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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Rejection – Not By You, Really

Comments (7)

Rejection isn’t failure.  I’ve been back from vacation for five days (including the weekend) and I’ve send out around 100 50 (if felt like 100, but I went back and counted and it was slightly more than 50) rejection emails to deals that came into my inbox while I was on vacation.  It’s part of my job – and I try to always at least give a little context as to why something isn’t interesting to me.  But 50 in five days (really 10 days including the vacation) starts to be a little discouraging. 

I remembered a great email from a close friend recently in response to one of my previous posts on rejecting plans.  My friend is a writer and has completed several as yet unpublished books.  Following is her riff on rejection.

"Your post made me smile a little because it could so easily have been a post by a literary agent. One big parallel is that literary agents are inundated with people wanting their services (probably a lot more than you are – believe it or not!). A good agent, and there are a lot of them, receive an average of 1,000 unsolicited query letters a month. Surely, some get much more. These queries are equivalent to the pitches or emails you get. Like you, agents often won’t take on more than 6-8 new clients a year – if that. So, there are a lot of people (like me!) :-) who receive a lot of rejections. It doesn’t necessarily mean the product is "bad", but as you say… if it doesn’t fit with the agent is working on, interested in, thinks the industry/market can carry at this particular time, it’s a "ding" a.k.a. "rejection." I’ve received hundreds of rejections that are postcards or sometimes, literally, a thin two inch strip of paper that has clearly been copied until it’s almost unreadable saying something like: "Thank you for your submission. Due to the number of submissions, we cannot reply specifically to everyone, but your writing is not right for us. The publishing industry is a very subjective one, and you should not take this to mean that it might not be right for someone else. Best of luck." -"blah blah agent name here" Sometimes, not too infrequently, if an agent allows electronic submissions, their website indicates: "we’ll only reply if we’re interested." That always seemed a little rude to me, that they couldn’t even find the time to send a form email. But, it is what it is… sometimes you’ve just gotta let these things go.

You’ve known me through this entire writing/publishing quest/process, and I have grown through it. After years and years of these rejections and hearing agents say that "it’s not personal," I actually "get" it. (This only happened a couple of years ago.) It really isn’t personal. Just as I am looking for an agent and publisher, these folks are truly looking, searching, and hoping for the next successful writer. They *want* to find something they love. They *want* to make that call to tell a writer that they’ve sold their book at auction… Unless I am incorrect, you are looking for "the next big thing" within your world, too. Something that will be successful for everyone, on many levels.

I know you asked "entrepreneurs" how they’ve felt, being passed on, I thought I’d chime in anyway, since I am quite familiar with this type of rejection, I believe. I think the perception varies depending on where the person is in life. Are they confident? Do they understand that it is, in fact, NOT personal? It took me years and years and years to understand that it’s not personal. :-) I tried to understand before, but didn’t. I’d cry sometimes, for sure, and feel sad and gloomy under the sheer weight of these rejections. Then, I started not allowing the "weight" of these rejections to be so big. Remember that I am still unagented and unpublished and still trying to get successfully over those hurdles. But, my reaction to these rejections now is "oh well. I’ll just keep going."

I have also learned to listen when I get feedback…or when someone likes my writing, but doesn’t think they can sell a particular book….they are telling me something. Sometimes I get explicit invitations to "please send us a query of anything else you write" and sometimes it is more subtle, but I am reminded that there are things for me to learn from these "rejections." I’m sure the same is true – sometimes at least – from people you decide not to go with.

Maybe you like the people, think they’re great, but if they had a different idea, you’d love to work with them. There are always possibilities to create something new."

  • Zeroth

    Hey Brad, this is for your friend, but some of the best writers of our era were rejected by agents, many many times. Stephen King himself, master of the macabre, Titan of the Top Ten list, received well over 2000 rejections before he was published. It really is not them, and I understand that for any sort of service that people provide, wether it be publishing, or being a VC.

    Brad, I know you run something similar to Y-Combinator. How do you feel your incubator performs as compared to businesses that start up without the incubator?

    ——————————————————————————————————–
    Visit my blog at http://oddco.ca/zerothsblog

    • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

      Re: Incubator vs. no-incubator – totally different things aimed at different entrepreneurs. Any assessment that I’d make about TechStars is superfluous as these are such early stage companies that it’ll take a few years to really ascertain how they are doing. Given that, I still don’t think there is a clear comparison between the incubator / non-incubator cases since there is such a wide range of different type / characteristics of startups.

      • Zeroth

        True, I suppose. Sorry I misunderstood the purpose of TechStars. :)

  • MJ

    From the entrepreneur perspective – taking rejection is fairly easy. My anger only raises when the rejector fabricates an obviously weak/superficial/irrelevant excuse. Just say no. I have to keep telling myself in those situations that they obviously are uncomfortable handing out rejection. But if that's the case, why are in this business in the first place? I'd say just as many money people are as bad at giving rejection as there are entrepreneurs who are bad at taking it.

  • http://ben.casnocha.com Ben Casnocha

    I think the pitch / accept-reject process is quite a bit different in the literary world than in the VC world. If an agent chooses to represent a book, he might spend a bit of time polishing the proposal, then pitching it, then closing the deal. After it's sold, there might be little on-going contact with the author.

    For a VC considering an investment, he is deciding whether to make a long-term investment of time and money into a business and entrepreneur. He'll be attending board meetings for a few years. Etc etc. In this sense a VC rejection is indeed more “personal” because the VC is trying to figure out whether there is personal rapport in the deal. After all, many VCs say “We back people not ideas.”

    The agent/author relationship is more transactional and therefore, as your friend says, not very personal rejection.

    • http://mathoda.com Ranjit Mathoda

      Interesting. On the other hand, a book can be an extremely personal representation of the author as a person (particularly for a work of fiction) so to have it rejected can feel like a personal humiliation. Although most entrepreneurs are heavily invested personally in their companies, a company is also a representation of a team, so having it rejected may not feel quite as personal.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/zeroth8105 zeroth8105

    Hey Brad, this is for your friend, but some of the best writers of our era were rejected by agents, many many times. Stephen King himself, master of the macabre, Titan of the Top Ten list, received well over 2000 rejections before he was published. It really is not them, and I understand that for any sort of service that people provide, wether it be publishing, or being a VC.

    Brad, I know you run something similar to Y-Combinator. How do you feel your incubator performs as compared to businesses that start up without the incubator?

    ——————————————————————————————————–
    Visit my blog at http://oddco.ca/zerothsblog

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    Re: Incubator vs. no-incubator – totally different things aimed at different entrepreneurs. Any assessment that I’d make about TechStars is superfluous as these are such early stage companies that it’ll take a few years to really ascertain how they are doing. Given that, I still don’t think there is a clear comparison between the incubator / non-incubator cases since there is such a wide range of different type / characteristics of startups.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/zeroth8105 zeroth8105

    True, I suppose. Sorry I misunderstood the purpose of TechStars. :)

  • MJ

    From the entrepreneur perspective – taking rejection is fairly easy. My anger only raises when the rejector fabricates an obviously weak/superficial/irrelevant excuse. Just say no. I have to keep telling myself in those situations that they obviously are uncomfortable handing out rejection. But if that's the case, why are in this business in the first place? I'd say just as many money people are as bad at giving rejection as there are entrepreneurs who are bad at taking it.

  • Ben Casnocha

    I think the pitch / accept-reject process is quite a bit different in the literary world than in the VC world. If an agent chooses to represent a book, he might spend a bit of time polishing the proposal, then pitching it, then closing the deal. After it's sold, there might be little on-going contact with the author.

    For a VC considering an investment, he is deciding whether to make a long-term investment of time and money into a business and entrepreneur. He'll be attending board meetings for a few years. Etc etc. In this sense a VC rejection is indeed more "personal" because the VC is trying to figure out whether there is personal rapport in the deal. After all, many VCs say "We back people not ideas."

    The agent/author relationship is more transactional and therefore, as your friend says, not very personal rejection.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/mathoda mathoda

    Interesting. On the other hand, a book can be an extremely personal representation of the author as a person (particularly for a work of fiction) so to have it rejected can feel like a personal humiliation. Although most entrepreneurs are heavily invested personally in their companies, a company is also a representation of a team, so having it rejected may not feel quite as personal.

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