By Suneel Gupta
With Carlye Adler
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"The most exceptional people aren't just brilliant…they're backable." —Daniel Pink, #1 New York Times bestselling author of When, Drive and To Sell is Human
No one makes it alone. But there’s a reason some people can get investors or bosses to believe in them while others cannot. And that reason has little to do with experience, pedigree, or a polished business plan. Backable people seem to have a hidden quality that inspires others to take action. We often chalk
this up to natural talent or charisma…either you have “it” or you don’t.
After getting rejected by every investor he pitched, Suneel Gupta had a burning question: Could “it” be learned?
Drawing lessons from hundreds of the world’s biggest thinkers, Gupta discovered how to pitch new ideas in a way that has raised millions of dollars, influenced large-scale change inside massive corporations, and even convinced his eight-year-old daughter to clean her room. Inside Backable are long-held secrets from producers of Oscar-winning films, members of Congress, military leaders, culinary stars, venture capitalists, founders of unicorn-status startups, and executives at iconic companies like Lego, Method, and Pixar.
Backable reveals how the key to success is not charisma, connections, or even your résumé, but rather your ability to persuade others to
take a chance on you. This original book will show you how.
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Years of learning went into this book and some conversations have been retold to the best of my memory. In order to protect the privacy of certain individuals, a few names and identifying characteristics have been changed.
I wanted to bail, but it was too late. In a few moments, I'd be telling a story to a packed house of Silicon Valley overachievers. It was a cautionary tale of a career that had gone off the rails through canceled projects, missed promotions, and near-bankrupt startups. It was ugly, but also entertaining. So why was I having second thoughts? Because this story was my own.
A few weeks earlier I'd received a call from a restricted number. I answered it, hoping it was one of the many investors who hadn't gotten back to me. But instead the person introduced herself as the organizer of an event called FailCon, which stands for Failure Conference. "It's funny," she said. "You've been nominated twice to speak at our conference." Funny to her, maybe, but I wasn't laughing. I deepened my voice as much as a little Indian guy can and tried to express my credibility as a professional and an entrepreneur.
I told her about my new startup idea. Rise was a telehealth service that matched you with a personal nutritionist right over your mobile phone. What I didn't tell her is that it wasn't going very well. I hadn't been able to recruit people to join me or find investors to fund the idea. She seemed to intuitively pick up on my desperation and mentioned that there might be investors in the audience. That's all I needed to hear. I agreed right then and there to be the keynote speaker for FailCon.
Moments before my speech I began to question my life choices. How did things turn out this way? I grew up in suburban Michigan, finished college there, and took an IT job in downtown Detroit. The pay was decent, but each day was the same as the last, troubleshooting issues, building spreadsheets, and maintaining databases. It was simple, mind-numbing work. I was waiting for someone to point in my direction and say, "That kid's a star! Let's find a better way to make use of his talents." That didn't happen. In a sea of cubicles, I sat at my desk waiting to be discovered.
Eventually, I did what some people do when they feel directionless—I went to law school. In my third year, I received a job offer from a chest-thumping corporate firm based in Midtown Manhattan. The signing bonus itself was twice the salary I was earning in Detroit. But I got a sinking feeling that taking the job would send me back to the same headspace I was in three years earlier…restless and bored. I might not have known exactly what I was looking for, but I knew this wasn't it.
So I turned down the offer and began cold-calling people in Silicon Valley. I wanted to be part of a company that was building something, creating something. I eventually landed a job at Mozilla, the maker of Firefox. I was supposed to be working on legal matters, but I found myself drawn to the other side of the building, where the engineers and designers sat. I'd peek over their shoulders and ask if I could help with anything, no matter how small. Eventually, they gave me the chance to lead and launch a new product feature for Firefox. Collaborating with those engineers and designers to create something new fueled a fire in me. I had finally found what I was meant to do.
What I learned at Mozilla taught me enough to be recruited to a little-known startup as its first head of product development. That startup grew into Groupon. Within two years, we employed more than ten thousand people around the globe. We were making hundreds of millions of dollars a year. We were growing faster than Google, faster than Facebook, faster than Apple. A Forbes magazine cover named Groupon the "fastest growing company…ever." The company went public in the largest IPO by a US internet company since Google.1
Then it all came crashing down. Within one year, Groupon lost nearly 85 percent of its market value, plunging from a high of $13 billion to less than $3 billion.2 The co-founder and CEO Andrew Mason—who hired and took a chance on me—was fired and replaced.3
It was time for me to leave Groupon too. After years of working inside other startups, I realized what I really wanted, but had been afraid to do, was to start my own. I now had the experience and what I believed was a winning idea. But I was struggling to get other people excited about the vision. Meanwhile, every day I'd read about new founders receiving funding and wonder, "Why not me?" Even in Silicon Valley—the land of ideas—I was starting to feel the same frustration I had felt sitting in a cubicle in Detroit. I was waiting for someone to pay attention—waiting to be discovered.
More than a year later, standing stage left at FailCon, I felt my phone vibrate. It was my brother, Sanjay. He's an Emmy Award–winning television reporter, a New York Times bestselling author, and a neurosurgeon to boot. I'm still trying to make my dad proud, while he's done enough to make an entire subcontinent of fathers proud. "Call you back," I texted. I, too, was very busy. I was about to keynote a conference on failure.
I got through my speech as quickly as possible. Scanning the crowd opportunistically for investors, I somehow missed the reporter scribbling notes. More than a year passed, and I had completely forgotten about FailCon. By that point, I had recruited a small team to work with me on Rise, but the idea still hadn't gained traction. We were struggling to find customers and rapidly running out of money. My co-founder and I needed to raise funding so that we could expand our team, release a great product, and build fruitful partnerships. And if we didn't find that money soon, my startup dream was over.
Then something happened that changed everything. It was a Saturday morning, and I overheard my wife, Leena, on the phone with her mother. "No, we're not moving home, Mom," she said. "Yes, I know San Francisco is very expensive." When I walked into the room, Leena was holding that day's New York Times open to a full-length story on failure, with my face at the top.
I had seen mug shots that were more flattering.
The piece went viral. If you googled "failure" at the time, one of your top results would be a full-length Times article featuring me. I had spent an entire career trying to craft an image of success. Now I was the poster child for defeat. My inbox was jammed with consolation messages. My parents offered to help pay that month's rent. Old law school professors reached out to help me find a real job. Friends I hadn't spoken to in years simply messaged, "Are you okay?"
Realizing I could no longer hide behind a fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude of success, I decided to give this new identity a try. I began emailing highly successful people using the Times article to break the ice. I'd write things like, "As you can see from the article below, I don't know what I'm doing. Would you be willing to grab coffee and give me some advice?"
It worked. That article paved the way to hundreds of open, honest conversations with fascinating people. Founders of unicorn-status startups; producers of Oscar-winning films; culinary icons; members of Congress; executives at iconic companies like Lego and Pixar; even military leaders at the Pentagon.
In the end, I was left with a life-altering discovery. People who change the world around them aren't just brilliant…they're backable. They have a seemingly mysterious superpower that lies at the intersection of "creativity" and "persuasion." When backable people express themselves, we feel moved. When they share an idea, we take action.
You probably know someone who seems to be naturally backable. For the record, I am not one of those people. I'm an introvert by nature, I look comically young for my age, and I'm prone to caving under pressure—like the time I tanked an interview with Jack Dorsey.
I was interviewing for a product development role with the Twitter founder's newest company, Square. By the time we sat down together, I had spent years leading product teams. Yet I couldn't give a coherent answer to any of his questions—not even the softballs. I was anxious, sweaty, and tongue-tied. During our thirty minutes together, I watched Dorsey's smile fade to neutral and eventually sink into straight confusion.
I was qualified for the role, but I didn't get the job.
We've all had our fair share of Dorsey moments—when something sounded exciting inside your head but uninspiring when it left your mouth. It can feel a lot like trying to insert a crumpled dollar into a vending machine.
But your dollar is worth the same as a crisp, clean bill. We are all within striking range of becoming backable. We just need to make some adjustments to our style, without losing our edge—without sacrificing what makes us who we are.
Inside this book are those adjustments—seven surprising changes that course-corrected my life and career. By taking these steps, I went from feeling embarrassed to speak inside team meetings to confidently pitching ideas inside the offices of people like Michelle Obama and Tim Cook. I went from being the face of failure for the New York Times to being named the New Face of Innovation by the New York Stock Exchange magazine.
I went from being rejected by every investor I pitched to raising millions of dollars. The Today show featured Rise, and Apple named us the Best New App of the Year. The Obama White House chose us to be its partner for tackling obesity. And ultimately, One Medical, a thriving company en route to an IPO, acquired Rise for multiple times its original value.
Once I realized the power of these adjustments, I couldn't keep them to myself. I had to share it with the world. And not just entrepreneurs, but people from all walks of life—from physicians to musicians, educators to fashion designers. The artist who wants to be featured by her favorite gallery, the accountant who needs a client to act on his recommendation, the nurse who has a new method for lowering her patients' risk of addiction to pain medications. Today I teach the seven steps to becoming backable in hospitals, companies, charities, and studios. I joined the faculty at Harvard University to teach students how to launch backable careers.
Because I'm convinced we all have a brilliant idea tucked away somewhere. Yet most of us are afraid to share it and have it be dismissed. We all know how it feels to be unseen or ignored. To feel like we don't have what it takes.
Untapped genius is not just inside you; it's everywhere. And it comes at a huge cost—to our well-being, to our society, and even to human life.
The morning the space shuttle Challenger was launched, NASA engineer Bob Ebeling pounded his car's steering wheel and, with tears in his eyes, said, "Everyone's going to die."4 The day before, Ebeling had sounded the alarm that the cold temperature expected overnight would stiffen the rubber O-ring seals, causing them to malfunction. He assembled the data, called a meeting, and attempted to persuade his colleagues to delay the launch. It didn't work.
Seventy-three seconds after takeoff, the shuttle disintegrated, killing all seven crew members, including Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher to travel to space.5 Ebeling spent the rest of his life blaming himself for his inability to convince the people in that room. Before his death he told NPR, "I think that's one of the mistakes God made. He shouldn't have picked me for that job."6
Compare Ebeling for a moment to Billy McFarland, who convinced celebrities, governments, and investors to dump millions of dollars into an idea called the Fyre Festival. McFarland's pitch promised the world's hottest musicians, white-sand beaches, and five-star accommodations. Instead, when guests arrived, they were directed to a disaster relief tent, given a cheese sandwich, and struggled to find clean drinking water. Today, McFarland is serving a six-year prison sentence for fraud—and people are still scratching their heads wondering how an unknown founder with an unsuccessful track record convinced reputable people to give him $26 million in funding.7
The world would be a better place if we could transport Billy McFarland's persuasiveness into people like Bob Ebeling. That's why I wrote this book. We need more high-integrity people who know how to sell a good idea.
Damyanti Hingorani, a woman whom Time magazine called a "groundbreaker," is one of my favorite backable stories.8 Hingorani spent her early childhood as a refugee near the border between Pakistan and India. She lived in a home without running water or electricity yet still managed to teach herself how to read. And the first book she read from cover to cover was the biography of Henry Ford. That book inspired a dream, some would say an impossible one, for a young girl in that particular place and time. Hingorani wanted to become an engineer building cars for Ford Motor Company.
She was fortunate to have parents who believed in her. And they saved every penny they had to get her on a boat to America. Years later, on the day she graduated from Oklahoma State University, she boarded a train to Detroit, ready to apply for her dream job.
But this was the 1960s, and while Ford Motor Company was still in its heyday, employing thousands of engineers, not a single one of them was a woman. So when Hingorani finally found herself in a room with a hiring manager, he told her in a polite midwestern kind of way, "I'm sorry…we don't have any female engineers working here."9
Deflated, Hingorani picked up her slightly crumpled résumé, grabbed her purse, and got up to leave the room. But then something clicked. It was as if she suddenly remembered everything it had taken to make it this far. All the sacrifices she had made, that her parents had made. She turned around, looked the hiring manager directly in his eyes, and told him her story. Reading about the Model T late at night near a kerosene lamp…waving goodbye to her parents one last time as she boarded her ship, not knowing if she'd ever see them again…bicycling off campus to use the restroom because her engineering college didn't have one for women. All of it was to be here, in this very room.
Then she said, "If you don't have any female engineers, then do yourself a favor and hire me now." It was in that meeting, inside a plain-looking office, that a middle-aged manager from suburban Michigan decided to take a chance on a twenty-four-year-old refugee from the India-Pakistan border. And that's how on August 7, 1967, Damyanti Hingorani became Ford Motor Company's first female engineer.10
In the years that followed, Hingorani became a guiding light for immigrants who, too, wanted to believe in a better day. She helped reshape an industry's hiring practices and mentored women of color inside Ford. When she retired, after thirty-five years with the company, she became an inspiring force for Girls Who Code, an organization that has provided technology training to more than three hundred thousand girls around the world.11
Hingorani changed everything—for the workforce, for immigrants, for women. She also changed things for me. If Damyanti Hingorani hadn't inspired the hiring manager in that room, if she hadn't made herself backable, I wouldn't be here to write this book. And that is because Damyanti Hingorani is my mom.
When I struggled to be seen, when I was literally a top search result for failure, it was Mom who pushed me to keep going. And it was Mom who made me understand that the opposite of success isn't failure—it's boredom. That you can't wait to be asked to share your ideas, because that day may never come. That in order to succeed, you need to get out and inspire people to see in you what you see in yourself.
This book will show you how.
CONVINCE YOURSELF FIRST
It was 1969 and President Richard M. Nixon was slashing budgets to pay for the Vietnam War. The Public Broadcasting Service was at the top of his list. PBS had been brought to life by Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, but Nixon viewed it as artsy and unnecessary. His cut required approval from the Senate, which seemed all but a formality because the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Senator John Pastore, was a proponent of the war.
The only thing standing in the way was a mild-mannered man who was on a television show that Senator Pastore had never heard of.1 As the TV host quietly waited to give his testimony, Pastore found it hard to hide his aggression. "All right, Rogers," he said grumpily. "You have the floor."
"Rogers" was none other than Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. You might know what happened next. Rogers secured PBS's future with a seven-minute speech that has been the subject of articles, books, and viral videos. He is described as "captivating" and "compelling." Iconic shows like Sesame Street and Cosmos may not have ever come to be had it not been for that single speech.
And yet, if you go back and watch Rogers's speech, you might get a different impression. He nervously shifts in his seat and fumbles with his papers. He speaks with a flat, monotone voice and doesn't make use of hand gestures. In many ways, his mannerisms are the opposite of what you'd learn from public speaking courses like Toastmasters or Dale Carnegie. So what was it about this speech that made it so influential?
When I began writing this book, I assumed I'd find a certain style to how backable people communicate their ideas—a way of utilizing eye contact, hand gestures, and pacing—to charm their audience. However, after digging deeper, I came to realize that this is not the case at all.
Watch the number one TED Talk of all time2 and you might be surprised to see Sir Ken Robinson stand with a slight slouch and a hand in his pocket while he explores whether schools kill creativity. View Elon Musk unveiling the future of SpaceX and you might agree with Inc. magazine's headline that he "Fails Public Speaking 101."3 Search the transcript of the original iPhone launch and you might be surprised to find that Steve Jobs said "uh" at least eighty times.4
Yet Robinson has held the top TED spot for years, Musk's forty-minute presentation has about 2 million views,5 and Jobs's iPhone launch is one of most widely discussed product announcements of all time.
What moves people isn't charisma, but conviction. Backable people earnestly believe in what they're saying, and they simply let that belief shine through whatever style feels most natural. If you don't truly believe in what you're saying, there is no slide fancy enough, no hand gesture compelling enough, to save you. If you want to convince others, you must convince yourself first.
Preparing my pitch for Rise, I spent a lot of time focusing on the bells and whistles of the presentation. I pulled together an impressive-looking slide deck with beautiful visuals. I came up with attention-grabbing taglines. I practiced hand gestures in front of a mirror.
But pitches aren't monologues. They're a back-and-forth, typically with people who know how to ask tough questions. And while my initial fifteen-minute presentation typically went fine, things tended to unravel in the next forty-five minutes of Q&A.
Now I understand why. Peter Chernin is a legendary media executive who has produced Oscar-nominated films like Hidden Figures, The Greatest Showman, and Ford v Ferrari, while also investing in startups like Pandora, Headspace, and Barstool Sports. Chernin told me that when he's undecided on whether to back an idea, he'll sometimes look at the filmmaker or entrepreneur and say, "That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard." Then he'll wait to see if they back down or show conviction.
Had that happened to me when I was first pitching Rise, I would have dropped into the fetal position. I may have had fancy slides, but I didn't have high conviction. I was trying to convince others without convincing myself first. When I realized how important that was to being backable, I set out to learn how backable people build conviction in a new idea.
Schedule Incubation Time
On February 15, 2010, in the Basque countryside of northern Spain, a two-star Michelin restaurant named Mugaritz burned to the ground. It took firefighters two hours and five sets of equipment to put out the flames, but it was too late.
The essential parts of Mugaritz's restaurant—including its kitchen—were destroyed and would take several months to rebuild. But despite having no source of income during this costly restoration, the owner, Chef Andoni Aduriz, continued to pay his 40 employees.6 Aduriz was beloved by chefs around the world, and when word got out that Mugaritz was on the verge of closing permanently, restaurants from Japan to Venezuela stepped in to help him cover reconstruction expenses. Still, Aduriz knew that once Mugaritz reopened, the restaurant would need to thrive in order to make up for all that was lost.
The chef pulled together his team and announced that not a moment over the following four months would go to waste. They didn't have a restaurant, customers, or even a full kitchen—the only thing that they had left was their ideas. They would use this time to go back to the drawing board. To reflect on what they had learned and bring forth concepts that had previously seemed impossible.
Four months later, when Mugaritz reopened its doors, Aduriz and his team had reinvented the restaurant—from the way they set the table to the very core of their culinary experience. Prior to the fire, you'd receive two menus—one with more classical cuisine, the other with more adventurous dishes. After the fire, Mugaritz ditched the safe menu so that when you walked into the restaurant, it was all adventure. Why? Because during those months the team assembled so many creative, unique offerings that they no longer had a desire to play it safe.
A decade later, Aduriz told me how those months were an inflection point for the restaurant and for his culinary philosophy. "Destruction and creation go hand in hand," he said. "The fire actually made us rebuild ourselves by being more faithful to ourselves, to what we really wanted to be."
That's why as the one-year anniversary of the fire approached, Aduriz did something that confused foodies and frustrated a few unknowing tourists. He voluntarily closed Mugaritz again for several months to reinvent their menu, just as they had after the fire. Since then, Mugaritz has shut its doors for three months every single year. And for each of those years, Mugaritz has been named one of the top ten restaurants in the world—the only one to stay on the list for 14 years.7
Backable people tend to behave a lot like Chef Aduriz. They're constantly tracking ideas on their phone or notepad and then taking them into an incubation period. Instead of rushing out to share them immediately, they nurture and build their ideas behind the scenes. Bill Gates, whom we'll discuss again later, takes "think weeks," where he goes off the grid with a pile of books and a goal to open himself up to new ideas.8 Paul Graham, one of the founders of Y Combinator, a startup accelerator that's spawned companies like Instacart, Stripe, DoorDash, and Dropbox, says that instead of rushing out to investors, founders would be much better off if they took the quiet time to understand why their startup is worth investing in.9
When an idea first enters your mind, it's not fully formed, and certainly not prepared to interact with the real world. But because we're excited about the possibility, we make the mistake of inviting people in when the idea isn't ready. Every time I'm fired up about a new idea, I feel an impulse to share it immediately.
But at this premature stage, even the most positive-intentioned reaction can crush the spirit of an idea. If you don't get the reaction you're looking for, it can instantly deflate your energy. Moreover, you haven't taken the time to articulate what's inside your head, so you share it in a half-baked way—expecting a fully baked response. When that reaction doesn't come, it saps your enthusiasm.
- “The most successful people aren’t just brilliant...they’re backable. This is the quality I look for most in leaders I recruit and entrepreneurs I fund—now I have a great name for it and a playbook for what it takes. Whether you want to get ahead inside a company or build a startup from the ground up, this fascinating book is a must-read.”—Reid Hoffman, co-founder of Linkedin
"The most exceptional people aren't just brilliant...they're backable. This remarkable book can be your secret weapon for bringing your idea to life."
—Daniel Pink, #1 New York Times bestselling author of When, Drive and To Sell is Human
“This book is truly brave. I felt like I was sitting with Suneel as he unveiled secret steps that anyone can take to stand out and achieve their dreams.”
—Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, bestselling author of Brave Not Perfect
- "Being backable isn’t just for celebrities and CEOs. It’s a required skill for anyone who is trying to make it in the world. This book will change the trajectory of careers, launch new ideas into the world, and inspire cocktail party conversation for years to come."—Dr. Jennifer Aaker General Atlantic Professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business
- "Suneel Gupta demystifies the “x-factor” I look for in leaders, activists and entrepreneurs. Becoming backable will change how the world sees you—and how you see yourself."—Brian Grazer, Oscar-winning producer
- "Backable provides a super-readable and actionable look at how to make your ideas take flight. Whether you're pitching a brand-new startup or an idea for your company's next product, you'll find a wealth of insights and stories throughout."—Mike Krieger, co-founder of Instagram
- On Sale
- Feb 23, 2021
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Little, Brown and Company