Surbhi Sarna didn’t intend to become an entrepreneur when she faced a potential cancer diagnosis. As a high school student, she just hoped to survive. But Sarna’s cancer scare did change her life—and perhaps the lives of millions of others.
After Sarna finished college, she started nVision Medical. She created a device she hoped would one day catch ovarian cancer in its early stages. She later sold the company to Boston Scientific for $275 million.
That’s the short story. But, in the longer version, Sarna’s pitch was rejected by 50 investors. They were skeptical because Sarna didn’t have an MBA or a medical school degree. In other words, she didn’t check off all the right boxes.
“I’ve been underrated and doubted my entire life,” Sarna told me during an interview about her new book, Without a Doubt. Sarna’s transformation from underrated to unbeatable offers valuable lessons for anyone with an idea to share or a startup to pitch.
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While Sarna was in the capital-raising stage of building a startup, she entered pitch competitions to refine her presentation and raise much-needed revenue. But it was only after being accepted into a program run by famed billionaire and venture capitalist Tim Draper, that Sarna learned to sharpen a winning pitch.
“I learned to tell my story and make a business case at the same time,” Sarna recalls.
“I had this fear that if I shared the story of what brought me to the table, investors might think that I didn’t have a grasp of the business side. Tim taught me to be comfortable talking about the scare and why I entered the healthcare space.”
Sarna, now a partner at legendary seed accelerator Y Combinator, enjoys mentoring entrepreneurs on everything from product design to building teams. Communication and storytelling are essential skills in building and growing a startup at every level.
“Investors know that in order to see success, it might be seven to ten years. Your personal story—what brought you to the table— is important because it shows investors that you’ll stay in the saddle.”
It’s easy to rattle off facts about the market opportunity and sales projections when pitching investors. But Sarna reminds leaders that “investors, potential advisors, and employees are all people, and people are easily bored. Instead of simply bullet-pointing your ideas, engage your audience with a story that helps them understand what you’re trying to achieve.”
Yes, investors are just people, and what engages people is a story.
A good story can answer questions such as:
- Why are you excited about the opportunity?
- Why should investors be excited?
- When you face hurdles, will you stumble or rise to the challenge?
“Sometimes, leaders or entrepreneurs try to dampen their emotions or passion around something because they see it as unprofessional,” says Sarna. “But it’s okay to be genuinely excited when talking about something you love, and it often pays off because people feel connected to you.”
Stories convey emotion and passion. Leverage your personal story to engage investors, customers, partners, and stakeholders.