How to improve your negociation skills

Jan '15

Negociating is always a difficult thing at first. It requires guts, nerves and a certain sense of drive in order to get what you want. Things can go three ways: you push too hard and pisses everyone off and they leave the table, you dont get what you want, or you end up making deal that feels right where everyone has to bleed a little in order to reach an agreement.

As I mentioned before, due to over work, stress and bad team management, I ended having to negociate my departure in a rather uncomfortable way. But I decided that I would learn the most from it. The company was not making any revenue so I thought "What the heck ? At least I will learn something new and see how this will all play out".

A bit of context:

July 2013 (1.5 year down the road), I expressed to my business partners that I would leave the company by the end of 2013. This would ensure that the team can take the necessary actions to cover my departure and it would secure 50% of my shares since this would represent 2 years of hard work. I was mainly interested in leaving because I was sick due to stress, while other partners where not pulling enough work. This was to me a pretty shitty deal. I was a minority share holder, and most working person in the company. The vision of the team was simply not there. After all, startups are all about people, aren't they ?

Soon enough, they came back to me and asked me to leave right away, offered me 25% and one month's salary. This shifted things quite clearly. We went from a situation where I was planning to leave, to a situation where I was asked to leave.

Rule #1 - Find someone to advise you.

Very soon, I realized that the forces were unequal. My business partners where many and helped out by our lawyer while I was alone, sick, and pretty ignorant about laws, negocitation and how things are working.

I hired a lawyer. This is the best advice I can give you. Get a f*cking lawyer. Explain the clear truth to him/her and explain him that you will do the negociation. You should only use his services to verify that you are aligned in term of rights and the law.

Rule #2 - Take your time.

Negociation is not about accepting what people offer you. It's about getting what you want and being honest with yourself and the situation.

Back at that time, I really hoped to get done very fast because it was hard mentally. It's pretty exhausting to constantly think about one thing. But don't rush things. Take you time. What's the rush anyway ?

Explain clearly what you want to your business partners and decline all the previous offers they may have come with. If an offer come from them, know that it's probably not the best one relating to your interests ;) Negociation is not about accepting what people offer you. It's about getting what you want and being honest with yourself and the situation.

Take time to consider things like, what did I achieve? What should I be proud of? What do I expect from this deal? What is it that they want to get out of the negociation? Spend time to understand the other side's game. They are as in a hurry as you are to close the deal. So make sure that you understand what they will be sensitive to.

Rule #3 - Beef up your game.

Now that you have a good lawyer and your head is clear and cold, it is time to shoot the first email. State clearly what you want. Don't be ashamed to want things. Be fair. In my case, I knew I could have walked away with 100% of my shares and 4 months' salary due to my sickness. Plain and simple (thank you lawyer!). But I didn't want to piss them off completely. They could have torn the company down, started another one without me on the base of my work and carry on.

Instead, I offered them something where they could save money and some share - the senstive point. In return, I asked a couple of clauses where they can't create a new company in the same field without me, they can't dilute me in an unfair capital raise, and a couple of other things. This was to secure my position.

Why did I do that ?

I could have gone for the money. But I co-founded that company to see how far it could go. It would have been stupid of me to piss everyone off, get the company closed, and see my efforts go into ashes. Also, our company got funded. So why not use the money and get the company continuing to employ people ? Stay true to your values. Always.

Rule #4 - Don't trust people.

You will receive a lot of bullshit. I got it all, from peer pressure made of "what should we do with this? How would you feel if ... ", to weird comments like "I haven't received your previous email". In 2014, who doesn't receive emails? Don't fall for the trap. Never ever reply to such things. Ignore, and keep your eyes on the prize. Your prize.

In a back and forth email exchange, you will have to give a little back so they feel like they win something. This usually unlocks situations. But for each thing that you give (shares, money, time, contractual clause), always make sure that you ask for something else. ALWAYS. In a negociation, nothing is given for free. The other side will not give you anything for free either ;)

Rule #5 - It's not about winning, it's about what feels right.

Let's face it; you are in a conflict. So make sure that you walk away with what you think is fair. People on the other side will try to get what they think is fair. From there, use a bracketing strategy to negotiate your way down (i.e.: aim high and give back) instead of trying to climb your way up.

Conclusion

I ended up with a situation that I find fair. Everyone bled a little. I didn't get 100% of my shares, but I didn't get 25% neither ;) I receive some months of salary, but not the full 4 months. I got a couple of contractual clauses that protects me.

Remember one thing; once you leave (or is asked to leave) the company, you will not have access to as much information as you think you can, in order to remain an active share holder (nothing is defined by law anyway). This will weaken your game in case of future investment, company strategic decisions or simple board meetings. So make sure that you leave with the best contract you can. Then things will flatten out with time anyway. Hopefully.

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