Startup Istanbul 2015: The power of the hustle

Startup Istanbul 2015: The power of the hustle

Startup events like Startup Istanbul, "The Leading Startup Event in Eurasia", are great places for founders, executives, and investors to meet and share great ideas and stories about startups.

Watch this quick 15-minute speech by Steli at Startup Istanbul to learn the 3 steps to produce hustle greatness and why success in startups and businesses is simpler than you imagine.


All right, guys. Do me a favor. Just everybody, for just one quick moment, raise your hand as high as you can, right now. And now raise it a little bit higher.

What the fuck? See? Usually when you ask people to do this, the implication is I'll raise it as high as I can comfortably, after having lunch, which is just about this. And then you're like, as high as you can, a little higher. All right. A little higher. All right. A little higher. All right, motherfucker.

All right, so with that being said, now that we know how to raise hands, raise hands if you have no fucking idea who the hell I am. Must be most of you. Just raise your hands if you don't know who the fuck I am. Thank you very much.

How I became a serial entrepreneur

This is the kind of energy I need, you know, after having my lunch, to be able to perform for you people. There's still a lot of work to be done.  Most of you don't know who the fuck I am or why you should listen to me. So let me give you a little bit about my background.

Originally, I'm Greek, but I grew up in Germany, and not just any part of Germany, the southern part of Germany, the most conservative part of Germany, right?  So I had a pretty schizophrenic upbringing because Greek culture and southern German culture are not really aligned in the same direction. And growing up, I hated fucking school. I hated growing up in Germany, and I hated pretty much everything about my upbringing, until I discovered this thing called entrepreneurship.

And then I was like, holy fuck, there's a thing where I could be hugely successful, make tons of money. I need no certification, nobody's permission, sign me up. That's what I'm going to do with my life. So I dropped out when I was 17, 18, to start my first business, and ever since then, I've been running my own businesses my entire life.

People ask me sometimes, "Steli, what made you become a serial entrepreneur?" And I go, "Lack of options." Really. I mean serial entrepreneur is just a fancy word for completely and utterly unemployable. I have zero credentials. None of you would ever give me a job, so I had to create businesses to hire myself so I am able to make a living. Right? So when I dropped out, I did a few small businesses back in Germany.

And then about nine years ago, I decided to sell everything I have. I bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco, and I followed the dream of building a company in Silicon Valley. And I was so clueless back then, you wouldn't even imagine.

I arrived at San Francisco airport, and I literally asked somebody, "How can I get to Silicon Valley?" For those of you who don't know, it's not a city or place, it's just a generic area. It's like saying, "How can I go to the south of Turkey?" Like where the fuck exactly do you mean?

So somebody was nice enough to go, "I don't know. Do you mean Palo Alto, Stanford?" I was like, "Stanford, I've heard of that. Yes." And he put me on a train, and I dropped out on California Avenue versus University Avenue, where Stanford is really at, because California sounded good to me.

And I walked down the block and there was Hotel California. And I was like, "All right, this is where I'm checking in." This was nine years ago. To be honest, I had only two simple goals when I arrived in Silicon Valley. No. 1 was to change the world completely, and No. 2 was to be Time Magazine Person of the Year within 18 months of arriving in Silicon Valley.

I don't want to kill the suspense, but both these things didn't quite work out the way I imagined. So my first startup was a soul-crushing defeat. It was a company that was dead after Year 1, and I continued carrying it around, pretending it's alive, for another four years. By the end, it was just a skeleton, and I was just walking around being like, "No, no, it's fine. It's fine. It's fine. It just needs a little bit of funding so we can eat together. Just find a – it's going to be okay."

But it was really just fucking dead. And then the second startup I started, funny enough, that one, with a few twists and turns, arrived at something that's pretty fucking successful today. I'm very proud about that. And that's part of why they invited me to come here and speak to you people.

So what I'm going to talk about today and what my entrepreneurial super power has been my entire life, has been the hustle, is doing things that are outside your comfort zone to accomplish outsized results. I'm going to teach you a few simple philosophies, and I'm going to share some stories with you if that's cool. Is that cool with you guys? So this is yes, this is no, and then this is I don't give a fuck. I just need a place to rest after lunch. I'm just waiting for the panel that's coming up.

One of the best-kept secrets in Silicon Valley

All right. So let me give you a little context of the last company, the company that I'm running right now. We started originally as the idea of running an outside sales team on demand for B2B startups. So in Silicon Valley, when you were running a B2B startup that was venture funded, if you had tons of millions and you needed to sell to other businesses, you would employ our company called ElasticSales, for us to scale up your sales processes.

We would sell for your business. And we did this for 200 venture-backed companies. We were subleasing office space from Google. Imagine like a huge open office space, full of fucking salespeople doing sales for 200 different companies.

So at a certain point in time, we were one of the best-kept secrets in Silicon Valley. We knew every B2B CEO, we knew every B2B investor, we knew every B2B startup problem, the things they were doing right or wrong. We kind of amassed all these unique insights on how to do sales specifically for new technology companies.

Pivoting from ElasticSales to Close

As part of what we were doing from Day 1, we developed an internal piece of software that was called Close, that we just utilized to empower our salespeople to do really, really well. Eventually the product got so high in demand that we decided to release it, and since January 2013, you were able to buy it.

Today that's all we do. It's called Close, and it's an inside sales tool that empowers startup around the world with thousands and thousands of customers all around the world. Some of the fastest-growing startups are using us. We help them to close more deals and make more sales.

We are a tiny team. We're just ten people. And our nearest smallest competitor is 150 people, and we're crushing them. We're making more revenue and a lot more profits than them. We're one of the fastest-growing CRMs on the planet right now, making millions and millions and millions. All right, I hope this is enough credibility. Let's move on. Oh, one more thing.

The Startup Chat

For those that, at the end of my talk, go, "Oh now I feel a little bit awake. I can listen to the next talk. Shit, I want a little bit more from Steli," just go to Twice a week, I release a podcast with my great friend Hiten Shah, founder of Kissmetrics. He's a marketing genius, and he's kind of the quiet, yoga-like master, and I'm more of the loud, obnoxious Greek. So together, we make a pretty good duo.

We talk about sales and marketing, but we also talk about how the deaths of our parents affected us as entrepreneurs, how to be depressed, religion and entrepreneurship, all kinds of shit you usually don't hear people talk about. So check it out, if you like, to have that kind of content.

The hustle is simple. People are difficult

All right. So I'm going to teach you everything I know about the hustle. And to me and to many people here, especially if you have some of the 500 Startup folks and a mentor there, we've gone through Y Combinator, so I have the incubator badge of honor, if you want. But in Silicon Valley, there's only really three people, and in startups in general, that I believe truly add value.

You either design products, you build products, or you hustle. One of these three things. Anything else and you're really just destroying value in the early days of the startup. So I'll teach you everything I know about hustle in just a few minutes. Because this shit is not difficult. This stuff, just in general – actually startups, businesses, business is not difficult. It's people that are fucking difficult. Right? It's yourself, your own emotions, your doubts, your fears, your hesitations, your ego.

That's what's fucking you up. That is what slows you down. That's what makes you make poor choices. It's not that it's so fucking complicated. We'd all like it to be like this, aw, this is so hard. It's not fucking hard. There's jobs that are hard. This is not hard. This is just challenging.

Check out our collection of motivational sales quotes to keep you hustling like a hungry mofo.

So, all the stuff that I'm going to teach you, everything that we're going to talk about is not hard to do. It's very easy to do. But you know, just in terms of like what it is that you have to accomplish or execute on. But that's going to make it very fucking hard for you to actually follow through with my advice, is your emotions because it's going to be uncomfortable.

And what you want to do – what we all want to do – I like to do it too – is just to do this. Right? Yeah, me too. We don't like to do this all the time. Right? This is fucking uncomfortable. I can't do this for hours. I do this for 2 seconds and I have to go down again. That's the shit that makes it hard. It's outside your comfort zone.

If you remember only one thing ...

If you only remember one thing from today, I want you to remember this one single thing. It's a mantra you can repeat to yourself every single fucking day, as you're running, working and hustling in a startup. And that's pain and discomfort is the signal. Say it with me, pain is the signal. What signal? That I'm going in the right direction. Whenever you're uncomfortable, you're going in the right direction because it's outside your comfort zone.

Anything you want to accomplish, anything that you desire to accomplish with your startup, you haven't accomplished yet, which means it's going to be outside your comfort zone. It's going to require you to grow and do things that are not within the ease realm of things that you already accomplished and mastered.

All right, so we'll start with the first step. There's just three simple steps to becoming a master in hustling. No. 1, you have to show up. No. 2, you have to follow up. No. 3 you have to go for the close. Again, not rocket science.

Show up ...

What does showing up mean? Showing up is actually the easiest exercise. It translates into all kinds of forms. Showing up could be coming to a conference like this. Showing up could mean picking up the fucking phone and calling somebody.

Showing up can mean sending that email. Showing up is meaning you make that first step to connect with another human being or group of other human beings in order to be able to start a relationship and make something happen. It doesn't matter what that relationship is. It could be to sell to a customer, get an investor, get somebody to write about you in press coverage, hire someone.

Whatever it is you do, you're always going to need to reach out and show up to a group or an individual human being to accomplish something together. Or influence them in a way where they move in the direction you want them to move into.  Very, very simple.

Showing up is the simplest thing to do, but it's still very fucking hard. I'll tell you one simple story of my first intern that I hired – or he hired himself, very, very quickly. When I was running that first startup in Silicon Valley, I had this kid, he was in university in Germany, and he loved my product and my platform, and he wanted to Skype with me.

And one day I took a quick Skype call with him. And at the end of the Skype call, he goes, "Steli, just before I hang up, are you really busy?" I was like, "Of course we're really busy. Of course. Of course we're really busy. All day long we're really busy." He's like, "Okay, cool. Bye." And he hangs up. I was like, "All right, whatever."

Three weeks later I get an email from him. "Hey, Steli, since you're so busy, I decided to drop out of school. I bought a ticket to San Francisco. I'm arriving tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. and I'm starting my unpaid internship with your company. You can pick me up from the airport, but you don't have to because I know my way to your office." I'm like, holy fucking shit. This kid just hired himself. Right? Well if he has the balls to show up, I'm going to go and pick him up, right? It's the least that I can do.

This kid hustled so fucking hard every single fucking day in that startup. He never asked for anything, not for a salary, not for equity, not for a title. He did not give a fuck. All he wanted to do was to create value. All he wanted to do was help me accomplish my goal, and in the process, growing himself.

I had other people on the team. They constantly came to me, "Steli, I need a better title. If I only was the founder, I could do more for you. I could help me. But I'm constrained by my title. I just can't do anything." That kid didn't give a fuck. He was going everywhere, hustling everywhere.

I would go to events, and people would go, "Oh, you work at this company? Oh yeah, I met the founder, Bjorn. Oh it must be awesome to work for him." And I was like, "Yeah, he's pretty dope." I knew he was not introducing himself as founder, but they saw him everywhere, and he always represented the business, and at point, they went, I guess he's the founder.

Eventually he became the cofounder, and then eventually today, he's running his own business very successfully in Silicon Valley as the CEO. Because he never bothered to ask for permission because permission is for suckers. He just went and took what he wanted, created a shit ton of value, and never looked back.

Let me tell you the most valuable piece of advice that I give all around the world on being invited to rooms like this, and I always teach one simple thing. And this simple thing is that is just insanity, and I have proof – I'm writing a book on it. It's going to be full of case studies, and if you want, we could add a few more case studies from this room in the book.

Then follow up and through

Because every day by this point, I get about five emails from people telling me how they closed multi-million dollar deals, how they raised millions of rounds, how they got press, how they hired these senior hires, all just by following this simple advice. Showing up is hard. But most people know they need to show up. But you know where fortunes are being made, where you crush the competition? Is in the follow-up and follow-through. Because there you're the only one competing.

Most people, they start a relationship, we talk, we like each other, you say yes, you might buy my product, yes, you might invest. Then I go back home, I send you an email as a follow-up. I send you another email. I don't hear anything from you, and I go, oh, I guess he thinks I'm ugly.

I guess he doesn't like me. I guess – I just make up a story of rejection. Well, I have news for you. Silence does not equal rejection. And I'm not a mind-reader. You know what my hypothesis is on your silence? You're busy and you have a life. Maybe your kid got sick. Maybe something happened at work.  I'm just not a priority for a minute. When I have a positive direction with you, I will – and I email you and I don't hear from you, I will follow up indefinitely.  This means forever, until I hear back from you.

Now some of you might think, Steli, forever? And I say, yes, forever.  I have a simple example. One billionaire founder from Silicon Valley, I got introduced to him early on when we were raising our round. He replied and said, "Yes, sure, I'm going to take a meeting with Steli."

I emailed him once and I didn't hear anything back. I emailed him twice. I emailed him, nothing back. I emailed him three times and I heard nothing back. Forty-eight emails later, I got a reply.

You know what the reply was? "Thank you, Steli for the follow-up and follow-through. We had a crisis overseas. I had to leave the country. Some other things came up. I'm going to be tomorrow in San Francisco, 1:00 p.m. at my office. Do you want to drop by and meet me?" And I was like, "Fuck, yeah, motherfucker. Why do you think I sent you 48 emails? Because I don't want to meet with you?" Right? And he ended up investing in our company.

This is not a single story. I'm telling you, every day somebody emails me and says, "This follow-up shit works." I'm like, yeah. You don't have to be intellectual. You don't have to be crazy. Just keep following up and following through when nobody else does, and you're going to crush it.

The secret of closing

And the last piece, in terms of closing, here's the whole secret of closing when it comes to sales and startups. You just have to ask for it. Most people never do. Don't finish the conversation just going, "I hope they're going to buy." Just go, "Hey, are you ready to make this happen? Do you guys want to invest? How big are the chances of you investing? Hey, do you have your credit card with you?" Create a moment of truth.

Don't just go, "They really liked it. They smiled so I'm going to go back to my team and go, 'They really liked it. I think they're going to buy.'" No, don't shy away from this shit. It's uncomfortable. Most of us don't ask for the close because we don't want to hear no. I want you to embrace the no. Ask for the close early. Ask often.

Expect the yes. Embrace the no. Somebody tells you no, go, "Awesome. What's missing? What do we still have to do? What did I mess up? What's missing for this to happen, for us to make this shit happen? What do we need to do?" It's not rocket science. All it takes is emotional strength, not physical one. You know, one of my favorite quotes from Warren Buffet is, the one single thing he looks for in CEOs, is not intellectual strength, it's emotional stability.

I love that. Emotional stability. Somebody that's able to manage their own emotions, especially through the highs and the lows and the fucking freaking peaks and valleys of running this wild roller coaster ride called the startup. Right. When you learn to overcome your fears, go outside your comfort zone, ask for things, although you expect somebody to tell you something you don't like, magic happens.

Yes is good. And I'll leave you with this thought. In startups, when you ask for something – it doesn't matter if it's a customer or an investor or whatever it is – yes is great. No is good. Maybe is where your startup is going to go to fucking die. That's the place where your company is going to fucking die. The more business relationships, partnerships, press conversations, investors, the more shit you do that's all busy, busy, busy, but in the maybe space – we don't know, we think it's going to work out, we hope, we wish, we dream – that's where you're going to go fucking die.

Your job is create moments of truth every single day. Get the yes, get the no. Learn from it, improve, iterate, move on. But don't shy away from anything that's outside your comfort zone because the more comfortable you are, the faster you're going to die.

With this positive and uplifting note, I'm going to leave the next speaker to go and give you a nice message. If you want to get in touch with me, then shoot me an email, I've written about tons of things. I've written a bunch of books about startup sales. If you're in the middle of doing that, happy to send you the book and help in any way I can. Thank you so much so sharing the 15 minutes with me. Thank you so much, guys.

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