Getting Leverage in Hostage Negotiations
Every time the other party says ‘I want’ in a negotiation, you should hear the pleasant sound of a weight dropping on your side of the leverage scales.”
– G. Richard Shell, Bargaining for Advantage
Most entrepreneurs don’t understand the power of positive leverage. Here’s a typical situation:
After weeks of fund-raising, you find a brave investor who says “Yes, I want to invest.” He says he will give you an offer soon. You’re excited. A few days later he delivers a term sheet that you don’t like. The valuation is really low. Or the non-economic terms aren’t favorable. Your excitement turns to disappointment and frustration. This is the only offer you have so far. What do you do?
First, we hope you’ve been talking to several investors at the same time and creating a market for your shares. With an adroit touch, you can use this first offer to create the scarcity and social proof that drives other investors to say “yes”. At a minimum, you can use this offer to drive investors to make any decision at all — up or down. And keep improving your alternatives until you’ve a signed term sheet.
But let’s assume you don’t have any other offers and you have to negotiate with this investor. Or that this investor is your first choice — whether or not you have alternatives.
This type of negotiation is similar to a hostage negotiation because you can’t walk away from your opponent. You can’t say, “Yeah, it’s okay, go ahead and kill the hostages, we’re not interested in your demands.”
When you have to negotiate without good alternatives, the tools of positive, negative, and normative leverage are essential. Positive leverage is your ability to provide things that your opponent wants. You have positive leverage when your opponent says, “I want to buy your car”, “I want you to release my friends from jail” or “I want to buy your shares”.
As soon as your opponent says he wants something from you, you have some positive leverage. You control what they want. You can grant them access or deny it. That’s why experienced opponents delay making offers — they don’t want to give you leverage.
How does positive leverage work in practice?
First, positive leverage should improve your psychology during the negotiation. You’ve gone from a situation where you want something from the investor to a situation where you both want something from each other. Your psychology is critical in a negotiation because “leverage often flows to the party that exerts the greatest control over and appears most comfortable with the present situation.”
Second, you can now identify other things that your opponent wants and deliver them. Maybe you’re working with a partner who is trying to get his first deal done at the firm. Help him succeed and help yourself in the process. Maybe you’re working with a firm who is excited about stealing a deal from a top-tier firm. Help them succeed. Maybe you’re working with a firm who wants to co-invest with a top-tier firm so they can show off to their LPs. Help them succeed.
Third, even before investors makes an offer, you gain a little bit of leverage every time they ask for something. Don’t try to use it after the first meeting. But if you’ve been talking to them for three weeks and they’re getting deeper and deeper into diligence, you should recognize and use your leverage. At a minimum, you should ask for information about their process and thinking at every step of the way.
The prime time to negotiate is when your opponent says, “I want.”
“If they’re talking to you, you have leverage.”
– Christopher Voss, FBI Negotiator
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