Kit Founder Michael Perry wrote down the name of every investor who passed on his idea. He did it in permanent marker, on the wall. Author Stephen King, at the beginning of his own career, nailed every publisher’s rejection letter just above his writing desk. These rituals served as daily eye-level reminders to keep on keepin’ on.
For Michael, rejection was repurposed as fuel. Every time someone wouldn’t take a meeting, didn’t believe in his idea, balked at his experience, or turned down an offer to work for him, he was ever more determined. Perseverance paid off for him when Shopify acquired Kit this year.
(And Mr. King? His manuscript for the novel Carrie inspired this rejection before selling a million copies in its first year: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”)
Spend just two minutes with Michael Perry, and you know he’s a special breed. A born entrepreneur, if you will. He’s optimistic, thick-skinned, teeming with energy. I suspect it would be hard to say no to him, but many did. More than 50 investors over two years, in fact.
Even for someone as resilient as Michael, rejection hurts:
“I was just a blue collar boy trying to make it in Silicon Valley. I wasn't going to let them say, ‘You don't belong here.’ It hurt. I really wish that I could sound strong-headed and say I didn't care. But I remember pulling over on the side of the road and just screaming at the top of my lungs in frustration.”
I wasn't going to let them say, ‘You don't belong here.’
In fact, rejection hurts like a kick in the shin. Studies show that the human brain responds to social rejection in the same way it responds to physical pain. A team at the University of Michigan tracked the release of chemicals in the brain during simulated social rejection. They noted the same opioid response linked to physical pain.
The trigger is perhaps an evolutionary leftover, explains Dr. Guy Winch, in an interview with The Mental Illness Happy Hour:
“When we were hunter-gatherers, to be ostracized from the tribe was pretty much a death sentence. You could not survive alone. So we developed an early warning mechanism, which is what rejection is. People who experience rejection as more painful had the evolutionary advantage, because then they would correct their behavior, not get ostracized, and survive to pass along their genes.”
Rejection doesn’t just feel bad, though. It’s a slippery slope that can lead to anger and aggression, and can temporarily affect self-worth, IQ, and sound decision making.
Here’s the thing: rejection as an entrepreneur is unavoidable.
From the moment you have the idea for a business, you’re relying on the acceptance of others to help you make it happen: investors, customers, wholesale clients, press, social audiences, and influencers. In 2014, only 1% of startup funding came from VCs and only about 3% from crowdfunding. Inability to get bank funding accounted for 41% of failed startups that same year. You can almost hear the collective “NO”.
In this post, we’ll discuss how to make rejection work for you and your business, as well as coping strategies for entrepreneurs.
The upside to rejection
Rejection may trigger unpleasant pain sensors, but ultimately, the experience can be beneficial if you can learn to see the bright side, or turn it into a powerful motivator.
1. Reaffirm your goals: Are you still as passionate about your idea after repeated rejections from investors? Are you pushing forward with building your business, even though you’ve yet to make a sale? Your answer will help you decide, Michael says, if you should stay on track or switch gears:
“If you walk away just because you're rejected, maybe you really don't want it that bad. Either you're going to decide the outcome of your life or somebody else will. If you’re willing to let somebody else make the decision for you after two or three or four no's (which is not really a big deal) you either don't want it that bad or it's not the right thing for you.”
2. Appreciate the wins (no matter how small): In On Writing, Stephen King explains that before publishing his breakout novel, his manuscripts were the victim of rejection after rejection, while his family was toeing the poverty line. Small wins―short stories fetching a few dollars from magazines—had a big impact in comparison, and encouraged him to keep writing.
“If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.” ― Stephen King
Hardship similarly allowed Michael to see the thin silver lining that was the slow growth of Kit:
“Even though I kept getting turned down, every month, we were making progress. I was selling my car, maxing out my credit cards, taking loans from family, my wife was working two jobs, I was selling clothing, I was doing whatever it took. But my business was growing.”
Even though I kept getting turned down, every month, we were making progress.
3. Stay sharp: Complacency breeds mediocrity. Rejection reminds us that we have room to grow, engages the competitive spirit, and, when harnessed, can provide motivation to persist.
“The ‘no factor’ is a motivation factor. Every day, you constantly have to prove yourself. You’re proving yourself to yourself―always remember that. The day you wake up, and you say, ‘Man, I’m already good on piano, I’m already good on guitar, I wrote 50 songs, I don’t need to write any more,’ that’s the day you’re finished… Whenever someone told me ‘no’, it was always a motivation for yes.” – Wyclef Jean, via The #AskGaryVee Podcast
4. No fake friends: An emotional or career rock-bottom have the advantage of sifting out the people in your lives—who are the friends that really support your entrepreneurial journey, even when you’re at your lowest? “I think what's interesting,” says Michael, “is that failure and rejection are really wonderful filters.”
Failure and rejection are really wonderful filters.
How to deal
In the case of pitching your business idea to investors, showing your lookbook to a new wholesale client, or sending your press release to media, it’s possible to work through some of the effects of rejection before it happens.
First, perfect your pitch. When approaching investors or press, know your audience and do your homework. “It’s not you, it’s me.” is an easier line to swallow, when you’ve brought forward the best you.
Next, ask yourself about the likelihood of rejection in each case. What are the odds of receiving funding or landing press? Brace yourself—balance confidence in your business with a realistic understanding of the potential outcomes.
So you’ve been rejected. Now what?
1. No pain, no gain: Reframe the rejection. One of Michael’s response emails stated that “Messenger apps are dead”. “I knew they were wrong,” he says, “Now, I want to print and frame that and put it up in the office.” Visual reminders of the pain of rejection can serve as motivators.
“By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” ― Stephen King, via On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
2. Learn from it: Why were you rejected? A “no” answer is an invitation back to the drawing board. Was it your pitch? Are you marketing your products to the wrong audience? Read every rejection letter, every negative customer email or review, and find the constructive criticism within them.
“In the very early days, I'd try to recalibrate because I wanted so badly for them to buy in to me. That was a huge mistake. At the end of the day, you have to believe in me. Do you think I can win the race? Yes or no? This is what you get. Instead of trying to hide it, now I embrace it. I say, ‘You're right: I didn't go to some Ivy League school and I didn't come from wealthy parents, but you know what? I have a very good work ethic. I have a lot of dedication.’ I think that people try so badly to fit the mould that they lose their own identity. I learned that you have to be authentic.” – Michael Perry
At the end of the day, you have to believe in me. Do you think I can win the race? Yes or no? This is what you get.
3. Invest in self-care: Because rejection can trigger more serious emotional responses, self-care is incredibly important. As we've suggested with loneliness and procrastination, exercise can have benefits beyond the physical and mindfulness meditation can help improve communication with yourself.
Try daily affirmations, says Metaphysician, Elaine Dundon. In her TEDx talk “Reject Rejection”, she suggests a new mantra for dealing with rejection: “reflect, reboot, reject”. Reflecting provides insight and learnings, rebooting is a chance for a do-over, and rejecting refers to the feelings brought on by the rejection and the importance of letting them go.
“The market – the world – was telling me that I wasn’t good, and everything inside of me told me I was going to be good. I don’t think you can win unless you love yourself first.” – Gary Vaynerchuk, The #AskGaryVee Podcast
4. Don’t kick yourself while you’re down: This advice seems obvious, but it's a very common human reaction, says Dr. Winch, author of Emotional First Aid:
“You would never sprain your leg and decide, now I’m going to run a marathon and make sure it’s broken! But psychologically, we do it all the time. We take a wound and make it worse.”
Shopify merchant, Adrienne Butikofer of Skinny Sweats understands this pattern all too well. “You get into a slump of a few days with no sales,” she says, “And you're like, oh my God, what am I doing with my life?”
5. Remind yourself that you're supported: Dr. Winch suggests, in the wake of rejection, surround yourself with the people who do support you:
“Let’s remind you of the people who value you, who love you, who enjoy you, who think you are fun. Reinstate that right away. As soon as possible. And that is a very important thing to do, in terms of rejection.”
6. Grow a thick skin: the idiom “practice makes perfect” also applies to taking rejection. “I started selling cars at a really, really young age,” Michael tells me, “You deal with rejection a tremendous amount when you're selling cars. You help five hundred customers a month, maybe you sell ten to fifteen cars? I was used to a lot of no's.”
“Selling websites door to door was pretty much one of the scariest things I had ever done at the time since I was really shy. Having had that experience made me pretty fearless about cold calling current sales accounts and bouncing right back to the next one after a rejection. It also helped me when sourcing packaging. Many suppliers don't want to work with smaller quantities so I heard many, many no's before finding one who would work with me. I never once got discouraged and never thought ‘I can’t make this happen’ – I just continued to press on.”
7. Don't Reject Yourself: remember that when pursuing your dream, the opinion that matters most is your own. “You can’t be rejected if you don’t reject yourself,” says Mastin Kipp, Entrepreneur and Author of Daily Love.
Ultimately, even the most successful entrepreneurs have experienced the pain of rejection. But those who refuse to take no for an answer eventually won’t have to.
Additional reading and resources:
- Emotional First Aid – Dr. Guy Winch [Book]
- Why You Should Fail and How to Fail Well
- The Mental Illness Happy Hour [Podcast]
- 9 Mantras That Will Keep You Mentally Strong in Tough Times
- The Case for Emotional Hygiene – Dr. Guy Winch [Video]
- How Rejection and Failure Laid the Foundation to Build Woodies – Shopify Masters [Podcast]
“Whether you’re building a software company or you’re an artist or a musician or an actor or you’re wanting to start a cupcake store – whatever it is – real entrepreneurs close their eyes and they see the world that they want. They’re the people who will adamantly create that world at any cost. They’re the people who are okay with realizing that they're going to hear a lot of no's before they hear some yes's.” – Michael Perry, Kit
Real entrepreneurs close their eyes and they see the world that they want. They’re the people who will adamantly create that world at any cost.