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Startup life in the time of Corona, Lesson 5: Ghosting and breadcrumbing

In this series, I share with you some of the key learnings I have had from my first 6 months of launching my first startup (Shiageto Consulting) and how those lessons are applicable for the challenges my business is facing during this pandemic crisis (and any business at any time in fact)

The initial challenge

Some days, when running my business, I can't help but feel that I'm the 'mark' in some elaborate con artist film. For those who don't know what a 'mark' is, they are the hopeless victim of the con, who only discovers later on, once the con artists are long gone, that they have been scammed.

What do I mean by this? Well, I've had countless times in the last 6 months where I've been engaged in conversation with a former client, an old acquaintance or a friend about an opportunity, a catch up or even just exchanging pleasantries and then suddenly they just disappear.

Doesn't matter whether I try emailing, calling or even going round their office (ok, maybe not this last one and not just because of lockdown), I can not for the life of me get back in touch with them. Has this happened to you?

If you haven't experienced this, then you are a very lucky person indeed. If you have and you wondered if there is a term for this, there is, it is called Ghosting. You may have heard this term before as it's come to prominence in recent years from the world of online dating where it is very prevalent.

Unfortunately it is becoming quite common in the business world too. I am naturally a positive person and like to think the best in everyone so when someone disappears just as we are arranging time for a catch up or just after I have sent them a proposal, I tend to think the worst and get worried for their welfare and want to check in with those around them to check that they haven't been struck down by Coronavirus or befallen a terrible accident. I find that I have to reign in my worries because, since running my own firm, this happens to such a frequency that I'm beginning to come across as some deranged stalker :o (just ask one of my clients where I found myself ringing the CFO to check if the CEO was OK because he hadn't replied to multiple emails and phonecalls at a critical time just after asking me for a detailed proposal to support them).

How about the time another client asked to meet up? We agreed a day and a time but didn't confirm a location as they were travelling a lot at that time and weren't quite sure where they would be; they assured me that they would sort out their diary and send me an invite with all the details. As the days got closer, I hadn't heard anything so I emailed to see if we had a location in mind; no response! I emailed again the next day; nothing! I then rang several times; no answer! I took to sending WhatsApps and texts but never heard back from them. My mind flooded with bad thoughts about what might have happened to them on their travels and was genuinely concerned. To this day, they still haven't replied to me and now I'm paranoid that perhaps I insulted them in some way that we went from a situation of looking forward to catching up to this [utterly baffling and not what I expect from the modern business world].

Unfortunately I could regale you readers with multiple more stories of similar ilk (and fortunately I love a good story so see each of them as not a bad experience, but a valuable learning opportunity and a good story).

The other phenomenon that I have began to experience more and more is that of breadcrumbing; this is almost the reverse of ghosting, where a contact is regularly in touch but with no major purpose. They string out the conversation (literally bread crumb you along), with no intention of meeting up or offering work, often making small requests. This might seem innocuous but at best it robs me of some of my time, at worst they actually are trying to draw out information/advice for free that is core to my business.

Why do people inflict ghosting and breadcrumbing? This is something I have thought a lot about (to be honest, I've also explored why I've done it in the past). Ruling out that they are intentionally being malicious (which may happen in a few circumstances), I have come to the conclusion that the biggest driver of this is that they would rather avoid you or string you along than to be honest and have to say no. I have discovered that this is particularly the case with certain cultures who are not accustomed to directness, where adopting ghosting or breadcrumbing is seen as more preferable to having, what they believe, will be a difficult conversation. Trust me, this is far more painful!

Trying to convince yourself that it is happening for other reasons ("I'm too busy to get back to them" or "I'm genuinely undecided if I want to work with them") is not just disingenuous, it's also lying to yourself.

At first I would get quite frustrated each time I was ghosted or breadcrumbed, but as I have become more experienced I have toughened up and developed an approach to handling them (and the emotions that come with them) - which I will outline below.

How has the pandemic amplified my challenge?

There's been an unfortunate uplift in both ghosting and breadcrumbing as a result of the pandemic. This is perhaps understandable. On the one hand, some of the previously great contacts I have had have disappeared off the face of the earth as they have become subsumed by difficult times. On the other hand, I'm finding that those who have more time on their hands seem to be in more regular contact with nothing specific in mind.

Considering the tough times, I am happy to accommodate both sets of behaviours. These are exceptional times after all and I hope once we settle down there will be less of both.

So, what are my takeaways from this learning?

As I mentioned above, I've come to the realisation that I can't stamp out these behaviours in others so the more effective thing has been to choose how I will handle them (and to make sure I try not to do these things either in my professional nor personal life). For me, it boils down to 3 things that I do:

  1. Keep the faith: I am definitely an optimist, so unless I've been shown the contrary, I will give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I won't necessarily ring their mum to check they are OK but I will assume that they are not being a douchebag and that circumstances have got the better of them and that they will come to their senses soon. A great example of this is one client that disappeared for 6 months just after I had submitted a proposal to him; when he reappeared, he explained how in the interim he had lost his job (and with it his email address and mobile number) but just started at a competitor and as such hired Shiageto to do the same piece of work there instead. Result!

  2. Read the signs: Trying to work out when you are being ghosted/breadcrumbed is important and there are often good signs to look out for. I tend to look for speed of response, language used in communications and whether actions match to words as good data points to draw from. Let's put it this way, if you can't get someone on the phone, that's never a good sign!

  3. Be direct: Where I do realise that I am being ghosted or breadcrumbed, I like to be direct and clarify if there is an opportunity or not and to politely close things down for the time being if not.

It's annoying, it won't go away and the way to handle it is not rocket science but it is a common part of the modern business world so definitely one of my key learnings from this first 6 months of my startup journey.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog. Next week I'm going to be talking teaming and working alone. Please join me then and I'd love to hear any thoughts, comments or questions in the meantime.

Faris :)

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