How to deal with rejection when starting something

This lesson was summarised from Anne Boden’s book titled, Banking On It is about how she started Starling Bank, one of the top online-only banks in the UK

Starting a new venture especially if it’s something as complicated as a bank is no joke. Except you have all the money you need, the task of starting it can seem almost impossible.

Anne Boden who had always worked as an employee experienced this firsthand as she worked towards launching an online-only bank. The challenges she faced were endless including having no start-up experience, no money, and no people to work with (in the beginning). But what she lacked she more than made up in being a tough-minded person.

In the early days starting with nothing meant she had to go around asking for help and support. The rejection was intense and soul-destroying but how did Anne get through all this? She developed some coping mechanisms to deal with the constant sound of ‘no’ and ‘sorry’ which will drive even the most confident person to give up.

As we go about doing our own things we can learn a bit from how Anne learned to cope with the rejection she faced. Following are some of her coping mechanisms.

I developed many personal coping mechanisms. One of the simplest was to immerse myself in books about other entrepreneurs, which has been a long-term interest of mine anyway. I find it hugely absorbing to learn their stories, and it’s useful to discover how others have withstood the pressures. It’s a comfort to know that other entrepreneurs have experienced exactly the same emotions.

Anne read stories about other entrepreneurs and it helped to see how they dealt with the kind of challenges she was facing. She learned from their stories and was encouraged by the fact that others had faced what she was now going through and succeeded.

When I desperately needed some respite, another of my fall-back positions was to send out what felt like hundreds of emails at a time, asking for help and advice. Often they went out to people I knew, and who were unlikely to be in a position to further my cause. However, their kind and encouraging responses kept me sane at the toughest moments and gave me some valuable breathing space.

This is an interesting technique, contacting lots of people, asking for their help even when you know most of them can’t help you. But their advice and encouraging words kept her going. When we are working on something we should not assume that because people don’t have the money, expertise or resources we need that they are not worth asking for help or advice. Such people may listen to us and offer words of support and encouragement. That can go a long way in helping us to get through the rejection and tough times.

Whenever the number of rejections threatened to become unmanageable, one of my favoured tactics was to arrange meetings with friends in the banking industry whom I had known for years. Again, these were people who were never going to invest in New Bank or play any sort of role in the business. However, they had the advantage of being long-term associates who would give me a polite hearing and perhaps even a snippet of advice and feedback. What they absolutely wouldn’t be doing was doling out abrupt ‘no’s along with some apparently ‘helpful’ advice as to why my entire business model was completely ridiculous and would never succeed. Such a meeting would be like food to a starving person, offering a much-needed break from the seemingly endless cycle of rejection.

Similar to the previous technique, talking to previous colleagues in person meant Anne could get some well-needed positive vibes from people who were never going to invest in her bank but would not make her feel bad or like a failure for attempting to start the venture either.

No one can continue in the face of an endless negative barrage. We all need some respite from it. It’s nice to have a pleasant and positive meeting at least once in a while, because it leaves you refreshed enough to tackle what comes next. I also used the conversations to reinforce my belief that I was right and the banking system was wrong.

Another important technique to handle the stress was how she looked at the whole venture. That helped her not to be overwhelmed by the enormity of what she wanted to achieve which in itself can be scary and demotivating.

She writes that:

I think it was also useful to look upon the journey as a series of sprints, rather than a single marathon. Yes, I aspired to grow a significant digital enterprise, but I needed to break that ambition down to bite-sized goals. If I hadn’t done so, the scale of the task would have quickly become overwhelming. I strongly suspect that anyone who thinks about their start-up as part of a trajectory towards running a multimillion-pound corporation (with all the personal wealth and prosperity that goes with that) is heading for a fall from the start. Fortunately for me, it was never about the money, or fame, that entrepreneurial success would bring. Neither was an incentive for me then and that remains true today.

Anne was trying to pull off almost the impossible. While she had a lot going for her, there were more odds stacked against her. But by employing some tactics she was able to continue and not give up. A summary of the tactics are:

  • Reading stories of entrepreneurs who have faced similar challenges.
  • Emailing as many people as possible and asking them for help and getting comfort from their encouragement even though they could not directly help her with building the bank.
  • Having face-to-face meetings with former colleagues who encouraged her.
  • Seeing setting up the venture as a series of sprints rather than a single marathon made it more manageable.