By Alex Schiff, University of Michigan
Last week, I had a good hour-long conversation with a friend about stock options. Somehow, the conversation turned to communication skills in business and how they manifest differently in the two of us. He has excellent verbal skills—give him enough time on the phone or in person and he can convince you of just about anything. By contrast, I’m a writer (I know, shocking), and I’m much more comfortable in my email inbox or writing a blog post than I am on the phone.
While our specific areas of expertise differ, we both agreed that in entrepreneurship knowing how to communicate is probably the most important skill you can have. You are always relaying information to someone—be it what makes you different, why you’re a good place to work, product design decisions, etc. If you can’t do that in some way, pack up and go home now. With an unproven track record, people are typically starting with the assumption that you suck and it’s your job to convince them otherwise.
Being able to communicate has been critical to my career path, even outside entrepreneurship. I can attribute nearly every major opportunity I’ve ever had to my ability to write. And once I was in those positions, it helped propel me up the ladder and take on leadership positions. The chance to take on the roles I did simply would not have presented themselves without this skill.
When I arrived at the University of Michigan, my dad encouraged me to join the newspaper, The Michigan Daily. I didn’t want to become a writer or journalist or anything, but I went to a few meetings and became really interested. I dabbled in sports, but eventually I found a home in opinion. I was enthralled, and I pretty much devoted my entire freshman year to the Daily. My writing skill allowed me to move up to be an editor, columnist and eventually the head of the opinion section during the summer.
During my last summer at the Daily, I applied to a media startup, Benzinga, as a “financial writer.” I didn’t have much of an interest in professional writing but when you’re looking for a job in Michigan you take whatever you can get. Because I had a strong portfolio of published work and was able to fake some stock market knowledge, I was hired.
Soon enough, I proved that I could write more than articles and started to help out with business development emails to potential partners. I became the “help me word this better” guy in the office, and eventually I was the one leading the charge. To do that, I had to learn how to sell our value on the phone. My old boss Jason still likes to make fun of how he used to randomly dial up the heads of major publications and hand the phone to me—a classic example of learning how to swim by being thrown in the pool. But it made me a better verbal communicator, a skill that was definitely lagging.
Combined with all this was the fact that at least half of my classes at the Ross School of Business required a presentation component. For as long as I can remember, I’ve hated speaking in front of people. I used to shake or even twitch uncontrollably when I had to do it in middle school. But like most things in my life, I learned how to get over it by the tried and true principle of JFDI—just fucking do it.
These experiences refined my ability to communicate my ideas, which has been absolutely crucial for me since I co-founded Fetchnotes. Especially because of my young age, I need to be able to start relationships with other entrepreneurs, investors, etc. in order to grow my network. I need to engage with early adopters and sell them on why our product is going to beat the crap out of its competitors. I need to get the world interested in what we’re doing.
So if I can give anyone a single piece of advice from my experience over the last few years, it’s learn how to communicate. Write, speak, present, draw or do interpretive dance for all I care. Just make sure that the people who matter are on your side when they leave the room.
Alex Schiff is a co-founder of The New Student Union.