Making small talk with strangers. Giving a “slick” sales presentation. If those thoughts fill you with dread, you’re not alone.
We’ve heard from many women via our 1,000 Stories research project who say their introverted personalities make starting and growing a business difficult. “My top challenge is being an introverted entrepreneur in an extroverted world,” said Sheri Ianetta Cupo of Sage Broadview. Another entrepreneur, Sara Cinnamon of Abiogenix, told us she’s learned to work with her natural introversion but “it can still be a hindrance in crowds and at networking events.” Yet another, Debbie Sessions of Vintage Dancer, said her shy nature makes it difficult “to be bold.”
How can an introvert thrive as an entrepreneur?
Introverts comprise about half the population. Four in 10 top executives are introverts, namely Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Steven Spielberg. Don’t undermine yourself by wasting your energy focusing on how you measure up to your extroverted peers. Instead pay close attention to your own unique preferences rather than emphasize what you don’t have. Two tips:
1. Engage one to one. Request individual meetings vs. group sessions whenever possible.
2. Get training. To improve your public speaking, take an improv class, hire a coach or join the local Toastmasters International group to get practice.
Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappo’s is a pretty introverted guy, yet he built a billion-dollar business. If you only communicated to Tony via social media you would think he is the most extroverted person possible. Multiple choices of communication have given newer opportunities to those who might struggle in traditional networking settings.
Bottom line: We all have the same fears. Everyone fears rejection, abandonment and failure. The difference is that some people use fear to fuel them, even when they are afraid. Understanding this can allow you to be less intimidated by people. Obviously Tony didn’t let it be his excuse; don’t let it be yours.
First of all, I would recommend that all introverted entrepreneurs read the book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. It was quite a surprise to find that some of the most successful entrepreneurs of all time are introverts.
An introvert might struggle at self-promotion or making sales calls, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be good entrepreneurs. Being an entrepreneur means there are always going to be things that you excel at and other things where you are challenged — you can’t do it all. I’m an extrovert, but I suck at detailed analysis, strategic planning and bookkeeping, which are traits typically associated with introverts. So I hire independent contractors or consultants to do that for me….just as an introvert might need to hire a sales person or social-media consultant to help them.
Proactive and productive communication is critical for entrepreneurs yet it doesn’t always come naturally to introverts. My advice is first get clear on paper the message you want to convey about your business to partners, customers, employees, etc. Practice communicating it verbally as if you were speaking with a very good friend, but with the respect and positive tone you’d give a client or boss. Practice makes perfect and your communication skills will improve the more you do it. Also, I have seen introverts do too much talking because it’s an area of discomfort…remember to keep it a dialogue, not monologue, and allow others to be a part of a positive, exciting conversation!
There are plenty of creative and brilliant company founders who prefer to focus more on the technical side or the big idea than the “people” dynamics. For those types of entrepreneurs, it’s important at the outset to find the right co-founders (extroverted ones!) to help you sell to customers, motivate the team and connect with investors. We all have weaknesses; recognizing and accepting your own (and others’) is key to building a strong team of people with complementary skills. Also, a word about networking events: everyone suffers from social anxiety to some extent…it’s why the martini was invented.
For introverts especially, preparation–for meetings, networking events, and anything else that involves conversation–is critical. Go into every conversation with a clear goal, whether it is to raise money for your company, learn about a prospective hire or negotiate lower rent for your offices. With a clear goal, you’ll know what you need to say. Prepare and practice your “script” beforehand. Anticipate what you’ll be asked, and do your homework on the people you’ll be meeting. Read more of my tips here.
Even beyond introversion, noted entrepreneurial pioneers, such as Steve Jobs, were thought to have Asperger’s, which for some makes interaction almost unbearable. Yes, launching and growing a business no doubt requires connections. Understandably, new entrepreneurs sometimes seek these connections at traditional “networking events,” which for an introvert can seem like first-degree torture.
My recommendation is to focus on finding community in smaller, industry focused events. This way you’re connecting via a shared love for the industry vs. feeling like you have to “pitch” your business. One should also not ignore the importance of online networking (Twitter and LinkedIn are my favorites). This allows you to build a foundation online, so when you get an opportunity to meet this person face-to-face, you have plenty to chat about. And check out one of my favorite Ted Talks on this subject.
Many businesses start with a single person, not a team so being an introvert can work to your advantage! The ability to work alone is not easy for all but often is the case when one embarks on a new business. Look at it as a positive attribute! Lean on your mentors, friends, and others in business to help you network and get a bit more comfortable in crowds or going out meeting others. Don’t ever be afraid to say I need help in this area and ask those around you that might be more comfortable in public and are the natural extroverts to be your “wing person”.
Learn to play within your strengths as an introvert. Your sensitive nature helps you thrive in interpersonal relationships, and that can be a huge asset to your work with clients and nurturing your prospects. However, your marketing will likely be the biggest challenge. Tooting your horn probably isn’t on your list of things that come naturally. Remember, you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing in your industry. Look at alternate ways of accomplishing that same objective. For example, if you detest networking events, don’t force yourself, or you’ll be hiding behind a potted plant, not getting clients. But instead, you can ask for referrals, arrange for 1:1 meetings, host small group presentations or advertise for leads. Over time, your confidence will grow, and it’s not unlikely that soon you’ll be ready to toot your horn quite a bit more loud and proud!