Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help

Finding people who share your enthusiasm might be the best investment you ever make.

All by yourself, working nights and weekends, you’ve built a functional prototype. You’ve done your research on market size and on the competition. You may have even thrown together a website that’s good enough to get you through the first few months.


But no matter how much you can get done on your own, at some point you need to ask for help.


This is different from asking for money (although raising money can also help a lot, not least because it allows you to pay for help). But separate from fund-raising, one of the most important skills you can develop—in a business context or otherwise—is the ability to get people to help you with things because they want to, not because you are paying them to.


Let me head off the most common objection at the pass: this isn’t about exploitation. Enlisting voluntary aid is a common occurrence. Whether you’re a grade-school teacher enlisting parents’ help to set up a bake sale, a nonprofit leader assembling a board of trustees, or a college student persuading friends to co-create a club—in each case, you’re seeking assistance from people who are happy to help because they’re invested in the outcome.


Developing this skill can certainly accelerate your progress, but that’s not even the biggest benefit it brings. Knowing how to motivate people using personal satisfaction rather than compensation is universally relevant. It might be one of the most broadly useful things you can learn how to do.


In retrospect, I’m lucky that I got to start developing this skill long before I learned how to raise money. I got years of practice getting people to help me with things for the fun of it. In high school, I recruited my friends to help me start an alternative newspaper. In college, as president of the Outing Club, I recruited people to lead trips. Later, I recruited a team to start a humor magazine with me.


Recruiting people to help when you can’t afford to pay them forces you to understand people’s motivations, and that helps you set up tasks that matter to them.  You learn to balance the cool stuff with the must-do stuff. And since you usually have less help than you want, you learn to focus on what’s important.


And then, when you are finally in a position to be able to pay people…well that’s the icing on the cake.


Over the seven companies I’ve founded, I’ve repeatedly found that when things were at their darkest, there was always someone there to help. But this isn’t a story of luck and miraculous salvation. No, the people who were there to support me when things got desperate were the ones who were there all along. Because I made sure that they were.


When you find people who are as motivated by the mission as they are by the money, you don’t let them go. They’re the rare souls who are going to find the whole crazy startup thing exciting rather than exasperating. They’re the ones who have no problem jumping schizophrenically from one task to another. They’re the people who don’t need convincing to stay late on Friday to work on something you need by Monday (in fact, they’re often the ones you need to convince to not come in on Saturday).


You may meet or work with scores of people before you find someone like this, but once you do, you know where to find them. Then when you have another crazy idea, it’s just a matter of “getting the band back together again.”  At Netflix, our head of product, Christina Kish, had worked with me at my previous company. My first board member, Stephen Kahn, was with me at the startup before that. And my head of marketing, Te Smith, was with me at the company before that. 


So, I guess rule one is: ask for help.  

And rule two is: when you find someone who is helpful, hold on to them.


Many ideas in this post were first discussed in the Neverland entrepreneurial community. Join us there!

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