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Negotiating with Fee Lal - Investor at Tidal Ventures

negotiation advice



Tell us a little bit about your career so far. What's been your journey?


Fee Lal: I started out as an M&A lawyer for far too long. My practice was about 50/50 M&A, but also capital raising. So I did do a lot of startups back in the day. And then like everyone in COVID I had that kind of come to Jesus moment about whether or not I loved it as much as I had years before. And the answer to that was no. And so that's when I decided to do a bit of a career change.

And I jumped across over to Atlassian in their M&A team for a couple of years, but more recently I've come across two Tidal Ventures in the investment team.



Lucy Wark: And it sounds like you would have done lots of negotiations in your career, but

what types of negotiations have you done in your career?


Fee Lal: So obviously lots of legal negotiations. Whether that was in acquisitions or sales, also investment negotiations and shareholder agreements, but then also just personally through salary negotiations.



Lucy Wark: Amazing. And in terms of that experience,

what is your definition of a great negotiator?

How might it differ from stereotypes people have in their heads?


Fee Lal: Yeah, it's a good question. So I remember distinctly this professor in law school one time who was saying if you walk away from negotiation and both parties feel like they kind of lost, that was a great negotiation, but it was a little bit depressing the way that he was describing it. But I think the point that he was making was that negotiations are meant to be a give and take game. And if you walk away with having won every single item that you walked into the negotiation trying to get, it's probably a reflection of an imbalance of power and probably a reflection that it actually wasn't a very good negotiation.

So I think the typical, best in class negotiator, you might think is someone who comes in and wins every single argument. But I actually think it's more of a reflection of a really great give and take that develops throughout that whole conversation. I can say one of the most impressive things, and this is more from watching really great negotiators that I think is really impressive, is when someone's able to think on the fly.

It's something that's really difficult, something that I would love to learn and be better at. But really just like listening to something that's come up right there in the moment and then process it and then reply just in a way that really makes sense is super impressive.


Lucy Wark: Yeah, that's really interesting.

Cause I think for a lot of people. They feel like that's their greatest weak spot or their greatest kind of vulnerability in negotiations is being surprised. So I can imagine that if you're someone who deals really well with it, that's actually such an advantage as well.


Fee Lal: Absolutely. Yeah. I distinctly think of one of the partners I used to work for who was incredible at it. And it often will come with just years of experience hearing the same things over again. But I also think preparation probably plays a big part of that.


Lucy Wark: Definitely. Even just reducing the percentage of times that you're actually going to be surprised with preparation can be super helpful.



So for you personally what's your style when you negotiate and how's that evolved over time?


Fee Lal: So I think when I think about my style, it's definitely more conciliatory. Like it's more of a collaborative negotiator. There's a reason for that. So the type of law that I was in was front end law, and that's essentially kind of, we don't do deal with disputes. I wasn't a litigator. And so what that means is even when I was negotiating, we were all trying to end up at the same goal. Whether that was closing an acquisition or doing an investment. We're all trying to get that finished and kind of foster a long term relationship. And so that's kind of led me to try and find mutually beneficial arrangements where everyone is on the same page and works together.

In terms of like thinking through how my negotiation style evolved. This is a bit weird. So the way that I actually started negotiating was asynchronously. So you get given a contract and you have to mark it up, then usually write comments in as to why you changed your position or why you've gone in a different direction, et cetera. So you actually learn by doing it asynchronously, which is really helpful to develop the kind of muscle.

But it also means that you have a lot of time to think about how you're framing your arguments at the time. So then, as I say, that thinking on the feet thing is something you have really train on the fly a little bit more.


Lucy Wark: Yeah, definitely. Something that always comes to mind for me around that point is because I trained as a debater. And so you do lots and lots of public speaking, like not 10,000 hours, but something on that level. The muscle memory that you develop for being in front of a group of people and your nervous system freaking out and actually having physical reactions and then becoming very comfortable over time is something that I've always sort of thought actually that carries across a lot to in person negotiations, like lots of people struggle with public speaking and lots of people have to go on that journey of getting comfortable, and gradually expanding your boundaries to get there. And I think there's something similar with discussing difficult conversations.


Fee Lal: I couldn't agree more. I think it's that, as you say, it's that getting used to and hearing more and doing it over again. Like, you don't want to do the hardest complications but the more you do it, the easier it is. 


Lucy Wark: Absolutely. And I think that the biggest thing is to make sure that when you make your mistakes in a forum where the stakes aren't high, like get them out of the way early.


So how would you prepare for a negotiation?


Fee Lal: I'm a write everything down type person. And that could just come from my training. But for me if I don't put words to a page I don't feel like I know what my structure is and I don't feel prepared going in.

I don't necessarily scenario plan in the way of going, if they say this, I'll say that. I wouldn't go into that kind of detail because I think you can get yourself into a trap of then planning for too much and then being a little bit off your guard when something surprising comes up.

So rather it's more of if


I put my, and then other person's hat on, you know, what would they be thinking rather than scenarios.


So I just say put pen to paper for sure.


Lucy Wark: Yeah, I definitely do that too, and particularly if there's any point where the delivery or the nuance of how you say it is going to be important, like there's the content and then there's the way that you frame it, I will always basically rehearse that anyway.



And so how do you, if you're sort of not doing that full blown, scenario planning,

how do you think about responding to surprises or anything unexpected that happens in a negotiation?


Fee Lal: Yeah, it's a hard one. I think the best thing that I try and remind myself in these scenarios is that, If new information comes up, the other person probably knows it's new information as well, but they will know and it's not actually expected for you to respond necessarily right there and then and so even repeating new information back to the person just so you fully understand it is a technique that I often try and do to gather my thoughts.

So kind of being like, sorry, just so I understand you're saying this, blah, blah, blah. You know we haven't come across that before. I just want to make sure I understand even doing those little kind of statements back can help you gather your thoughts or it helps me gather my thoughts at least. But also kind of humanizing it and just realizing, it's just another person across the table from you and it is it is okay to not have an answer.

And the other thing is also if you're sitting there and someone else is going on a whole little bit of a monologue type thing, just jotting down that new information as it's coming up so that you can reflect back to it. 

I think the more that you do that, the more that you then almost don't have to do that. So you can respond a little bit quicker time and time again.



Lucy Wark: absolutely. And like everyone makes mistakes in negotiations, like

What are some of the common mistakes that you've seen made in practice?


Fee Lal: the biggest one that I see is not actually listening to what the other person is saying. So it's this classic, I'm in here to say my bit and we'll just kind of blurt out and kind of toe the party line without listening to when new information comes up. I know that's easier said than done, but


really trying to be present in the moment, listening to whatever the other person is saying is one of the most important things, because if you're just thinking about the next thing that you want to say, you will miss really important parts.



Lucy Wark: I also just wanted to ask you, perhaps if moving away from your capacity is like an M&A lawyer where you're very much representing companies who are buying and selling bits of each other. When you might be negotiating for yourself,

do you have any advice for people who are learning to negotiate just for themselves on salary or job offers?


Fee Lal: I actually, in some ways, think it can be harder negotiating for yourself.


Lucy Wark: completely agree. One hundred percent.


Fee Lal: I'm way more prepared when I go into a meeting negotiating for myself because I feel like you can't rely on things like, 'let me talk to my client'. I am the client. What I would say is, know internally what your top and bottom line is and really try not to stray from that. Yes, new information might come in, but, know internally where you don't want to go, either below or above. Because It kind of will hold yourself to that standard when you're going through those negotiations.

The other thing, and I think I said this a little bit earlier, is really, really humanize it.


The other person across the table from you is probably in the same scenario, and they're probably just as uncomfortable, particularly with salary negotiations.


They're probably just as uncomfortable. Call that out.

Like, it's okay to kind of be like, well, this is an uncomfortable conversation to have. But it's something that we need to chat about. I think just humanizing it and remembering that someone else is just sitting across the table in the same scenario as you is one of my best pieces of advice.


Lucy Wark: Yeah, I think that's such a good point. One thing we've actually seen as well is where we run negotiation learning courses that people who come into the course are learning to negotiate for themselves, they'll often be like, I'm so excited to finally get to be on the other side of the table and be the hiring manager or the HR manager.

And then they get there and they're like, that was awful. Cause actually it feels really hard saying no. It feels like asking can actually be easier than saying no at times. So I think it's a real education to kind of swap roles as well.



Any advice for people who are negotiating for something bigger than themselves, like on behalf of an organization?


Fee Lal: Yeah that one's just more about getting clear instructions from whoever. And also not over promising in things that you don't have. 

It's really important because you don't want to have to try and backtrack afterwards or have to set up another meeting to be like, Oh, I couldn't actually give you that. So it's more of the scoping and instructions but to be totally frank, it is much easier than it is for the personal going in yourself and doing it about your own.



Lucy Wark: Yeah. It's so much easier to negotiate from a role, the boundaries are clear. And so just as we finish up

are there any other resources that you'd like to recommend that you've found helpful for yourself?


Fee Lal: I love watching TED Talks.

And so there's a couple that I like to watch that, throughout the years, I will refer back to. And there's one by Kwame Christian, I think it's called Compassionate Curiosity. I's in the context of negotiations, but it kind of lends itself back to thinking through my negotiation style of finding mutual benefits in negotiations.

And so I'd really recommend watching it. It's something I really resonated with.


Lucy Wark: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining me today to talk about this and thank you on behalf of all the people who watch it and benefit from your expertise. We really appreciate it.



This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.



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