Although I found the experience both puzzling and frustrating, I now understand the importance of storytelling in brand building. One can adopt different strategies to cope with questions that are uncomfortable or that make one feel vulnerable. The problem is to know if the person in front of you is a customer or someone who thinks you are a competitor who needs to be roughed up. Every so often I would experience a promising discussion turn intrusive mid-conversation. It left me with an annoying feeling that only increased my apprehension in searching for business contacts. At first, I couldn’t understand it. I was looking for partnerships but was treated as a competitor.
People have different motives for asking the questions they do. It can be out of politeness, or to make a quick balance sheet of the business in front of them, or just to show off. Especially former colleagues viewed the situation as an A/B test, where I was the person who had done the career move they never dared to make. Everyone in the startup world knows that success isn’t a straight line. While a failure for me was a painful experience, a failure for them only proved their case.
The best way to handle general questions is to give unspecific answers. Founders should strike a balance when questions touch sensitive areas, especially who their customers are, in order to satisfy curiosity without giving away too much about the business. In situations like that, it’s better to be deliberate vague than naming names, unless a few of them happens to be flagship customers. Many startups brag about high profile customers they haven’t got, believing it will help them strike the next deal. Deceiving customers like that may work for a while, but sooner or later liars will be found out.
The aim is always to steer the conversation in the direction where you want it to be. As a founder, you want them to be interested in the product, not where your offices are located. People are fundamentally interested in why someone is doing the things they are doing. Motivation and vision matters. And a founder should use stories to explain all that.