Shut out with 43 rejections

Our effort to enlist investors for SMART was for naught. No one would invest. With hindsight, that gave us the control we needed to grow the company.

Shut out with 43 rejections by Nancy Knowlton

When Dave and I first came up with the idea for the SMART Board interactive whiteboard, we shopped it around to multiple potential investors. No idea can get off the ground without money, and for us it was no different. We were completely prepared to put in the requisite sweat equity for a considerable period of time, but to really get things going, we needed cold, hard cash to pay other people to work with us. While we could do some things alone, we needed technical resources for both software and hardware development. Those skills were not easy to find and they were far from free.

Searched far and wide

Our search for investors took us far and wide. We traveled to the United States to speak to well-known venture capitalists, eager for the opportunity to speak with people who had a deep technology understanding. We would not move to Silicon Valley, and that precluded any investment in our fledgling operation. We hosted local smaller investors who said that they wanted to diversify their investments away from strictly an energy base. But in the end, after multiple meetings, they just couldn’t wrap their heads around something that they fundamentally didn’t understand.

Searched locally

Within our own city and province we spoke to and met with every venture capital entity. Many of the engagements were in-depth, with multiple meetings with ever-higher hurdles over which we needed to jump. We prepared and delivered presentation after presentation. We answered an endless stream of questions. As it turned out, it was all for naught. No one bit at our proposition, not even those who encouraged and repeatedly met with us.

43 for 43 rejections

The score at the end of it all? 43 for 43 rejections. We suspect that this might be some sort of record. Baseball players never bat 1000, but here we were doing just that. For the first 5 years of SMART’s existence, we couldn’t talk an investor into investing a dime. Far from being discouraged, we decided to put our heads down and just get on with building the business. We sold another company’s products to earn the capital that we needed to develop our own products.

We have often reflected on what prompted us to keep going in the face of this level of rejection. For us, it started with a deep belief in what we were doing. We saw the value in our product, and we thought that it was merely a function of getting the message out. We had boundless optimism that bit by bit we could build something that made a difference. We loved the work and really enjoyed working with the people who had joined us in our mission. Then to top it off – we felt that we had no choice but to follow through on the path that we had set for ourselves.

Hindsight

It would have been hard to predict this at the time, but not having an investor with financing was actually good for us. Dave and I had control of the company, and we could do what amounted to the right thing to grow the business for the long term. We could be patient to let the market develop. We could thoughtfully and deeply engage with education customers to understand their needs to position us for long-term strength. We could invest in building a brand, not through words but through consistent actions executed by a dedicated team with a long-term focus. And that type of patience and long-term view was exactly what was needed to nurture a new product and a new category.

As we have so often reflected, things seem to work out as they should. In our case, rejection gave us freedom even as it forced us to be creative to survive. 43 rejections weren’t so bad after all. Everyone gave up on us except for us and our small, determined team – and that was all that mattered.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.