Startup Resources

What makes an entrepreneur special? Some might say an entrepreneur is more likely to take risks. Others might argue that resourcefulness or innovation is the key to success. While these factors are certainly important, there’s one skill that truly separates successful entrepreneurs from the rest of the pack: dealing constructively with rejection. Rejection is everywhere. It’s all around us. Relationships with clients, vendors, affiliate partners, contractors, and even loved ones present daily encounters with rejection. Everyone loves to say “no”—or worse, “maybe” —particularly when it comes to business. If you’ve used oDesk for long, you’ve likely had a freelancer or client turn you down. How did you handle it when the perfect candidate said “no” to your offer? Or conversely, how did the highly qualified freelancer react when you chose someone else? Here’s a look at how to handle rejection, particularly when operating in a virtual setting.

Perspective: Sometimes a 70 percent rejection rate is great!

If you’re a fan of Major League Baseball (as I am), you know that players are typically considered all-stars if they can maintain a .300 batting average or better. In fact, Ted Williams—often regarded as the greatest hitter to ever play the game—had a career batting average of .344; statistically, this means that for every 1,000 times he batted, he was likely to get 344 base hits. What happened the other 656 times? He struck out, grounded out, or flew out. Notice the common word here is “out.” In baseball jargon, that’s the code word for “rejection.” On the flip side of the coin, the worst hitters in baseball are usually around a .200 batting average. In a league where the best players make $10 to $20 million per year and the worst make the league minimum ($490,000 annually), a difference of 10 percent makes a huge financial difference.

Applying baseball’s lessons about rejection

How can we apply this baseball analogy to business? To me, there’s an obvious lesson to learn about dealing with rejection: even the best players fail the vast majority of the time. Yet team management, fans, and the players themselves accept this level of performance as successful. In other words, you rarely have to be perfect; in some cases, you can be far from it. Business is no different. You must maintain the right perspective by understanding how success is defined in your field. For example, when I first started as an oDesk freelancer, my goal was to earn some supplemental income. However, as I began to apply for more jobs, I realized that my rejection rate was surprisingly constant. I started to track some basic metrics to correlate the number of job applications to interviews to closed deals. Looking back at the first two years of tracking this information, my baseline metrics were as follows:

  • 65 jobs applied for
  • 41 interviews
  • 17 closed-won jobs—a 73 percent rejection rate!

With such a high rejection rate, I was frustrated by getting turned down so frequently. Looking back, however, I know it only took 17 successes for me to build a solid book of business. Had I chosen to dwell on the first few rejections, things might have turned out differently (and for the worse). In your dealings with potential customers, team members, vendors and other stakeholders, what is your rejection rate? Do you know? I recommend you begin tracking these statistics and look for opportunities to improve.

Takeaways for handling rejection

On a more tactical level, consider the following suggestions. I try to do these when rejection inevitably comes knocking on my door.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Did the person really understand your offer? If so, what specifically did they not like about it? If you can get answers to these questions, you’ll surely learn a valuable lesson for future opportunities.
  • Be gracious and kind. Most likely the person rejecting you isn’t gleefully doing so. In fact, it was probably a difficult decision. Don’t compound their turmoil by being a jerk. Do the right thing and be polite, as their needs may change in the future and bring them back to you.
  • Follow up in the future. There’s nothing to stop you from following up in the future. Checking in is a great way to re-ignite a relationship, learn more about a potential client’s needs and polish your pitch.
  • Look for fallback wins. At a minimum, you might be able to add the person as a contact on LinkedIn, thus expanding your visible network. You might also add him or her to your newsletter list or other lead nurturing programs.

Maintaining a long-term perspective and staying dedicated to continuous improvement is the best advice I can give for handling rejection. Whether you’re a client in need of better freelancers, a freelancer hoping to win more clients, or simply an entrepreneur dealing with the many unknown variables in business, the principle remains the same: focus on the positive, learn from the negative, and keep growing as an entrepreneur.