Whenever you’re faced with what looks like a massive failure, you can either be an ostrich and bury your head in the sand or be a peacock and say, “I’m owning this.” That is what Suneel Gupta, the founder of RISE and author of Backable, learned from his experience. Imagine spending your whole career trying to paint a picture of success, only to become a poster child for failure. That is exactly what happened to Suneel as he tried and failed to pitch his idea of a one-on-one nutrition coaching platform to one naysaying investor after another. Put that on top of halted startups, canceled projects, missed promotions, and missed opportunities and you’ve got the perfect person for The New York Times to label as “The Face of Failure.” How does one get back up from that? You’ll be surprised how deceptively simple the answer is. Join in as he shares some of it with John Livesay.
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Backable With Suneel Gupta
Our guest on the show is Suneel Gupta, the author of Backable. He says that when we focus on seven qualities, anybody can learn to be backable. We go over some of them so you can learn how to be backable. The concept of embracing something negative is an interesting way to look at something and your power to reframe something. Most importantly he said, “It’s not charisma that convinces people, it’s conviction.” Enjoy the episode.
Our guest is Suneel Gupta, who is the Founder of RISE, and is on faculty at Harvard University. Using the seven steps inside this book, Suneel went from being the face of failure for The New York Times to being the “New Face of Innovation” for the New York Stock Exchange. His ideas have been backed by firms like Greylock and Google Ventures. He has invested in startups including Airbnb, Calm and SpaceX. He also serves as an emissary for Gross National Happiness between the United States and the Kingdom of Bhutan. Welcome to the show, Suneel.
It’s nice to be here, John. Thanks for having me.
I’d love to hear a little bit more about your own story of origin. You could go back to childhood or school. It’s always interesting to see what got you to where you are now.
Why don’t we pick a moment that always stands out to me? It is the basis for this book that came out called Backable. The moment was in 2004. I am working as a junior-level speechwriter for the Democratic National Committee. I’m at the 2004 convention, which was being held in Boston that year. I’m backstage. The convention draws the who’s who crowd to be there and give speeches. Backstage, there are the Clintons, the Gores, the Liebermans, the standard faces of the Democratic Party. There was one face that I did not recognize and that was Barack Obama. I didn’t know who he was. A lot of people didn’t know who he was. While he gave his speech that night, that changed his career and I would argue changed the world. I got to watch that speech from backstage.
It was interesting because while it seemed like the world was watching Barack Obama, I got to watch the world. What I saw was this tidal wave of energy just ripped through the stadium. I became one of the millions of young people that night who became interested in his story. I started to dig deep into, “What is this guy all about?” What I realized surprised me. Four years earlier, he had run for Congress, not for Senate, not for president. He had run for Congress and he had lost. He had lost by a big margin. What surprised me more, John, was the way that he was received during that campaign. People described him as boring, stilted and professorial. There was a guy named Ted McClellan, who was a journalist who covered the campaign. He said, “Barack Obama is so dry that he sucks all the air out of the room.” Four years later, in 2004, he is this bastion of hope, inspiration and charisma.
The reason that story stands out for me, not only for my career in the way that I view the world but also this book that I wrote is because it turned me on to the power and possibility of human transformation. We can always change and reinvent ourselves. I have become obsessed and fascinated by how people do that. What happened in those four years between 2000 and 2004 for Barack Obama? What happens when we take the stories of all of the people that we admire who we now are looking at the chapters 14, 15, 16 in their story? If we go back to chapter one, what does that look like? Where did that begin? How do they evolve over time? That’s what makes me tick.
In your own story, you were called out by The New York Times, “The Face of Failure.” You weren’t the only one. You and Barack share that similar history of being called something that’s not exactly positive and something that most people would say, “You’re never going to recover from that label.” The face of failure, in this case or in Barack’s case, sucking the air out of the room or the opposite of charisma. What’s the story? What happened? What did you do that caused The New York times to say that?
I was an entrepreneur at the time. I was pitching every investor I could find on this idea called RISE, which was one-on-one nutrition coaching right over your mobile phone. I was passionate about the idea and felt like it should exist. I could not get any investors to say yes. I also had a checkered past in terms of success and failure. I’d been part of a couple of startups that didn’t go anywhere. I’d been on the other side of canceled projects, missed promotions and missed opportunities. One day, I got a phone call from the organizer of a conference called FailCon, which stands for Failure Conference. She said to me, “You have been nominated twice to be a speaker at this conference.”
John, it’s a humbling experience when somebody calls and says, “I’m running a conference on failure. We would love for you to be the keynote speaker.” The reason I accepted that is because I thought, “Maybe there might be some investors in the audience, people who I can get on board with this new idea.” It turned out there wasn’t but there was a reporter in the audience from The New York Times. Fast forward to sitting in my apartment one day in San Francisco, my wife turned to the newspaper. There was a full-length feature story on failure with my story as the photo up top. That article went viral. It went viral to the point where for months you could have Googled just the word failure and you would have seen my face as one of your top search results.
That’s some SEO challenge in there.Being #backable is not just for celebrities and CEOs. It's something that all of us can learn. Click To Tweet
I bet it’s still there. It’s still probably on page 1 or 2. When something like that happens, you have a couple of choices. One is you can pretend that it doesn’t exist and move in any direction. The other is you can embrace it. I had spent my whole career trying to paint this picture of success. Now, I’m the poster child of failure. I decided, “What would it look like to embrace that a little bit?” The way that I thought about there were all these people that I was trying to get coffee with and get advice from. I was cold calling them. I was reaching out to them the same way that anybody else would. “I’m living here in San Francisco trying to break through into tech and entrepreneurship. Would you grab a coffee with me?” Most people would say no or disregard the email. Now, I changed my approach. I sent them the article and I would say, “As you can see from this New York Times article, I have no idea what I’m doing. Would you be willing to spend a few minutes grabbing advice?” People loved it.
One bullet breaks through the clutter. It’s self-deprecating and clever. It’s the fact that The New York Times covered it, not just you saying it. It works on so many levels. You could be an ostrich and bury your head in the sand or you could be the peacock and say, “I’m owning this.” This story continues to get better. After all those noes and getting labeled that, you did get some funding. It was eventually acquired by One Medical. The full circle to your opening story about Barack is, in 2016, Michelle Obama partnered with RISE to bring this coaching to low-income communities. Nobody could have predicted the outcome of the story. I love that story. When a story has a twist like this, it is fascinating to hear. We all have the hero’s journey of like, “He’s down or she’s never going to recover from this.” Recovering might have been, “We finally got some funding.” It probably went beyond your wildest dreams when you started it, to get the first lady involved with it.
John, you and I both love Joseph Campbell. We both love the hero’s journey. We know that one of the components of the hero’s journey is like, “Along the way, there’s an insight, learning, something that changes your worldview.” For me, through these conversations that I started to have, creativity and persuasion are two different things. Oftentimes, we think about them as one. We all know that you can have a great idea, be a great candidate for a job, have a beautiful product and still be dismissed. We see it happen all the time. That’s what I was feeling. Many of us have felt that way.
One of the stories that always pops for me especially is the story of Alexander Fleming, who came up with penicillin. Penicillin, to date, has saved nearly 200 million lives, yet it took him ten years to get people to buy into it. He got dismissed over and over again. Brilliant, game-changing ideas aren’t always met with a room of people who are going to support them. All of that got me interested in this idea of backable people. These are people who tend to be able to go into a room whether that be an interview, an audition or a pitch and they tend to shine. The trick of it is that, oftentimes, it’s when they aren’t the obvious choice. When they don’t have a fully baked product, we still feel like we want to take a chance on them. I wanted to understand like, “What is that quality? Can it be learned?”
Following up on this New York Times article, I started to have these conversations with people and said, “Let me have more and more.” Eventually, I found myself having hundreds of conversations with backable people from all walks of life including Oscar-winning filmmakers, Michelin Star chefs, military leaders, founders of iconic companies and fast-rising community initiatives. What I found was that being backable is not just for celebrities and CEOs, it’s for all of us. Being backable is not something that you’re born with but it very much is something that you can learn.
Let’s take a pause there. You’re being very humble. I’m going to shout-out. You have this book that has reviews from Reid Hoffman, the Cofounder of LinkedIn and Brian Grazer, one of my all-time favorite Oscar-winning producers of amazing movies. You’ve been able to not only have your own insights on what makes someone backable but figure out a way to grow your network and get out in front of people who are clearly backable and believe in what you’re doing. It’s a one-two punch there that gives it so much credibility much like The New York Times. One extreme to the other that social proof that gets transferred is what you’re demonstrating here in a big way that helps a lot of investors. You’ve invested in some successful companies yourself. I’m sure there are some things you look for in a founder that would be helpful to share that other people saw in you. The basic question is, as an investor, what makes a founder backable besides the idea?
The book outlines these seven qualities. We should talk about them. One of the things that I tried with this book, part of the reason that it’s doing well and a number-one new release is it talks about the stories and the substance but we get into the techniques. I personally love it when you can break it down for me and give me some specific techniques that I can use to bring it into my life immediately. Let’s start talking about some of these qualities. One of the first ones in the book came to me as a surprise. When I first started studying backable people, I thought that I was going to find a certain pattern of communication. I thought that backable people generally were going to end up being gifted speakers. They were going to make use of eye contact, hand gestures and pacing. I did not find that to be the case.
You certainly had backable people who are gifted speakers. It can be very Dale Carnegie-esque or Toastmasters-esque. There are plenty out there that are not. They’re shy, quiet and introverted. They’re not what we think of when we think of charisma. If you want an example of that, take a look at the most popular TED Talk of all time. What you’ll find is a brilliant talk being given by a guy named Sir Ken Robinson. It’s got over 65 million views. Amazing talk but not what you might expect. It’s a very un-TED-like talk. He’s got one hand in his pocket. He naturally walks with a bit of a slouch. He meanders on and off script, yet it was very well-received. What I found is that it’s not charisma that convinces people, it’s conviction.
There we go. There’s a tweet if I ever heard one. Plus, I love the fact that it’s got all those great alliterations. “It’s not charisma that convinces people, it’s conviction.” That’s a great line.
Backable people take the time to convince themselves first. They let that conviction shine through, whatever style it is that feels most natural to them.
Going back a little bit to your own story of origin, you have a relatively famous brother. I’m guessing that there’s a story there of what your parents taught you both. Why don’t you do the big reveal of who your brother is? It’s this concept of environment versus genetics. What causes certain families to produce such high achievers that are not just backable but impactful in the world? I wanted to ask, was there any sibling rivalry? Tell us a little bit about that experience with your brother and who he is.
It’s impossible for me to talk about my family without talking about my mom first. My mom was born and raised in a refugee camp on the border of Pakistan and India. She decided that somehow, she was going to become an engineer with Ford Motor Company. Her parents got behind the vision and dream. She got on a boat to the United States, ended up getting a scholarship at Oklahoma State University, drove to Detroit the day after graduation and went into the interview. When she got into the interview, the hiring manager said, “I’m sorry. We don’t have any female engineers here.” She, at that moment, was deflated. She picked up her resume and purse. She started to walk out of the room. In this last-ditch moment, she turned around and told this hiring manager her story of all the struggles that it had taken to get to this country, to get to Detroit, to get to this room. This guy was so moved by her story that he ended up taking a chance on her. She became Ford Motor Company’s first-ever female engineer. That was in 1967.It’s not charisma that convinces people. It’s conviction. Click To Tweet
That’s the genesis story in a lot of ways for our family. I will talk about my brother here in a moment. We were raised with the refugee mentality even though we grew up in a very different environment than my mom. We had all the stuff that she didn’t have. We grew up in a safe, almost boring suburban Michigan. There’s still this refugee mindset of impermanence and possibility combined. It cuts both ways. With impermanence, you almost feel sometimes that things can be taken from you. You almost have an appreciation sometimes for what you have because you realize it could be gone. There’s the possibility. The possibility is there are no boundaries. Your past doesn’t necessarily determine your future. That’s what we learned simply from her story. She didn’t have to tell us that. It was who we were.
For my brother, he went to medical school and became a practicing surgeon in suburban Michigan. He realized he liked his job but he felt like there was more. He felt like he could be doing more of the type of work that he wanted to be doing. Naturally, he’s a gifted storyteller. He wanted to be telling the stories of patients. I remember I was in college at the time. I came home and he was home as well. We were with my parents. He was like, “I think I’d like to be on television. I’d like to start reporting on healthcare and patients’ stories.” I remember my mom was like, “Go do it. Figure out a way to make it happen. There’s no time like the present.”
My brother, very similar to my mom’s improbable story, somehow gets himself in a room with the powers that be at CNN. This was in the year 2001. He has no Journalism and on-air experience but made himself backable in that moment. There are a lot of the techniques in the book that we talked about that he brought to that moment naturally. One of which is that he talked about his central character. He talked about the patient. Even though he didn’t have the on-air experience, his argument was, “I spend day in and day out with these patients. I understand them at a level that I may not be able to understand them if I wasn’t practicing day in and day out. These are the stories that I want to tell. These are the people I want to connect with.” It worked. They gave him a shot just like a hiring manager gave my mom a shot. That’s how Dr. Sanjay Gupta was at CNN.
One of the things that you talked about in the book, Backable, is this ability to put ourselves in a story that makes it memorable. You are singing from my song book. When people are pitching themselves to get a job, as your brother and mom did, pitching people to hire them, to buy their course and as speakers we have to pitch ourselves. If you can’t say something that makes you memorable during that interview and you’re just pushing out facts and figures or the details of your resume, “I’m a doctor. I went here,” and you don’t have a story to go, what I often do is I’ll tell a story of what happened at a recent speaking event and how that transformed the audience and made the people who hired me looked like heroes, all of those things and the feelings that get associated with it.
Stories are the emotional glue. We’re wired for stories. Few people understand that. You are supporting this so much that these personal anecdotes are what make us memorable. If you put yourself in the shoes of a hiring manager, an investor and the number of pitches that you hear in a year, there’s got to be somebody who says something to you that makes that memorable so that you can tell other people. That’s what people don’t realize. When someone like you, your brother or your mom tells a story or anybody who reads this book, Backable, learns is, “Once I have a story that makes me memorable, it’s not just that person who can remember it. They remember my story and tell other people.” That’s when it starts to grow viral or whatever else you might need it to do for those meetings when people are thinking, “Should we hire Suneel or someone else? Should we hire John or someone else? Did anybody tell us a story that we can tell other people of why we want to pick this person over another person?”
It’s such a good point, John. We’re not anymore pitching people. Hardly ever are we pitching the people who are going to be the only decision-makers. Typically, they’re going to have to sell their partners, other people, their boards, even their teams, on the decision they’re making. We’re not just looking for backers. We’re looking for advocates. Salman Rushdie has this great quote, “Most of what matters in our life takes place in our absence.” We don’t know what these conversations are like when we’re not there. We are trying to have people who are as passionate about what we’re trying to do with our own careers and ideas as we are. I do think stories are such a big part of that.
I remember pitching to Tim Ferriss on my company, RISE. I thought Tim was the perfect investor. When I was doing this one-on-one nutrition coaching right over your mobile phone, he had just written a book called The 4-Hour Body. He was starting to invest in companies. I thought it was the perfect fit. It turned out, he ended up passing on the idea. Along the way, he gave me some feedback that I will never forget. When I pitched to him, if you would have looked at that pitch, I spent the vast majority of my time talking about the market. I talked about the rising rates of diabetes, hypertension, obesity and how many people were out there spending money on trying to get into better physical health.
At the very end of the presentation, I told the story of my father. When he was in his 40s, he had an emergency triple bypass surgery. I still remember going to the hospital, I was about ten years old. I remember going to the hospital and felt like I had seen my father aged 25 years overnight. When we were leaving the hospital, they gave us a piece of paper. That piece of paper said things like, “Eat broccoli. Eat Brussels sprouts.” We were an Indian family. We didn’t eat broccoli and Brussels sprouts. There was nothing on that paper about chicken tikka masala. We struggled to make this diet that we were supposed to have now work. We struggled to make it fit for us. It wasn’t until insurance helped us pay for some time for a nutritionist that we were able to customize our lifestyle into something that worked. I believe that’s the reason that my father lived through that experience. He’s still alive now.
I told Tim Ferriss that story. His feedback to me was like, “Why the hell are you leaving that story to the very end? Tell that story upfront.” My response to him was like, “It’s an Indian story. It’s an Indian thing.” He said, “No. It makes it even more important that you tell that story upfront even if the people who are sitting on the other side of the table from you look different than that. Even if they didn’t eat chicken tikka masala, it’s important. What you’re doing especially when you get into the details, is you’re helping them see themselves through the eyes of your central character, the one person that you’re trying to serve with this idea. If they can see themselves through the eyes of that central character, that’s when you hook them emotionally and then you talk about the numbers and the market. It’s the story that brings us in. It’s the substance that keeps us there.”
It brings us in and the substance keeps us paying attention but you can’t open with the substance. You did a beautiful job describing 5 of the 7 parts of what makes somebody backable. It’s drawing people into the story that makes them feel like insiders. I did this with Olympus Medical. I was saying to them, “What are you saying to doctors to get them to buy this equipment?” They said, “This equipment makes your surgeries go 30% faster. Do you want one?” I was like, “There’s no story there. That’s a left-brain analytical data like the market size.”
The story I helped them craft was, “Imagine how happy Dr. Higgins was six months ago using our equipment. He could go out to the patient’s family in the waiting room an hour earlier than expected. If you’ve ever waited for someone you love to come out of surgery, you know every minute feels like an hour. He came out, put them out of their waiting misery and said, ‘Good news. The scans showed they don’t have cancer. They’re going to be fine.’ He turned to the rep and says, ‘That’s why I became a doctor, for moments like this.’ That rep told that story to another doctor who sees themselves in the story and says, ‘That’s why I became a doctor too. I want your equipment.'”
That is your dad’s story with getting out of the hospital. By adding those little elements like, “If you’ve ever waited in the hospital for someone you love to come out of surgery, you know every minute,” that’s what pulls people in. Even if they haven’t had that experience, they probably know someone who has or they can certainly imagine how painful that would be. Those are the details that make me love your books so much. I have rarely seen anybody else talk about how to tell stories that are memorable. I say, “Tug at the heartstrings to get people to open the purse strings,” is what you’re showing us together.
I could talk to you forever. We’re only going to talk about a few things enough. Hopefully, it incentivizes people to run, not walk, to the nearest way to get a book. The last question I have for you is this beautiful cover, gold and blue, the gold egg. We all know there’s a story there about the goose that laid the golden eggs. I know, as an author, how much work goes into a book cover. What’s the story behind the book cover?
I’m glad you asked because I don’t get to talk about this enough. The book cover went through a few iterations. I worked with a great publisher. Little, Brown has been fantastic. I will say that when they sent me their first vision for the book cover, it was not something that I gravitated towards. It was the Facebook like thumbs. It was a cover full of thumbs where all of them were thumbs down but one of them was thumbs up. Same metaphor, it was like, “How do you get the thumbs up?” What I didn’t like about it was it felt overtly negative. It was almost littered with negativity.
The other thing was it was very techy. I initially started writing this book because I felt like I was coming from the point of view of somebody who worked as an entrepreneur. I worked in tech. What I realized was like, “There’s not a single person out there who isn’t trying to make themselves backable in some way. You don’t have to be working as an entrepreneur. You don’t have to be working in tech.” It’s a human problem that we’re dealing with, which is unused creativity. We don’t sometimes know how to take these ideas that are inside us and get other people as excited about it as we are. That’s a human problem, not a tech problem. It’s not necessarily even an entrepreneurial problem.
I wanted to take this metaphor and do other iterations. It was interesting, John. I don’t know what your experience was like. With me, there was a push-pull that you have. We were very collaborative about it. I was super grateful to them for being that way. It reminded me a lot of one of the techniques that you talked about, which is flipping outsiders to insiders. One of my favorite stories from the book is it takes us back to the 1940s where Betty Crocker has introduced instant cake mix to the market. They were excited about this instant cake mix. All you have to do is pour water into a mix, pop it into an oven, and voila, you get this tasty treat. Who wouldn’t want that?The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away. Click To Tweet
They were surprised when they find out that instant cake mix was not selling. Sales were terrible. They were trying to figure out why. They hired this psychologist named Ernest Dichter to go out into the field and start talking to homes across the country. What Dichter found when he came back with was fascinating. He said, “I think you’ve made the process of making a cake too easy and too simple. You removed the customer from the creative process so much so that when a cake comes out of the oven, they don’t feel any ownership of it.” His recommendation was, “Why don’t you remove one ingredient and see what happens?” They did. They removed the egg. Now, as a customer, you have to crack and mix in your own fresh egg. Sales skyrocketed. Now, when the cake comes out of the oven, customers felt like they were a part of it.
I think that comes back to this idea of we’ve been told that creativity and innovation is a two-step formula. You come up with a great idea and you execute on it well. I think there’s a hidden step in-between. That hidden step is where we flip outsiders into insiders so they feel like it’s their idea as well. In that way, when we show up to the execution, we show up together. These can be early employees, early investors, early colleagues who decided to take a leap of faith in your idea. You can trace every successful project, every successful organization, nonprofit company, political movement back to this hidden step.
There are many wonderful takeaways. Flipping outsiders into insiders. It’s not charisma that convinces, it’s conviction. This whole premise that the stories bring us in but it’s the substance that keeps us involved. The book is called Backable. The website to go read about the book and buy the book is Backable.com. Any last comments or ways that you want people to follow you and read about the book?
Go to Backable.com. I’ll leave you with one thought. I have two daughters, an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old. We do this little game every morning. I ask both of them, “What is the meaning of life?” They say, “To find your gift.” I said, “What is the purpose of life?” They say, “To give it away.” The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away. I wrote this book, Backable, so that we can learn how to give our gift away. Thank you, John. I appreciate you having me on.
Thank you, Suneel. What a gift you are to the world. I’m sure you’re a great dad. I can’t wait for all kinds of people to benefit from learning these learnable insights on letting us all become a little bit more backable than we were before we got to read your wonderful book.
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