).
After being asked this question by dozens of people and having lots of experience explaining it, when it finally came time to give my pitches in front of “people that actually matter” I was very comfortable and adept at it. Practice makes perfect.
Also, as pointed out by HeyLaugingBoy, you never know who the other people know (“oh, my uncle works in the blah blah industry. you should talk!”). The other big lesson I have learned: it really is a small world.

2 points by psycandrew 6 hours ago | link

I get what Jordan is trying to say. It’s similar to when someone asks a band “what’s your music like.” The description is often far from adequate. I’ve found that it works really well if you give them a “demo” or say “ever see XYZ? It’s similar to that.” People just need to find a connection to something they are already familiar with. You can solidify your presence within their mind that way.

2 points by platshaw 6 hours ago | link

Nice post, so true. I’m going to leave a comment over on your blog too. I was just thinking about this last night and wrote a post about it:
I think maybe the “normals”, who don’t read Hacker News every day and aren’t immersed in startup culture, just aren’t used to visualizing products. It’s not second nature for them to consider the usefulness of a product to a market they are not personally a part of.
That said– I agree with your conclusion… you never know when someone can share an insight or help, so don’t hold back!

2 points by F_J_H 6 hours ago | link

Interesting. Although not the point of the article, it led me to think that if the “normals” don’t understand your business, maybe that should tell you something…


1 point by jordancooper 6 hours ago | link

i think that depends on whether you’re building a consumer application or an enterprise application…

2 points by charlesju 6 hours ago | link

I can understand this sentiment.
But I actually love to talk about what I do. The problem is that most “normals” just ask about the tip of the iceberg without really having a genuine interest. That always offends me because of how passionate I am about what I do.
I am usually teased into excitement to talk about something I love only to have the conversation changed.

1 point by pavel_lishin 6 hours ago | link

As someone who isn’t likely to be an enterpreneur, I only want to know about the tip of the iceberg at first because I don’t know if the rest of the iceberg is interesting or not.
If you’re designing a series of games for the iPhone, that’s kind of cool, and I can relate to that. If your startup is writing accounting software to analyze discrepancies in employee lunch spending when away from the office, my eyes might start glazing over after 45 seconds.

1 point by junklight 4 hours ago | link

The main reason I hate this question when I’m away from work and work related contexts is that my company is all I talk about and think about for 99% of my time. And sometimes its really nice to have a small break from it. Also I know that once I start enthusing about it peoples eyes will be glazing over.
I certainly hate the idea of “normals” too – and I can easily explain what we do and am more than happy to if you are really interested. Just be sure you are because you might get quite a detailed and passionate answer.

1 point by brlewis 6 hours ago | link

This excludes founders interested in learning what aspects of their startup pique the interest of normal people. Even if the other person changes the subject, you’ve learned something.

0 points by Super_Jambo 6 hours ago | link

TLDR: When asked your options are a 30 min conversation describing it to the ‘normal’ (yawn) or shrugging it off (looks aloof). Answer: Do both! shrug it off and extend an offer to talk about it later.
Comment: Thats a really useful article, I was expecting basically a bitch fest for the problems he describes. But it’s actually quite sensitive to both the asker and asked AND solves the problem.
A+++ would buy from again!


-3 points by jordancooper 7 hours ago | link

right…i think this is super common…very strange dynamic…

spot on jordan! honestly, i think it is precisely this question that has, in part, led to the increased use of “stealth mode”. it’s so much easier (and frankly kinda cooler sounding) to simply say “sorry can’t tell you.. were in stealth mode” =)

Spreading the word is the best part!

[…] 5 Reasons Founders Hate the Question “So What Do You Do?” I was at dinner last night with my family, my cousin (who is a PhD biologist), and a friend who is building a very cool […] […]

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    I’m a NYC based investor and entrepreneur. I've started a few companies and a venture capital firm. You can email me at Jordan.Cooper@gmail.com (p.s. i don’t use spell check…deal with it)


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