Book Review — Backable by Suneel Gupta

This morning, I finished Backable: The Surprising Truth Behind What Makes People Take a Chance on You by Suneel Gupta. Gupta is an American entrepreneur who serves on the faculty at Harvard University, where he teaches students how to be Backable. The book was written in 2021.

An interesting anecdote about Gupta was how the New York Times did a full-length story on failure with his face at the top of the piece. If you googled “failure” at the time, one of your top results would be that full-length Times article featuring him. It was so bad that his mum called his wife and asked them to move back home if this ‘entrepreneurship’ thing was not working. He became the poster child for defeat. His inbox was jammed with consolation messages. Even when he refused to move back home, his parents offered to help pay his rent for that month. Old law school professors reached out to him to help him find a real job. Friends he hadn’t spoken to in years offered words of sympathy.

According to him, that experience spurred him to ditch the fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude of success. In fact, he used the article as a way to turn the situation around. He began emailing highly successful people, using the Times article to break the ice. He’d write things like, “As you can see from the article below, I don’t know what I’m doing. Would you be willing to grab coffee and give me some advice?” Fast forward a few years later, and Gupta 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 and selling his startup for nearly $20 million dollars two years after its launch. His ideas have been backed by firms like Greylock and Google Ventures, and he has invested in startups including Airbnb, Calm, and SpaceX.

This 256-page book is the culmination of the lessons he has learned from pitching his ideas to investors, coaching entrepreneurs to pitch to investors, and being an investor watching entrepreneurs pitch ideas to him.

The most successful people aren’t just brilliant…they’re backable. Being backable isn’t just for celebrities and CEOs. It’s a required skill for anyone who is trying to make it in the world. How do you make others go out of their way to support you in your idea or business, whether in cash or kind? Gupta attempts to answer this question in seven steps he teaches to those interested in being backable in hospitals, companies, charities, and studios. He joined the faculty at Harvard University to teach students how to launch backable careers.

Being able to convince others to back you can be a matter of life and death. For instance, the morning the space shuttle Challenger was launched by NASA, Bob Ebeling pounded his car’s steering wheel and, with tears in his eyes, said, “Everyone’s going to die.” The day before, Ebeling had sounded the alarm that the cold temperature expected overnight would stiffen the rubber O-ring seals, causing them to malfunction. He assembled the data, called a meeting, and attempted to persuade his colleagues to delay the launch. It didn’t work. Seventy-three seconds after takeoff, the shuttle disintegrated, killing all aboard, even crew members, including Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher to travel to space. Ebeling spent the rest of his life blaming himself for his inability to convince the people in that room. Before his death, he told NPR, “I think that’s one of the mistakes God made. He shouldn’t have picked me for that job.”

Had he been able to convince the crew, their lives would have been saved. While some people are natural salesmen, Gupta shows in his book that others like us can follow certain steps to improve our chances. And the first thing he recommends is, Convince Yourself. Peter Chernin, the Oscar-nominated producer of The Greatest Showman said that when he’s undecided on whether to back an idea, he’ll sometimes look at the filmmaker or entrepreneur and say, ‘That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.’ Then he’ll wait to see if they back down or show conviction.” Too many of us try to convince others about our ideas without taking time to convince ourselves. As the reader will see in the sub-steps of this first step, the best way to have people back you is to take time to build conviction in your new idea.

One of the things that surprised me was when he analyzed the communication styles of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Sir Ken Robinson (who delivered the number one TED Talk of all time). You would think they would have delivered great speeches. But look again, and you will see that they failed Public Speaking 101. Robinson stood with a slight slouch and a hand in his pocket, Elon fidgeted with his hands, and Jobs said “uh” at least eighty times. According to the author, the reason Robinson has held the top TED spot for years, Musk’s forty-minute presentation has about 2 million views, and Jobs’ iPhone launch is one of the most widely discussed product announcements of all time is because of their conviction, not their charisma. Backable people earnestly believe in what they’re saying, and they simply let that belief shine through whatever style feels most natural. If you want to convince others, you must convince yourself first. Using four action steps, he shows the reader how to truly convince yourself of your idea.

#NewWordAlert apoplectic

Another step I found fascinating is Step 4, where he teaches how to make an idea feel inevitable. You have to be an armchair anthropologist. The novelty of an idea is highlighted in most pitches. However, credible presentations show why a concept simply must be implemented, or else there will be regrets. When raising capital, Airbnb’s founders needed to persuade backers that people would be comfortable opening their homes to complete strangers. To convince investors, they didn’t explain how they imagined the world should be, but rather demonstrated how it was already moving in that direction. One of the most important slides in Airbnb’s first pitch deck demonstrated how popular home-sharing platforms like Couchsurfing.com and Craigslist already were. Unlike what most people thought, Jobs did not introduce the iPhone as a novelty idea so much as a product that was brought about because that is where the world is already going. FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is real, and investors do not want to feel regret years from now that they didn’t back what was inevitable. Again, in 4 practical sub-steps, Gupta leads the reader into actions that can be taken to make people back an idea based on where the world is going, not where you want the world to be.

I think most people reading this would enjoy Step 6: Play Exhibition Matches. The Rule of 21 is especially good and highlights how building enough “recovery muscle” has no substitute.

At the beginning of this review, I mentioned that the book is 256 pages, right? Well, not really. Over 100 pages are in the appendix. Gupta delivered his points succinctly and straight to the point, using relevant examples. Appendix 1 provides helpful chapter summaries, while Appendix 2 includes short highlights from interviews with nine experts on how to be backable. I can imagine how the reader could get to the middle of the book and see that it’s finished. That could elicit some feelings of being shortchanged, having bought the book for $21. But the bright side is that the summary pages are useful as a reference.

The other misgiving the reader may have is that while the book says it’s about getting people to back you in any situation, like in a career, the bulk of it is dedicated to getting people to invest in your startup.

If you don’t mind these two misgivings, then you are likely to agree that this book is a decent attempt at making entrepreneurs less frustrated in their capital-raising ventures.

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