How Shotguns and Politics Prepared me for Startups.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” I asked. We’d spent the day coaching recent college graduates on customer interviews and were finally sending them out on their own. They were nervous, as most people are when confronted with the task of talking to strangers.

“Wind up with a gun in your face,” one of them responded, joking.

In June of 2012 I was talking to strangers in Seattle. I’d found myself in a rare part of the city where the sidewalks ends. Each house had a lawn to play on and trees to hide in, the forest having crept up from Puget Sound, eerily engulfing this little neighborhood in a shade unusual for the Seattle summer. I was doorbelling, walking door-to-door talking to voters about a political candidate. Despite having talked to thousands of strangers before, I was scared.

I approached a slate blue house with white trim. It had a small side porch accessible by a disorderly gravel path that looked as if it’d been strewn together. I hastened my step as I marched toward the door, excited and scared and determined to win these strangers over.

I knocked once. Nothing. I knocked again. Nothing. Finally, I tried the bell, in case the owners were downstairs or out back and couldn’t hear me knocking.

I heard stomping, huffing, and a deadbolt shift. My heart hastened, beating quickly, nervously.

The door creaked open. I smiled, ready to launch into my pitch.

I was staring down the barrel of a shotgun.

The weathered face behind the gun screamed at me, louder and louder, demanding why I was on her doorstep, why I hadn’t responded to her earlier asks of who was there and what they wanted. She screamed and screamed as I stood there motionless, sweating, awed and silenced by the angry women holding a gun at me.

Finally I spoke. Apologizing, profusely. Eyes at the ground. I was so sorry I’d bothered. I hadn’t heard her ask who was there and what they wanted. I was so, so sorry.

I had tears in my eyes and was shaking, shaken by the very first gun in my face.

I hated my life. I hated my life so much right now all I could think about was crying and quitting my job and never ringing a doorbell ever again. I hated strangers. I hated talking. I hated politics and I hated selling candidates to people on their doorstep. I wanted to go home.

Eyes down, I quickly sputtered out an explanation. I was working for a candidate I thought she might be interested in. He was a Democrat, just like her. We were spending the afternoon talking to voters about the upcoming primary.

As I spoke, explaining what I was doing on her doorstep, the weathered face softened and the shotgun lowered, resting nose-down on the floor.

The women, a frequent-voter, a democrat, confessed she was a marine biologist who rarely found a candidate worthy of a vote. None of them ever seemed to give a “rats ass” about the environment. She was an avid bird-watcher who loved spending afternoons in Carkeek Park. Blue Herons were her favorite, and their recent troubles in the park had left her disgruntled with our notoriously “environmentally-friendly” city.

Timidly, I launched into a more calculated version of my candidate’s environmental feats.

She smiled.

We continued talking for 20 minutes. At the end she asked for a yard sign and where she could find out more. She was excited to see him speak at some of the upcoming events in the community.

“Someone will pull a gun on you,” I told the teams as they filed out of the building.  They laughed and exhaled, amused by my seeming sarcasm. I laughed too, because I knew it to be true.

Talking to customers always starts off a little scary. Sometimes people yell at you, sometimes they reject you, sometimes they ignore you. At some point, you may even end up staring down the barrel of a gun. Whatever happens, hold steady. You can turn it around. Remember, you are not selling anything, you are here to learn. Tell them what you’re doing and why, then shut up and listen.

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