How Thinking like a dolphin can save
the day. . . . And how one day, it did!

Let’s say that you are what the business community calls an entrepreneur. You’ve enjoyed success selling a product line that you largely invented yourself. The trips to the bank over the years haven’t involved overly large sums, but they have kept you solvent and comfortable—and independent.

In addition, let’s say that you get a call from an individual you’ve known but a short time and communicated with only on the phone and via e-mails. He professes to have a strong admiration for one of your products.

He says it can play a perfect role in an ambitious start-up opportunity he’s involved with. He doesn’t want to own your product, or even to pay you anything for it upfront. He’s asking you to sign away control of your product to him and his partners in return for a contract promising big royalties on future sales. In six years, his calculations paint you as one of America’s latest multi-millionaires.

In a few days, you fly half-way across the country to meet him and his partners. You demonstrate how your product works—and your small, private audience seems attentive and approving. You listen as they describe the IPO they plan within a year and how you will get stock options. Bonuses. A seat on the board of directors. And if you prefer, you can have an executive suite with a six-figure salary and a heady title like Chief Intellectual Officer (how many companies has one of those?). You can see it in their eyes. Nobody, they are thinking, walks away from these kinds of goodies, especially if they’ve just fallen in your lap.

On the way back to your motel room, you feel the adrenaline kick in and do a fist-pump in the hallway. “Yes!” shouts someone with a voice remarkably like yours When was the last time you felt this excited? Or received this kind of outside affirmation for what you have accomplished?

Then suddenly, you sense a distinct shift in your thinking.

Soon you are searching your memory bank, looking for similar experiences. Then you start to examine the logic of it all, evaluating the explanations you have been hearing, sniffing for possible partial truths and deceptions.

You know the exact moment that you decide that your negotiating strategy will be to give them plenty of solid, useful information, solicited or not, and see if this produces anything approaching reciprocity in return. Ask a lot of questions. Volunteer how you think they can best used your product—and use your own skills. You’ll not try and entrap anyone. Your strategy simply calls for raising issues that deserve answers and test the players to see if you can determine if they are who, and what, they profess to be.

And then you will wait and watch and listen before you decide.

It doesn’t take long.

What you do soon detect in a ping-pong exchange of phone calls and e-mails with first one, then others of your suitors are several not-so-subtle insinuations: They really look at your product as a commodity, not a respected, top-of-the-line specialty creation, as they had first indicated. From what little they are willing to tell you, they plan to take the model underlying your product and build other products around it, but they plan to pay you royalties only on sales of the basic tool. They aren’t ready to tell you how they plan to use your product, but you must agree to give them carte blanche to do as they please. They have already decided what to charge their customers for it, without consultation or even negotiation with you, and expect—demand, actually—that you fall in line. They are making noises about already having a replacement product far better known and more prestigious than yours if you don’t like their version of the deal. And you learn that they have now decided, after thinking about it, that they don’t really want you on the corporate board and instead have penciled you in for an advisory group.

“Run!” you hear yourself say. “Run, run, run! Let this one go.”

That’s a key dictum of the dolphin strategy: Know when to stay out, and you won’t find it difficult or impossible to get out later.

Are you disappointed at the outcome? Of course.

Do you have any regrets? No.

Your valuable product is not in jeopardy. You’ve still got your business and your wonderful customers. You’ve protected your integrity. You got this one right.

Swim on.

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