So How Is Your Business Going?

9 May


This is a question I am often asked, but how do I answer without sounding cocky or boring my audience?  Another common scenario is while I’m out relaxing.  I’m asked this question and my first impulse is to just say “great!” to avoid having to launch into another bit of lengthy shop talk.  I found this blog by Kathryn Minshew to be helpful in providing guidance in answering this question in both situations:  How to provide an effective response that engages, as well as a reminder that opportunities for improvement or new business exist everywhere and a skillful response could lead me to both.

Every Entrepreneur’s Least Favorite Question

by Kathryn Minshew

It’s happened to every founding CEO. You’re in a meeting — with fellow founders, potential partners, VCs, or even just friends — and you’re asked that simple question that often feels like the hardest one:

“How are things going?”

“Great!” you respond

Cue, awkward pause. Where do you go from there? As a CEO, I have to answer a lot of tough questions: What’s our 5- and 10-year vision? Where do we hire next? Should we focus on existing products, or launch our next one? But for the open-ended “How are things going?” there’s no perfect answer.

The best response obviously depends on your audience, but I’ve found there are four different ways you can tackle this question that will most likely to lead to a productive conversation.

Highlight two recent accomplishments.

In most conversations, you want to communicate that things are going well — not abstractly “well,” but that your team has been accomplishing awesome, concrete things. To convey this, I find it’s most helpful to highlight a few (usually two) specific recent accomplishments. For example: “Things are great! We just crossed 900,000 monthly active users and brought Facebook on as a hiring partner.”

Why two? Because if you name more, you sound like you’re listing off a memorized litany of accomplishments, and that’s annoying. And if you only name one, it comes off like you want your audience to be impressed by that one achievement. Whereas when you name two successes, they can choose which one they want to react to, and you come off less like you’re baiting them to compliment any specific aspect of your business.

Talk about one problem you’re working on.

An alternate strategy, especially useful with people who are familiar with your accomplishments, is talk about what you’re working on next. For example: “Things are great! Right now we’re building out the ability for applicants to upload a resume and cover letter to our site, so they can apply to a job without ever having to leave.”

Bonus points: Slip in a good ask. For example, “We’re considering whether to integrate with applicant tracking systems like Resumator and JobScore. I’d love to talk to the teams over there at some point.” Here, you’ve given the other person an opportunity to be helpful, and if he recognizes a useful introduction he could make he’ll often be more than happy to offer. And don’t judge too quickly whether the person you’re talking to can help: When it comes to networking, you’ll often be surprisedby who’s able to help out.

Talk about what’s different than 3 or 6 months ago.

This is a great approach for people who you haven’t seen in a while and want to catch up on your progress, and is essentially a variation on the “two recent accomplishments” approach. But instead of highlighting the great deals you closed last week, take a step back and think about how your company has evolved since you last spoke to this person.

For example, “Things have been moving very quickly for us! When we first launched our product, we had a one-size-fits-all model, but we now have a really great tiered offering — we launched a lower-price-point ‘simple’ version aimed at small businesses, and we’re also building out a premium product designed for larger enterprise clients.” This tactic is very useful in guiding your audience to reshape their perception of you and catch up on where you’ve grown, as well as to shake off any stereotypes you suspect you and your company got pigeon-holed into earlier on.

Ask for advice.

Finally, when you’re speaking with someone who has expertise you could use, “How are things going?” is the perfect segue into asking for it. Start by sharing a relevant update, then transition to your question. “Things are great! We’ve been selling quite a bit and are growing our sales team, which is exciting. I know you guys did a fantastic job with expanding sales last year — can I actually ask your advice sometime on the best way to interview and hire sales people?”

To avoid putting people on the spot, you can smooth the conversation by suggesting you’d like to talk “sometime” about your question. In many cases, that “sometime” will turn into now, and your conversation partner will dive into giving you advice. But, by giving her the option to say, “Sure, shoot me an email and we can talk about it,” you avoid putting anyone on the spot (and can set yourself up for a better and more in-depth conversation than you could have at the post-conference happy hour you’re standing at).

When you run a business, summarizing “how things are going” is more or less impossible. But the secret to answering this question is realizing that your goal isn’t to summarize — it’s to set the conversation in motion along a productive path that generally relates to how you’re doing and what you’re working on. Have a couple good answers prepared (and update them regularly), and when someone asks how things are going, you’ll find yourself ready and poised to guide the conversation down the path you want it to go.


Kathryn Minshew is founder and CEO of The Muse and The Daily Muse. Follow her on Twitter at @kmin.


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