Asking the right questions as a company, or being asked the right questions by your mentors, may be what distinguishes success from failure for a startup company.
Socrates is renowned as the first inquisitive person who, like an annoying bot fly, questioned everything. His search for answers—and thus for the truth—was philosophical and characterizes the inquisitive nature of man. More than 150 years ago, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said that if you want to help others and lead them to a specific place mentally, you have to find them where they are and understand what they understand. “This is the secret in the entire art of helping,” he wrote.
So, questions have always played an important role in human development. And if, for example, as a mentor you want to lead a startup from one place to another, the art of questioning is an important means, says Thomas Habekost, professor of neuropsychology at the University of Copenhagen.
“Much of our knowledge is organized in association networks—semantic networks—meaning that open questions can activate the knowledge which the people of the startup possess,” he says, contradicting this to offering specific advice on doing ‘this and that’.
When you offer advice, your starting point is your own knowledge and interests, which is not very clever cognitively, nor very efficient for motivating the person you’re advising,” he explains.
Pretend and get answers
The fact that asking questions will often get you further than providing answers, is precisely the point for Camilla Gilbro, Project Manager at Danish Tech Challenge (DTC) when she, in collaboration with the rest of the DTC team, works actively with the art of asking questions.
“If someone approaches you and tells you how to do something, you won’t listen. In business as in life. But if we manage to ask the right questions, we can reach each other in a different way,” she says, explaining that the team is always focused on asking questions—when they, as consultants, help the companies taking part in the program, as well as when companies themselves are in contact with potential customers and partners.
“Our work aims to make companies put themselves in situations where they can ask the right questions and get useful answers,” the Project Manager says.
Camilla Gilbro uses the example of the company Lapee, which invented a female urinal and participated in Danish Tech Challenge 2018. Because the urinal requires a large mould in order to be manufactured, getting production up and running was expensive.
“They talked to various potential customers, who were positive towards the idea, but without the physical product it was hard to get the actual feedback they were looking for,” she says.
The DTC program offered the company the opportunity to build a prototype with financial help from Danish Tech Challenge, and suddenly they were able to present their product in a different way. For instance, they could invite potential customers to see the product and learn more about customer needs.
“All of a sudden, they had a product to sell, and as soon as you have that, you learn a lot more about the position of your product in the market,” explains Camilla Gilbro.
Creating value together
A clear focus for the DTC team, which helps the participating startups safely through the four-month program, is to ensure that the advice and guidance of mentors and other consultants hit the spot through questions. Because if you do not ask questions, you are afraid to expose yourself and show vulnerability, which makes it hard to build relationships. And that is the whole idea: Getting people together in order to create value together.
“For me personally, it’s been a learning process ever since I joined the team in 2017. I could literally see the value that questions held for companies, for example when Jan Rosenbom (Business Developer in the DTC team) kept asking questions. Instead of us telling them what they didn’t know, they discovered it themselves,” says Camilla Gilbro.
Naturally, DTC consultants can also be more direct and inform a company when it has not spoken with enough customers, but that only happens when the team knows the company properly. “We can’t draw a lot of conclusions based on five minutes of conversation,” the Project Manager says.
In the DTC program, companies meet investors, business partners as well as mentors. According to Camilla Gilbro, the job of business partners and investors is to find ‘the holes in the cheese’, so they are generally pretty good at asking questions that hit the sore spots. For instance, when an electronics expert using five questions can deduct who will have a difficult time getting their current product approved
Helping requires humility
To return to Kierkegaard, his writing on the art of helping continues to philosophize about the role of a helper. You may well understand more than the person you are helping, but you have to suppress your desire to assert your greater understanding, as Kierkegaard puts it, and instead ‘humble’ yourself to be the helper rather than the ‘dominator’. In other words, you must be patient in order to fully understand what the other person considers important and needs help with.
Like Camilla Gilbro, Thomas Habekost believes that of course it is appropriate to share your knowledge and offer specific advice sometimes in an consultancy role. But asking questions is also about creating trust and confidence, an alliance that opens up the door to creativity and collaboration. Unfortunately, mentors who use guiding questions and well-meaning advice may inadvertently create passivity rather than activity.
“When you start out by offering advice, you place yourself above the other person. But by asking open questions, you find their level, and this has a motivating effect on most,” the neuropsychologist explains.