Being Direct

I saw The Gotham Gal’s reply to an email this morning that we were both copied on. I can’t remember exactly what she said but it was something like “I understand, but no.”

No beating around the bush, no letting down softly, just complete and total honesty about where our heads are at on something.

She has taught me this lesson consistently over our almost forty year relationship. I have a tendency to be too nice and leave people with an unclear view of where I am at.

I’ve gotten much better at this over the years as the pain of leaving things hanging has taught me this very important point.

Being clear and direct with people, even if it means upsetting them, is better than being nice and leaving them confused.

Seeing that email reminded me of that and the next hundred emails I replied to got a very direct answer this morning.

#life lessons

Comments (Archived):

  1. pointsnfigures

    When we were on the floor, there was no time to talk, pet egos, and explain things. Off the floor I have found I am too blunt, and have had to work some tact into the way I say things. The digital medium is very abrupt. Nick Eppley, a prof at U of C, has done a lot of work on “mind reading”. We cannot tell what people are really thinking in digital mediums often-sarcasm doesn’t come through, humor might not come through. Sort of like listening for a secret message on a record played backwards.If you are going to be efficient with email, especially requests, you have to be short. I am trying to be more sweet.

    1. Lawrence Brass

      I have a trick, I put my request in brief in the subject. There is no other way to compete with social media notifications.Subject: Larry needs your lawnmower, will return it back fast this time.

      1. Chimpwithcans

        Good, my lawn is getting seriously long but I just can’t say no to Larry 😉

  2. jason wright

    is it A VC, or AVC?

    1. JamesHRH

      Jim H is crying in his morning coffee for not getting to that first.

    2. fredwilson

      I don’t get through joke. But James does. Pls clue me in. I could use a chuckle this morning

      1. falicon

        If someone talks about your blog, are they talking about a (person who is) A VC or the blog AVC. It’s not clear or direct. Kinda like the joke…

        1. Donna Brewington White

          Communication can be a baffling thing.

          1. falicon

            What you are saying!? 😛

  3. JamesHRH

    Nice is over rated.Clear is under rated.

    1. JLM

      .Bullshit. The world is starving for nice, you prick.Nice is an investment. Being a prick is just being a prick.Few people know how to do it. Be nice.[Full disclosure: Sir James and I know each other. We both live in Tejas. He is a nice guy.]JLM http://www.themusingsofthebigredca...

      1. Lawrence Brass


      2. JamesHRH

        From the home of Cowboy Up comes ‘the world is starving for nice.’;-)

      3. mikenolan99

        Nice is why we Minnesotans exist…

        1. PhilipSugar

          You know the term. Minnesota Nice is the absolute worst thing you can experience. “Oh, Phil what a great presentation” To everybody else: “Can you believe how bad????!!!

          1. mikenolan99

            Phil, I’m so looking forward to meeting you in person. 🙂

          2. PhilipSugar

            We need to do.

      4. Amar

        The flaw here is assuming “Nice” & “Clear” are mutually exclusive. Being compassionate (empathizing) while delivering truth with clarity requires time and preparation. Being a prick is easy especially when couched as a virtue (i am direct)

          1. Erin

            Actually, I would argue he found at least two places in hell.

        1. John Fitzpatrick

          That’s exactly what I was thinking. There are a million ways to say “no.” Not taking the time to think up one of the nice ways doesn’t mean you’re a straight shooter. It just means you’re just lazy.

      5. markslater

        wow i am liking a JLM comment 😉

  4. Brandon G. Donnelly

    No is the second best answer

  5. William Mougayar

    I am getting better at that too, and as you said, the person at the other end appreciates too, because it’s a relief for them that they know where you stand sooner as opposed to later.

  6. bsoist

    The first time we exchanged emails, I was immediately impressed with her skills. She’s a ninja.

    1. Vasudev Ram

      I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those skills were because of her past work in retail and sales (as read in her bio on her blog). When you deal with a lot of people you get good at it.

      1. JamesHRH

        The Gotham Gal started out good at it. Never met her but her story just screams ‘ really, really good w people. ‘Plus, opposites attract.

        1. Vasudev Ram

          >The Gotham Gal started out good at it.Interesting.

      2. PhilipSugar

        I agree when you work in retail you get used to lots of people the 10,000 hour rule. I worked at Eddie Bauer one winter (outdoors store in U.S.) Learned a bunch.One thing I did learn though was store managers can be stupid. I begged to work the register, but the manager said my job was on the floor selling. I said but I am watching people leave because the line is too long, I literally am picking up their abandoned merchandise, the best selling I can do is to ring people up on the empty register (I know I’d be twice as fast as the others). She said no. Classic employee versus owner mentality.

        1. Vasudev Ram

          >Classic employee versus owner mentality.Ha. Experienced some cases of that in companies earlier. Dealt with them too. A couple of ways were 1) to call up my immediate superiors to mention the issue and get their support on the way I planned to deal with it (the employee mentality issue that was obstructing my work for *them* – our customer), or 2) go over the head of the (typically) middle management to the CEO or president / VP / head of division level (of the customer), and describe the issue and how the lower guy was being a roadblock to my solving their problem; invariably, the top guy [1] would clear the road for my handling of the issue, and I would then solve it. I would only use either technique if the said employee did not listen to reason a couple of times.[1] Top management tends to have more real-world sense and less ego issues than middle level managers, IME, though it’s not a hard-and-fast rule,

          1. Vasudev Ram

            And these were not even owners here, mostly, just top management. Had the same better results / facilitation of my work a few times with actual company owners too.

  7. LIAD

    Always.The decision to always be direct and honest is relatively easy. The hard part is doing it without coming across a f**king asshole. https://uploads.disquscdn.c

    1. fredwilson

      That’s so true. I believe I am pretty good at that as I really hate coming across as a jerk

      1. PhilipSugar

        You do, but it not the delivery it is the message. Seriously. Not being negative. The sun never sets on somebody that doesn’t think I am an a-hole.I might be but the reason is not the delivery (well maybe sometimes) but it is the message.

    2. TeddyBeingTeddy

      Also, some people get permanently damaged with the blunt truth. Especially in dating. Lot of fragile people out there. Some dangerous but blunt truths in dating and work:-You’re nice but you’re an idiot so I’m not going to do this deal-You’re just not attractive enough-You’d make a terrible mother, so let’s have some fun then go another direction-I found a better deal-I think I could do better than you-I’d rather set my money on fire than invest in this terrible idea-You’re too annoying to deal with, so I’m going to pass-I’m only taking this meeting because you’re attractive and I need lunch anyway-I think you’re a liar and a narcissist, and for that reason I’m out-You’re too nice, competition and jerks will crush you.-Your company is old and boring, I’m looking for something a little more exciting. When I get a dog, I get a puppy not something close to death.Jerks…am I right?

      1. CJ

        Sounds a lot like Kevin O’Leary. LOL

  8. Tom Labus

    Direct is the most efficient route. Used it as part of my passwords as reminder

  9. lisa hickey

    Not being clear, leaving someone confused, having them have to waste time wondering your position—none of that is really “nice”. At its worst, it’s a form of manipulation.

    1. Anne Libby

      Clarity is the greater kindness.

      1. lisa hickey

        And clarity comes from truly caring about whether people understand you. It’s a form of empathy.

  10. Mark Annett

    Being clear and concise is the best course of action but the person needs to have an objective basis from which to speak.I had written a book on ethical decision making that I shared it as a draft with an aunt of mine, who is a librarian. She was clear and concise in her review, “Mark, I would like to tell you that this book is good, but it isn’t.” It was the best response that I could have gotten because it was what I needed to hear and I went on to study writing craft and am proud of the book I produced.My Mom, being clear and concise and saying, “Wonderful!”, which might very well have been her “honest” opinion, had I asked, would have been of little value.I always appreciate a quick “no”, as opposed to a “maybe”, which almost never turns into a “yes”. When someone is not even close to where they need to be, an definitive no is the best answer you can give!

  11. creative group

    CONTRIBUTORS:As we read the contents of this blog post from Fred we were reminded how people desire change even if it isn’t part of their personality or foundation which many times is developed by earlier influences in life good or bad.Contributor awaldstein is better equipped to comment on the psychological aspect of it.Really wouldn’t want to rely upon decisions that are made based upon someone else’s personality traits. The reason we enjoy Fred’s blog is his honesty and revealing traits. A must read for start-up’s seeking USV funding.You could receive a no today but maybe not tomorrow.This blog is every supportive of Fred which is great for him continuing producing excellent content on his blog. But part of being a great friend is not being a yes man. Do any other Contributors beside us that support Fred’s efforts ever have the wherewithal to ever question Fred when you disagree with a idea or position?This blogs few Right-wing Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Jenna Abrams (Russian Troll), Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter wannabe’s agenda not included.Captain Obvious!#UNEQUIVOCALLYUNAPOLOGETICALLYINDEPENDENT

  12. PhilipSugar

    I tell people this when I am delivering a harsh message:Yes is greatNo is fineMaybe’s kill me.A no is not a reason for you to “overcome my objection” I already asked any questions I needed. It is simply a no.Putting more effort into me means you can’t put more effort into somebody else who might be a yes.

    1. LE

      Yeah but that’s you. Not every buyer is you and not every buyer is me. God knows how I have saved money when some salesperson is that guy you despise and want to go away. (I am talking specifically about business purchases not real estate as in the example below btw.) How do I get rid of someone? I say something that they can’t counter. Like ‘we just signed a contract with someone else’ or equivalent.Anyway sometimes ‘no’ means ‘chase me more’ at least when price is involved. Or prove to me you want the business and will work harder than the low hanging fruit guy or girl. Like with anything else it all depends on the exact circumstances (situation, who is involved, what is being sold, timing and 99 other things). Can’t learn the nuance by reading things on the internet either. Anymore then you can learn to fly a plane that way.I had a situation recently where my wife and I were trying to buy a condo down the shore. You now literally with nothing moving in the dead of winter in a shit market. Great time to buy, right? The very ‘experienced’ (35 years at least) sales woman takes our cash offer (which of course was our first offer and no it wasn’t a flat out insult either; I have done this before) contacts the seller (who she also represents) gets a rejection and then simply disappears and doesn’t even attempt to put a deal together between buyer and seller. And it was her listing. So for whatever reason the seller’s response combined with how I phrased our offer said to her ‘put more effort into someone else who might be a yes just move on’. But I don’t think that’s it. I just think she is bad at what she does [1] and doesn’t want to put the effort into getting the two sides together. And believe me knowing my position it could have been done. Meanwhile we looked at other listings and became more interested in them. And no it wasn’t a ploy to get me to come back to her with a higher offer or anything like that.And this has happened with business purchases as well.[1] By the way I won’t always fault someone in sales for not wanting to put the time into someone who appears to not be a prospect. I think that’s smart. But not in a down market and not when nobody is buying off season and you have plenty of time on your hands to work a deal. And a cash buyer. That’s just lazy. I had this happen once years ago and after the listing agreement expired I contacted the owner the next year and bought it directly from them.

      1. PhilipSugar

        Nope it is a yes or no. Yes I can make a really lowball offer. Don’t want to have to deal with you after that but I can.

    2. JamesHRH

      Legend has it that CDN billionaire Jim Pattison used to fire the lowest sales car salesman at his dealership, every quarter.’ Doing the right thing for both of us. ‘

      1. CJ

        I love it. I can imagine a guy in an all white suit, white cowboy hat, walking up to a salesguy, “Son, now listen, you’re going to hate me for this, but I promise, I’m firing you because it’s the right thing for both of us…now get the hell out.”

        1. JamesHRH

          He’s quite the guy –…But he is not a white suit guy. He has, I believe, always made it home to VAN for dinner Saturday night w his wife. Every week. Guy who keeps his word.

      2. Richard Carlow

        I met him as a university student, when we found ourselves sharing an elevator. I was probably a bit star struck, he was quick to introduce himself and start asking about me and my future. Though he is no doubt tough, have to think of him as also nice.

        1. JamesHRH

          Success on a stick.In 30 seconds, made the interaction comfortable for you and about you. Constantly spreading good Jimmy P vibes, where ever and where ever.Its a gift I think. Not many people have it.

  13. laurie kalmanson

    No > Maybe

  14. DJL

    This is important in any type of interaction, even with family. But you really have to be prepared for an emotional reaction. In the VC business, a no with an explanation is really the best. I have seen some “nos” without much feedback. Asking for money is a difficult thing for many people. (Especially those who were brought up to be self sufficient.) So a quick no with a medium-long explanation is preferred over any hedging.

    1. PhilipSugar

      Here is the thing on feedback. You have to be really clear that it is a no or now your time gets wasted. I have provided feedback and people then view it as an opportunity to “overcome my objection”Annoys the shit out of me. Then I go radio silent after one other quick contact to reiterate.

      1. DJL

        Does that tend to be younger, less experienced folks doing the asking?

        1. PhilipSugar

          No, I wouldn’t say I could call it by any sort of group.I would say it is people that are not used to doing sales, or do sales badly.One of my favorite lines is that you get to yes by finding no’s. I was serious in my line that if I give you a no that means you can spend effort on finding a yes instead of wasting time.The best salespeople do several things.1. Do not mind hearing no. Are able to not uncomfortably ask why2. Relentlessly follow up until they hear a no3. Understand time kills all deals and work a deal hard until a no4. Don’t waste time on anything else.If I tell you I can’t use your security services because we have an internal group from corporate that does that and that is not going to change, then move on. I might forward an email without cc’ing you but that’s about it.I find that people that are not bottom line oriented or “play business” like to waste time in meetings and engaging on things that won’t happen.You know I told Dean Harker of Wharton that he was remiss in not having a course in sales. He knew me by last name and “that guy that always bugs me about sales”He said it was not worthy of a course and you really couldn’t teach it. I love him and was friends with him while he was the President of UofD, but what that really meant was he thought it was beneath Wharton.I would tell anyone here, if you have not read at least a half a dozen books on sales you are remiss. Yes don’t just use the “techniques” but think about what those mean, not just do something like would you prefer a meeting Tuesday or Thursday? And that puts me on another rant. A good salesperson views their time and their product as precious. If you don’t want to talk to me or use my product that is your loss not mine. You have to have swagger, not cockiness but self confident swagger.

          1. LE

            The problem with trying to sell Harker on an idea like that is that he is ultimately not the decision maker. He is an administrator who from what I can tell by a quick check probably never ran a business himself (of any size), hasn’t interacted with salespeople in that way and has no clue at all about what you are even talking about seat of the pants. He also probably didn’t respect you enough to give it serious thought the same as if Jack Welch had told him the same exact thing. Or if he read it in Forbes or WSJ ‘business schools now teaching sales!’.The correct ploy to get Wharton to teach sales (of course this isn’t your job so I am not suggesting you should have pursued this obviously) would be to try to get that done by enlisting the support of either successful alumni or professors who could champion it and convince others. What is Harker going to do? Even if he thinks you might be correct he can’t defend the position he will be run over by others at Wharton who will simply say ‘no for this or that reason’. So he is not going to fight for it. [1]So I think it’s more than just ‘not up to Penn standards’ but just the same I am not saying that didn’t play into the ‘rejection’. So yes I think part of what you are saying is correct to be clear maybe if given a different name it would fly. Not ‘how to sell’ or ‘selling’ etc.I put a great deal of effort into understanding the enemy in what I do and how they think in order to have the best advantage over them. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but it’s often necessary to get something sold or purchased.[1] One of the first things I learned in business was that it was often better to have the secretary or admin assistant on your side than the CEO. Because the CEO would ultimately not want to overrule someone in that position unless there was from what they could see a compelling reason to do so. They will just ask and if that lower level person says ‘won’t work because of this or that’ you are dead in the water.

          2. Vasudev Ram

            >You know I told Dean Harker of Wharton that he was remiss in not having a course in sales.Wow, surprised to hear that they don’t teach sales. I mean Wharton MBA is famous, right? I would have thought sales would be part of the syllabus for MBAs.>I would tell anyone here, if you have not read at least a half a dozen books on sales you are remiss.Got any recommendations for that?

          3. PhilipSugar

            I would read the classic books: Sandler Sales, Getting to Yes, Solution Selling, I’m not at my office so those are off the top of my head.Understand don’t just rote-ly use what you’ve read but understand the general principles. There are good principles in each.I’m sure you’ve heard me rant: sales is like sex, it is really important but nobody likes to talk about it. But the top person in each field lawyers, professors, accountants, is the best sales person.

          4. Vasudev Ram

            Thanks, will check those books out.>Understand don’t just rote-ly use what you’ve read but understand the general principles. There are good principles in each.Makes sense.>I’m sure you’ve heard me rant: sales is like sex, it is really important but nobody likes to talk about it. But the top person in each field lawyers, professors, accountants, is the best sales personTrue.

    2. Susan Rubinsky

      Family is a whole other ball of wax. I am very direct with my family. I am the “go to” person for a lot of stuff. But my family also avoids me when they already know what I’m going to say and it’s not what they want to hear. Often, I find out about bad decisions when it’s far to late to get things back on track easily. Sigh.

      1. DJL

        Yes. This is a very complex dynamic that tends to run in families. I grew up in a family that took problems head on and talked about them openly. My wife’s family tended to ignore things until they passed. So you can imagine that would be an “interesting” challenge. People tend to bring whatever their family style was into the workplace as well.

  15. Val Tsanev

    I agree with being clear and direct but I also feel the context matters. If you are part of a huge organization, Fortune 500 company and being too direct, people might perceive it the wrong way and most likely you will not last. To survive in a big organization you have to be political. In the startup ecosystem though I totally agree being political serves no one.

  16. Wyatt Brown

    “I don’t KNOW” is also an underrated and incredibly valuable answer, even when someone hopes to receive a “yes”.

    1. Lawrence Brass

      I don’t know.. wife hates when I answer “maybe”.

  17. Lawrence Brass

    A part of everyday stress comes from uncertainty so a quick and clear answer is healthier than lingering. Just be kind to people, others will be kind to you.

  18. Sue Olson

    A great book that shares ahealthy communication style in all relationships is Radical Candor by Kim Scott, . Her premise, based on many years of leadership in tech, is to care personally and challenge directly, I find it’s a great practice!

    1. pixiedust8

      I’ve been meaning to read this. I’ve seen a lot of people recommend it!

  19. Jan Schultink

    I think part of the reasons VCs often give an evasive no (“your technology is still too early for us”) is to avoid having to re-open the debate with the same arguments.Especially here in Tel Aviv, entrepreneurs can be pretty argumentative.There should be a code of conduct: we pitch/argue/debate ONCE, I make up my mind, tell you what I think (honestly), and then we move on 🙂 No quarrelling unless you have new information.

  20. aminTorres

    To those unprepared for the truth, do not email Fred in the next few days. weeks.

  21. Jeremy Shatan

    As my wife said to one of my children the other day: “‘No’ is a complete sentence.”Also, in my business (fundraising) a clear NO is so appreciated because it allows us to definitively move on and not keep thinking of ways to engage a potential donor.

  22. Jeremy Shatan

    On the other hand, when I’m trying to get a foot in the door somewhere, I always remember what Damon Wayans said when talking about trying to sell In Living Color, which took a while: “When people told me ‘No’ I heard ‘Not yet.'” Keep hope alive!

  23. JLM

    .Much of life is dependent upon which side of the table one sits on.If I had ever accepted NO for an answer, I would never have accomplished anything.Keep pitching your deal until they call the cops or the minister finishes your eulogy.JLM http://www.themusingsofthebigredca...

    1. LE

      I gotta tell you (and you know I that I mean this in a positive way) it say a great deal about you that you don’t even take heed of ‘get the fuck out of here’.

  24. Guy Lepage

    It’s always best to be direct and straight forward and to do it in a timely manner. Noting is worse than dragging things out. It’s not good for any of the parties involved. I like to use the analogy of being quick about it. Just tear off the bandage as quickly as possible. Seems to hurt less but it’s getting over that mental hurdle.

  25. Donna Brewington White

    I’ll take a shot of bourbon over a glass of syrup any time. Give it to me straight.BTW Fred, I personally think of you as a master at “no” — clear but gracious has been my experience.

  26. Mark Neighbors

    I am known for my directness and honesty. CEO’s and Board members generally like the answers. Middle management are less likely to appreciate this. The Gotham Gal answered direct but kind, that is the best way.

  27. heneniyefu

    Classified Ad posting one of the cheapest way to get Traffic for any kind of legal Business.

  28. JackL

    What can be nice about “leaving them confused”? During fund raising, being anything but direct is both disrespectful and cruel to the entrepreneur, who walks away with false hope. Raising funds is hard enough without such hiccups. Sadly, my experience and that of many others I’ve talked to, is that the risk investor world has many “nice” people whose misdirection leads to subsequent wasted effort. I keep a small, but growing list of those who, if their fund participates in a future round, it won’t be with that particular person joining the Board – I don’t want Board members who won’t be direct, who are uncomfortable standing up to others or who are averse to confrontation.

  29. LE

    My ex wife actually got thrown out of Jimmy Tayoun’s office back in 1991. She was trying to sell him advertising and didn’t know he was going to prison. (He ran a well known Middle East Restaurant at the time and was a prospect who she had had interactions with before). She wasn’t up on the news or what was happening in his life, otherwise she would have known it was pretty stupid to pitch someone heading for the slammer whose life was totally shattered (was a city councilman as well)…In 1991, Tayoun pleaded guilty to mail fraud, racketeering, tax evasion, and obstruction of justice, acknowledging that he had paid bribes before taking office and accepted bribes after winning election to Council. A federal judge sentenced him to 40 months in prison.

  30. BillMcNeely

    As I get older I try to get a no clearly, but nicely.

  31. Conrad Ross Schulman


  32. ashafrir

    Getting a quick NO from a VC is almost as good as YES :-). Specifically for inexperienced entrepreneurs – not getting a quick NO is a terrible time and resource waster.I am curious though – have you ever changed a NO to a YES? i.e. if someone kept trying to convince you, would these efforts yield results ?

  33. pixiedust8

    Yep. It took me a long time to learn it was kinder to be honest in a non-jerky way. I was raised to be so afraid of hurting people’s feelings that I would end up hurting them more in the long run by not being clear.