Rejection Is in Your Future: 5 Ways to Handle It

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Every startup faces a chorus of “no’s” in the early days. It’s that stage when a company is little more than an unproven idea, a few slides in a PowerPoint presentation, and unbounded optimism.

Inevitably, would-be investors, potential employees, and prospective customers will all take swipes at your baby.

Somehow, you have to shrug it off. The key is to learn from and get past that culture that will tell you to your face or in subtler ways: You are doomed.

Here are five ways to keep moving forward when all you get is rejection:

1. Anchor your idea with those you serve

Identify your core customer. Be clear on whom the product is for, and how it adds value to their lives. Use that core customer to help you design your product, to reality-check it, and make it better.

The danger of not grounding your idea in those you serve is that that it very easily becomes a garage-born fantasy that never leaves the garage.

Anchoring your product or service in the real world, with real value for a core customer, makes it harder for your faith to be shaken when those retailers in initial sales calls turn you down. Maybe they aren’t part of your core market, and you need to rethink your retail distribution, which gets to…

2. Find your beachhead

You need to find a place you can initially dig in, and from which you can expand. For example, instead of going mass retailer, go to a specialty store.

Skate and surf brands are brilliant at this–GoPro is a great example–selling certain SKUs at core shops and, once that catches on, carefully bringing the brand to a wider market (while always making sure not to piss off the core).

At Plum Organics our beachhead sales accounts were Babies “R” Us, and Whole Foods. They were where our core customers lived.

Once you have proven success in those beachheads, then you can start expanding and going more mass. At Plum we picked Target to help validate our product nationally and drive scale. From that success we rolled it out to all retailers.

You need proof at every stage before going to the next.

3. Lose the self-doubt and stick to your guns

You will wake up in the middle of the night with a good dose of self-doubt, and the rejection is only going to reinforce that.

But you can also turn those moments of rejection into opportunities to learn something. How can I tune my pitch, strengthen my product–or find the courage to double-down on an idea–based on the criticism I just heard?

When I first showed a retailer the spouted pouch, which Plum pioneered and now has a clear lead with close to 40 percent of the baby food market, he told me the pouch would never work, and to go back to the drawing board.

We didn’t.

It’s hard, but you have to find ways to come back stronger for the next time out.

4. Appear bigger than you are

In the early days of Plum we’d go to trade shows. Each time we made a return appearance, our booth got bigger and better. You could literally see our momentum in the size of our booth.

Yes, we were growing, but we could have stuck with the same booth. We didn’t because we wanted to punch above our weight–to appear bigger than we were.

Everyone wants to back a winner, and once people see that you are getting some traction–however that shows up–they become more comfortable doing business with you. Especially the ones who rejected you earlier.

The growth has to be real, but you also need to draw attention to your success.

5. There is strength in numbers

Find other companies that share your values and core customer, and create value-added partnerships to promote each other.

It could be retail partners, or other brands. At Plum we partnered with Boon and Munchkin, two baby accessory companies, along with Method, Seventh Generation and Yes to Carrots.

You see the power of these alliances in the airline industry — the Star Alliance that Lufthansa, Air Canada, United Airlines, Thai Airways and Scandinavian Airlines started is now 28 members strong.

Cereal Partners Worldwide brought together Nestle and General Mills to, yes you guessed it, sell breakfast cereal worldwide.

There is strength in numbers. You become part of a movement that is bigger than any one company, and more powerful than any “no” that may come your way.