How to turn 'NO' into 'YES'

In this blog, I'm going to share how I first learned to turn a "no" into a "yes," and some of my earliest, most powerful business lessons that have served me for 30 years.

If you don't ask, you don't get. And if you get a "no," find another way to get to "yes." I first learned both of these things when I was an undergraduate at MIT.

I created my first "start-up" organization during my sophomore year at MIT back in 1980. The group was called Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) -- an organization that I'm proud to say is still going strong today. I started it when I found out there was no pre-existing space organization at MIT. At that very first "founding meeting," 30 people showed up, and at the end of the meeting we had a charter, a constitution and a mission. Shortly thereafter, a friend of mine started a chapter at Princeton University (Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame later became president of that chapter), another friend started a chapter at Yale. After an article appeared about SEDS in Astronomy and in Omni magazine (which used to be one of the top science magazines), I received hundreds of letters from undergraduates at other campuses wanting to start chapters.

SEDS ultimately became a national and international student space organization, with 100-plus chapters around the world. Running an international organization out of my fraternity living room was no easy feat... especially in those pre-Internet days when communication by phone was cost-prohibitive and the only other option was snail mail. I'm fond of saying that SEDS was the ultimate MBA, teaching me everything I needed about leadership, finance, management and fundraising.

My first lesson in fundraising came when I set out to raise the massive sum of $5,000 (remember, this was 30 years ago!) to cover the cost of printing and mailing the International Chapter Newsletters. Through friends and faculty I had a few fundraising meetings set up, but in each case, as I got close to asking for the money, I ultimately didn't. For some reason, I just couldn't bring myself to make the "ask."

I had heard the phrase, "if you don't ask, you won't get," and I now understood exactly what that meant. Ultimately the first step in raising funds was to overcome my own personal fear of rejection. My next meeting turned out to be with the President of Draper Labs. Draper Labs had been the famed partner to MIT in creating the Navigation & Guidance Systems for the Apollo program, and if there was ever an organization that should support SEDS, surely it would be Draper.

Committed to making the actual ask, I gave the president my pitch with all of the passion I could summon. I knew at the end of my presentation that I really had done my best, and I was quite hopeful.

But at the end, when that awkward silence that followed my pitch finally broke, his response was disappointing: "Peter, I love what you're doing and would love to support you, but Draper Labs is a nonprofit; I'm unable to give you the money you want."

At that, I nodded in acceptance and was literally walking out the door when I remembered another piece of advice: Don't take no for an answer.

I turned back to him and said, "I have one more question: 'Those newsletters I'm trying to get printed -- any chance you have the ability to print them here at Draper?'" He said he did. I continued, "And, any chance you could mail them out to our chapters for us as well?" He said he could.

Ultimately the cost and scope of Draper Lab's contributions of printing and mailing over the subsequent years well exceeded $50,000. A $5,000 turn-down was converted into a massive success by remembering two things:

  1. There is ALWAYS something you should take away from every fundraising meeting you hold;
  2. Sometimes, the donation of goods or services is much easier and more valuable than cash.

Today, whenever I take a fundraising meeting that doesn't result in an investment, at a minimum I'm committed to extracting value from it. That value can come in multiple forms:

  1. Ask them why they didn't invest or contribute. Learn from them!
  2. Ask them under what conditions they would invest or contribute.
  3. Ask them whom else you should go to and ask for an investment.
  4. Ask them for an introduction!

When you invest your time in having the meeting and you're coming from a place of passion and commitment, almost everyone will find some way to help you.

In my next blog I'm going to explore why 100-year-old, billion-dollar companies go out of business... the difference between Linear vs. Exponential Thinking.

NOTE: Over the next year, I'm embarking on a BOLD mission -- to speak to top CEOs and entrepreneurs to find out their secrets to success. My last book Abundance, which hit No. 1 on Amazon, No. 2 on the New York Times and was at the top of Bill Gates' personal reading list, shows us the technologies that empower us to create a world of Abundance over the next 20 to 30 years. BOLD, my next book, will provide you with tools you can use to make your dreams come true and help you solve the world's grand challenges to create a world of Abundance. I'm going to write this book and share it with you every week through a series of blog posts. Each step of the way, I'll ask for your input and feedback. Top contributors will be credited within the book as a special "thank you," and all contributors will be recognized on the forthcoming BOLD book website. To ensure you never miss a message, sign up for my newsletter here.

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