Insights and Opinions

Listen to the words, but focus on the meaning

Editor’s note – This is an excerpt from successful and serial entrepreneur Neil Senturia’s book, “I’m There For You Baby; The Entrepreneur’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

Rule #284: Listen to the words, but more importantly, focus on the meaning behind them.

I started Atcom with seven employees in a two-story funky loft space in downtown San Diego, catty-corner from a small deli called the Cheese Shop.

On the first day of our new adventure, I walked across to the Cheese Shop and asked to speak to the owner, Tom Shutz. I was careful not to go during the peak lunch hour. The girl at the front went to get him, and he came out from the back to speak with me. I explained that I was the CEO of a new software company across the street and that I would like to get a charge account so that my genius engineers will not waste any time going out to get food. They can just order a sandwich, pick it up (maybe you would even deliver to us?), and that way they could keep coding. Seemed logical to me. “I would like to open a charge account.”

Tom: “We don’t do charge accounts.”

Neil: “No, no, see you don’t understand. I have these geniuses across the street, and we could give you a lot of our business because you would be the closest and easiest place to eat and so it is obviously in your best interest (think Daniel Kahneman) to give us a charge account, because it would increase your business.”

Tom: “Very interesting. We don’t do charge accounts.”

Neil: “No, see you don’t understand.”

Tom: “No, kid, you don’t understand. We don’t do charge accounts.”

Clearly, we had what is famously called “a failure to communicate.”

Rule #231: “No” is just a speed bump on the road to “Yes.

I went back across the street, walked upstairs to my office, took out my checkbook, and wrote a check for $1,000 made out to the Cheese Shop. Then I walked downstairs, crossed the street, stepped gingerly into the Cheese Shop, and asked to speak to Mr. Shutz. After a couple of minutes, he came back out, with that look: You again? Go away kid, you bother me.

Before he could throw me out on my ass, I handed him the check. There was a pause, he studied it, then he studied me.

And then in a humble, soft tone of voice (no upside in being an arrogant prick), I asked, “Would it be possible to get a turkey club and open a charge account?”

Tom: “You want mustard or mayo?”

In the first interaction, Tom was not saying that he didn’t do charge accounts. What he was saying was, “I don’t know who the hell you are and am concerned I will not get paid.”

What I gave him was not money. What I gave him was comfort. One thousand dollars worth of comfort. It was my demonstration of good faith.

Nota bene: I have been one of the longest charge account customers in Cheese Shop history: 16 years.

And here is the kicker.

Rule #337: When the Cheese Shop bill comes into my office, it is paid within 24 hours. (The sister shop in La Jolla is owned by Tom’s brother, Phil.)

It is the only bill that is paid that timely. I understand float and other people’s money and leverage and negotiation as well as anyone, but I also know that an army travels on its stomach. When I am waging war, I want soldiers who have eaten well.

So, we each got what we wanted. It was just a matter of my listening to what he was really saying.

The food at the Cheese Shop is spectacularly good and fairly priced. What more could you ask for? When you go there, be sure to try the oatmeal cookies; they are to die for. I have been trying to get Phil (Tom’s brother in La Jolla) to let me license the patent to the recipe, but with no success. It’s a shame. Those cookies … he’s leaving millions on the counter.

Neil Senturia is a San Diego entrepreneur who has re-invented himself several times in his relentless pursuit of entrepreneurial success. Currently he is the CEO of Blackbird Ventures, an investor in high growth potential companies. Neil’s diverse endeavors range from writing sitcoms to technology with a stint as a real estate developer in the middle. He has been CEO of six technology companies, three in software, one in material science, one in media and most recently clean tech. His companies have been sold to Cisco, Kofax and Lockheed Martin. And no bio is complete without noting that one of the six went broke.

Neil has taught new venture creation as an adjunct professor in the MBA program at San Diego State University and has served on the board of directors of SDSU’s Entrepreneurial Management Center. Currently he teaches entrepreneurship at UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurism and Technology Advancement ( He is a member of the San Diego Venture Group ( and the MIT Enterprise Forum.