Getting rejected by one of the top hardware accelerator programs in the country is what got me in. Let me explain.
I had been conceptualizing Switcheroo for a while, and started working on the project full time about a year ago. Switcheroo is a simple, plug-and-play solution to reconfigure which lights turn on in a house with the existing switches, without WiFi or Bluetooth pairing, and without the need for an app.
Since Switcheroo was a hardware project, I was excited to learn that one of the top (and first) hardware accelerator programs in the country, AlphaLab Gear, was right in my hometown of Pittsburgh. I eagerly applied and was granted an interview (in pitch format), and I thought I did pretty well. Then I got the dreaded, "There were a lot of really fantastic applicants this year…" email. I didn't have to read the rest to know that I wasn't one of the companies that made the cut.
But with rejection comes a chance to learn, so I dropped my ego and immediately scheduled office hours with the folks at Gear. I learned that they were worried about the fact that I didn't have engineering in-house, and that my company was more of a small business focusing on, at that time, only one product.
Both points were fair, and I could see where they were coming from, so my next move was not one of headstrong refusal to see their points. Rather, I tapped into my negotiation skills and asked, "How do we find a way to both get what we want?"
Turning a "no" into a "yes"
AlphaLab Gear didn't want to invest money in my company. That was fine with me; I had already raised enough money at that point to get by for a while. I didn't want to miss out on the fantastic programming, publicity, and mentorship that came with the Gear program. These weren't mutually exclusive goals, so I made a proposal. I put together a vision of how I thought the Gear program could work for me — without investment and a dedicated office, but with access to the space and all of the benefits that being part of the program entailed.
I was going out on a limb, big time, but I had nothing to lose.
A few weeks later, I got a phone call: "Mike, we like your proposal. I know it is short notice, but can you make it to the founders' lunch on Tuesday for the start of the Gear cycle?"
Yes. Yes, I could. The program director didn't see my fist pump through her phone, but I think she could sense it.
As it turns out, they did like my proposal, to the extent that they invited Switcheroo and two other companies to join in this pilot program – companies that otherwise would have missed the cut.
Had I been outright accepted into AlphaLab Gear, I would have not understood the benefits of bringing the engineering in house, and I would be a lot further behind with product design than I am now. Instead, I am finalizing design details, preparing for mass manufacturing, and putting the final touches on a Kickstarter campaign.
To be clear, there is a right time to take "no" for an answer — a lot of the time, really. But there is often no harm in listening carefully to that "no," understanding why you are hearing it, and trying to figure out if there is a way to make a deal that will benefit both parties. The word "no" can often serve as an entry point to get some of the best feedback you can imagine.
About the author: Mike Neilson is the founder of Switcheroo, a company that makes home light automation hardware.
Edited for length and clarity by Nicole Taylor. Have a great entrepreneurial story to tell? Contact Nicole at firstname.lastname@example.org with your pitch.