Ask the expert: How to deal with rejection and follow your instincts

For Arum Kang, co-founder of the dating app Coffee Meets Bagel, entrepreneurship was in her blood. Originally from South Korea before immigrating to San Francisco, her father ran his own scrap iron business and her mother managed bars and restaurants. After obtaining her MBA degree from Harvard Business School, Arum co-founded Coffee Meets Bagel with sisters Soo and Dawoon Kang. In 2015, Arum and her sisters pitched the idea on Shark Tank and famously rejected the single largest offer in Shark Tank history.

Coffee Meets Bagel is a competitor to the likes of Tinder and Bumble, making over one billion introductions to date. Arum and her Coffee Meets Bagel team are responsible for more than 100,000 couples in happy relationships.

In celebration of her entrepreneurial success, QuickBooks sat down with Arum to learn about her most impactful business lessons:

What’s the one thing you wished you knew before starting your business?

To be comfortable with a “no.” Early on, I would get really discouraged by rejections— whether from investors, candidates, or potential partners. I would feel embarrassed and assume they would never be interested in working together. So I would simply stop following up after the first “no.” Over time I got used to rejections and stopped taking it so personally, and instead started to think of ways to get them interested again. Some of my best advisors and hires came from people I was persistent enough to continue conversations with. Plus, you gain valuable insights from every “no,” which then leads you to reflect, make changes, and be able to come back with a better decision. I’m only human so sometimes it still feels bad to get rejected, but rather than dwelling on it, I lean into it more.

How do you believe technology will impact the way we do business during the next 10 years?

In the last 12 months the pandemic forced us to work remotely and completely changed our perception of what’s possible as a distributed team. I believe this trend will continue, and technology will enable people to work from anywhere, in any time zone. In a sense, technology has already enabled that in the relationship space—we can connect easily with people anywhere we go. So, why not at work? At Coffee Meets Bagel, we recently got rid of our office space permanently and are rethinking how we define the workspace. For the new generation of workforce, having the flexibility and freedom to design their work and life in the way they want is important, and I believe creating that will be an important talent strategy for small businesses who must compete with giant companies for the same pool of talent.

What support has helped you the most in business? What resources did you find most helpful?

My peers are absolutely the most important and influential support I’ve found, and I highly recommend that business owners find a peer group that they can tap into. I have several peer groups I’m part of—female founders, a CEO group called Vistage, and a few close sets of other founders I speak with regularly. Trust me, none of the problems you encounter as a business owner are new – it’s something someone has gone through. It’s incredibly valuable to hear from peers about how they have navigated their challenges, not to mention they provide mental and emotional support. Peer groups are also a great way to share resources—whenever I’m looking to work with a new vendor or use new tools, I ping my group and see if someone has a great referral to share. We also know that this is a tough journey, so we try to be there for each other.

How do you know you are making the right calls—especially during tough times like over the last year?

I’m a huge believer in tuning in to how I feel internally to guide my decisions. Whenever I find myself dwelling on a decision, I listen. This is then a time to lean into my body and be curious about what’s going on. Often, this happens when I’ve rushed into a decision or have not been fully candid with what was on my mind during important conversations. Then the next thing I often do is confer with my team—again and again. Often there are no “right” calls. We make the best calls possible given the context, and I believe the only way to make the best calls is to work as a team.

How do you handle adversity, set-backs, doubt?

By investing in myself. Entrepreneurship is often compared to a rollercoaster ride. You have huge ups and downs, and they never seem to stop! So the only thing you can do is to work on how you react to them. Otherwise, you will break down. I invest in myself in several ways. First, I’m an avid reader, I especially enjoy reading books from other CEOs and business leaders. It’s amazing how much you can learn from these books—it’s like you have a new mentor you can learn from every week for less than $20! Second, I invest in my mental wellness. I am fortunate to be able to have a great coach and access to programs like Positive Intelligence that enables me to exercise my mental strength. Third, having a great partner (such as my co-founder or my spouse) and peer groups is a huge help in getting over adversity, setbacks, and doubt. It’s harder to go through it alone.

What’s the one skill set as a business owner that you would like to perfect?

Listening. I think this is the single most important skill in working effectively with people. It sounds trite, but rarely has anyone truly perfected this skill. And when you encounter someone who has, they are like magnets because you instantly feel heard and understood—communication flows, you feel open and energized. Can you imagine working with people like that every day? Work would feel like a joy! Being able to REALLY listen to people’s underlying emotions, commitments, and motivations, and make sure they feel understood is powerful. Often, I’m too occupied with my own agenda to be able to really listen—it requires one to completely empty your mind, but this is really hard. It requires a lot of practice and training.

What would you say was the single most influential factor in your business’ success?

Product-market fit. Your product is everything, especially at the beginning. When you have identified your core customer base who love your product because you offer something compelling to them, that’s product-market fit. Too often, we’re distracted by other things or choose to invest or scale the business before there is a true product-market fit. Don’t hire too many people, raise too much money, or invest in marketing and other things before you feel confident about product-market fit.

Best piece of business advice you have ever received and given?

I’ve gotten so much great advice that it’s hard to pick one thing. But if I have to pick one piece of advice that made a huge difference for our business, it’s to put together the best leadership team you can rely on. Your executives must be domain experts in areas that you lack expertise in, and they need to be able to guide you (not the other way around!) in how to set strategy, create processes, and build a team in their domain. If I were to do everything over, I would have put my leadership team together a lot sooner.

What advice would you give someone looking to launch a tech start-up or new product innovation that they probably haven’t heard before?

Obsess over your customers, not your competitors. Too often, I see people obsessing over what competitors are doing. This is NOT how true innovation takes place. When you obsess over competitors, you will create copycats. When you obsess over your customers and their needs, that’s when you can have true breakthrough innovations. It’s also important to know who your customers are first. I would spend most of my time talking to customers, showing them the experience and getting feedback That’s invaluable.

What is your definition of business success?

Success can be defined in so many ways and it’s important for me to have a clear picture of what I would consider a “success” every year. Of course, how you define long-term success is important, too. But entrepreneurship is such a long journey that it’s important to enjoy success throughout. A helpful exercise I do is at the end of every year, I ask myself: What do I want to be celebrating at the end of next year? And then I visualize that. This is helpful for me because I can feel my energy level go up as I think about what would make me truly happy to be celebrating. This will vary from anything as concrete as hitting our aspirational quarterly and annual metrics goals, to milestones such as successful fundraising, to what I would like our company culture to look like or how many couples we aim to create.

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