What do you do?
It’s a question you’ll hear all the time, whether it’s at social gatherings or professional occasions. It can be the ubiquitous, standard get-to-know-you question, or it can be the start of an important conversation about business.
Whether the person asking really wants to know, or is just being polite, we all need to have an answer ready. However, too few of us put the necessary time and effort into crafting an answer that makes an impact.
For entrepreneurs, the answer matters more — way more than it does for the conventionally employed. Being able to explain your “job,” your background, and your motivations is a huge part of your personal branding. Whether you’re interviewing a potential business collaborator, or just making nice with your significant others’ relatives, your answer needs to resonate.
Being able to explain what you do will show the world that you’re competent, confident, and dedicated to a mission that makes sense. It’ll separate you from those who are just playing entrepreneur, and demonstrate the legitimacy of the path you’ve chosen.
In fact, having a good answer might be just as important to you — and your understanding of your own goals — as it is to others.
Stories Are the Answer
The key to explaining what you do comes down to being a good storyteller. People understand — and are interested in — narratives, not isolated information.
If you master a few basic stories about your entrepreneurial journey, you can not only avoid the awkwardness of explaining your career; you can fascinate people. You can impress. Knowing, practicing, and delivering a few good stories can simultaneously fill people in, and make them want to learn more.
This can give you serious advantages, socially and professionally. The doors you can open with a good story are endless.
So before your next conference, interview, or cocktail party, master the stories that — in just a few short minutes — will introduce yourself and your business in a way the listener won’t forget.
Story #1: The Story of Your Product
As an entrepreneur, you sell something: a physical product, a service, software, whatever it is. It may be easy to explain and understand, like “I sell horse grooming kits.” In that case, you may be tempted to get specific about the product. It may be a little tougher, like “I help people learn how to develop effective chatbots,” in which case you might want to be more vague.
Both options are bad. Whatever you sell, you need to ditch the context-free information, and tell the story.
For example, our product is The $100 MBA. To simply say I sell an online business training course is all well and good, but it’s neither memorable in a social situation nor impressive in a professional one. Instead, I tell the story of how I went to Wharton business school — and dropped out.
Realizing that business school doesn’t offer a great ROI for would-be entrepreneurs was a pivotal moment in the story of our business. Yes, offering an alternative to blowing thousands on an overpriced degree is what I do, but walking out of Wharton is what I did to get where I am. And it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than describing our course format.
It takes less than 30 seconds. I went to a school, decided I could do better on my own, and walked away to build something for everyone who has a similar impulse. I don’t go into any further detail unless I’m asked (which I often am). But the story itself is short, sweet, and leaves people curious.
Story #2: Why You Became an Entrepreneur
Another advantage we entrepreneurs have in the “What do you do?” conversation is that entrepreneurship is inherently interesting. That’s because danger is interesting. Risk is interesting. A perfectly capable person choosing to leave the safety and stability of a regular job is just plain interesting.
It’s also fascinating because it’s rare. In a given room (outside of an entrepreneurial conference), you won’t find many independent business people. So when someone asks what you do, your answer will pique curiosity. When someone’s answer is “I’m a banker,” or “I’m a teacher,” or I’m an accountant,” the conversation usually ends there.
Take the opportunity to explain — briefly — why you chose to color outside the lines. Present yourself as someone who isn’t reckless, but isn’t afraid of risk. Emphasize your love of a challenge, but explain why you take risks that are manageable and sensible. And explain what inspired you to take the leap iin the first place.
In my case, it had a lot to do with a book. In the early days of the Internet, I wondered about the potential to make money independently. I experimented with selling items on eBay, and with other small projects that produced a small profit. Then I read Anyone Can Do It: Building Coffee Republic From Our Kitchen Table.
The book convinced me that I wasn’t crazy, that leaving my comfortable, secure teaching career wasn’t an act of recklessness, but a calculated risk. By explaining how I came to believe that entrepreneurship was a plausible, realistic option, I lend credibility to everything else I say.
Story #3: Your Biggest Screwup
Believe it or not, this comes up often. Whether it’s a follow-up question in a longer conversation, or an opening question from a fellow professional, interested people want to see your weak points. They want to know how and when you’ve failed — and you should be willing to tell them.
Telling the story of your greatest failure makes it clear that you’re not just some self-promoting narcissist. It demonstrates that you’re not naive or inexperienced, that you understand risks sometimes result in failure, and that you’re capable of moving forward after a stumble.
Think of a time you fell flat on your face in business (if you’ve spent any time at all in business, this has happened). Admit your errors candidly, and show how the lesson made you a better business person. The tale of your screwup can be more impressive than any success, because it shows your adaptability, your agility, and your resilience when things go badly.
And yes, I have a story about that, too.
Our beloved podcast, The $100 MBA Show, was not our first podcast. My business (and life) partner Nicole and I got in the podcast game with a little-known show that…let’s just say, was not great. It failed, miserably, because we weren’t playing to our strengths. Once I worked up the courage to admit that I was a way better teacher than interviewer, we were able to start over with a new format.
The rest, as they say, is history.
It’s been said that all a person is is a collection of stories. Tell yours, truthfully, and see what kind of mileage you can get. Write them down, and rehearse them. Get so comfortable with your stories that when you hear the question “What do you do?” it’ll be more than a polite inquiry. It’ll be the start of a meaningful conversation.