I say “no” every day, multiple times a day. Even though I know I’m upsetting folks, I try to be direct, open, quick, and honest. Not everyone will like it. So be it. I elect to be consistent and fair rather than liked. Yet, once in a while, when I say “no,” I carry it around with me. And sometimes, as you carry that “no” you delivered around, it starts to get heavier, and you recall it more frequently.
I had that experience last year. I called the founder to say “no” and the founder was incredibly graceful. A few days later, I ran into a mentor-investor who had also spent time with this founder and didn’t get all the way there. I told him, “I say ‘no’ often, but this one – I felt terrible.”
My mentor responded: “Ah, yes… you felt a disturbance in The Force.”
Many of you will recognize this famous line from the silver screen. For those of you don’t know, start here to learn. When he repeated this line, I didn’t respond. It was the perfect retort to my story. I did, indeed, feel a disturbance in the force, and it has grown considerably since the event many months ago.
I’m mad at myself because I let the analytic part of my brain overtake what the intuitive side was telling me. As an early-stage investor, which is an amazing gig, these decisions on the margin are difficult because of opportunity cost — when you say “no” it means you’re able to say “yes” when things line up. On the flip, if you say “yes” too freely, you may have buyer’s remorse, and you can’t undo the union.
This is not a complaint, but so much of what is hard about making decisions is that the market wants you to be smart & rational, when in reality what counts is intuition & feel. All the marketing by investors on Twitter or to their LPs is basically, “Hey! Look at how smart and helpful I am!,” when in reality, most of the calls we make are about reading signals and hunting for the future indicators of outlier successes. That type of work doesn’t fit on a webpage or Powerpoint slide — it’s stuff you feel when you daydream, when you have a glass of whiskey late at night, when your mind is at rest.
The “Star Wars” franchise could be an analogy for many things, including meeting early-stage founders. As investors, we are basically evaluating these potential future indicators. We get distracted by email introductions, scheduling, slide decks, and market size — now, those are important, to a degree — but we are all on the hunt for those with “The Force.” There are many markets to attack, many products and services to be designed — but the brutal law of nature is that not many people have “The Force.” And, when you recognize you missed this in retrospect, you feel it — at least I do.
When Alderaan was destroyed, Obi-Wan “sensed” it, saying, “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.” Perhaps this is my fear, my fear of missing out — not necessarily on the next big thing, but on failing to recognize the most important ingredient we search for in our work.