Dealing with critique from VCs

I’ve been around. Years back, I used to be dragged all the time to press articles and to be up on stages. That made a lot of people want to talk to me and pick my brain. In fact, I loved talking to them – it was a challenging exercise for an introspective like me. And wow, how much I learned from the wide sampling.

Their most common approach during countless meetings, events, talks – and even while I was chewing lunch – was:

Hi, I like your work, thanks for that. Can I pitch you my startup and get some feedback?

This is how I became conditioned to have a stranger pitching me:

  • I pause and reflect for half a second to incorporate feedback mode
  • I say “Sure!”
  • I shut up and listen

People need to bear with me for my fast talking. I ask questions. Clarify topics. Remember similar pitches and businesses. I share opinions while I’m still formulating them. My brain rushes. It seems someone else is talking through my mouth, because I’m now busy somewhere else in a void, correlating all possible paths and outcomes. I’m not watching their bodies talk – my superego is constantly hammering “I need to be of service. I need to give useful feedback to this founder.”

It always goes on for 3 to 5 minutes. If it happens smoothly, I can wrap it up after a nice conversation. The founder thanks me, I thank them for their trust and ask them to fill me up with news after a while so I can track their improvements. They add me on Linkedin, I accept – it helps me monitor their future work.

Beautiful, right? Unless it got to a common final answer: “This is a hard business to flip. You may wanna check these guys’ stories…” and I followed with sites or blog posts from people who tried the same business and explained why it was hard (or why they failed).

That makes enemies

It took me a couple of years to learn. That comment makes enemies.

What I was trying to do: giving founders some head start. I’d add some suggestions at the end, they must learn from those who preceded them. Founders should propose alternatives to traditional approaches, and MAKE it work – after all, they’re founders!

What some founders take from my feedback: “You have a shitty business. People are already doing it and they’re failing (or they’re better than you). Drop this business, do something else”.

It is a communication problem based on both sides’ expectations. I expect the founder to argue why it’s not so hard, mention the challenges overcome, and the solutions that worked. The typical founder, on the other hand, seems to expect me to validate their businesses and leave with a pat on their backs. But no, that’s NOT what you get when you ask me for feedback.

Over the years, despite of my laser focus and visceral effort on each and every feedback, it led me to collect enemies I didn’t want to make. Some founders meet me today and say “You didn’t like my business a few years ago, and now it’s booming. IN YOUR FACE!”. Some don’t even bear to meet me, and tell a common friend “He hated my business. If only I could show him we’re kicking ass!”

Some say “That comment from him made me so angry, I worked my ass off, got sick, and stayed up late most of the nights for 2 years. Now I can show him we’re finally making money!”.

Go figure.

The other side

At the same time, I get word from founders saying “Thanks man, I just exited my startup and you helped me a lot. You said my previous business was not good. You were right and I pivoted to the new one. Because of that, I made it grow and just got acquired. Well, it was indeed a shitty original business.”.

What is the difference? If you ask for VC feedback, EXPECT to be challenged. VCs are not the holders of truth… But their whole business model is having you, as a founder, being right. So beat our arguments to pieces and yes, make us regret we didn’t invest on you.

It’s NOT personal. This is the way.

Less mentoring, more engagement

Linkedin is gradually becoming Facebook, and everybody noticed. Self-esteem and self-help posts, people patting themselves on the back, and neverending flame wars over comments. Linkedin importance for professional interactions is becoming much more for interactions than “professional”. And wow, how needy are people nowadays.

In the startup and venture capital worlds, there’s a predominant Linkedin trend when it comes to the “Statup Mentor” title on profiles. Despite of being such a 2012 thing, it’s a sprinkle that subtitles many, many people somehow tied with the startup scene.

After a long time without posting, I caught myself raising one eyebrow on the mentoring issue. I’d like to see what you think about it, even if it’s just harmless profile coloring.

Mentorship is not that fancy
The first thing those people must understand is that “mentor” doesn’t qualify one as a better professional. It isn’t a skill nor a profession, it just means a person has interacted with at least one startup and gave an opinion. For your own sake, don’t use “mentor” on your profile title or professional experience. People should refer to you as a mentor due to good advice… it’s weird when you label yourself.

Low-touch mentorship is not advice, it’s exercising opinion
Meeting a founder one time and saying whatever you say doesn’t qualify you as a mentor. Real mentorship requires knowing your mentees well, developing trust and anticipating how they will react to pressure so you can better ponder your advice. Founders claim that mentor opinions are often contradictory, finding themselves in crossroads when deciding what to do.

Do not mentor out of interest
Review your mentoring wishes and principles, and question how much this act of giving back is helping amazing founders or just helping you with future consulting opportunities. Even if you are looking for investments, do not try to create a dependency on you. Mentoring should happen because mentor and mentee feel good exchanging ideas and exploring innovation. Good startup results are the goal, not the mentoring itself.

Founders listen to people babbling
Out of respect, early-stage founders spend time listening to mentors. Either in acceleration processes (mostly pasteurized meetings with a “partners network”) or pitch academies, there’s a lineup of mentors waiting. Over time, founders realize some “mentoring” patterns (I’ve made some of those mistakes at the beginning):

  • “I don’t think this business is gonna work”
  • “You should stop doing [present business model] and start [far-reaching idea]”
  • “Congrats, I think your business has great potential! Good luck”
  • “These guys [shows phone screen] already do what you do”

In other words, they’d rather babble than help the founder.

Founders should prioritize the best advice
Dear founder, don’t waste time with dozens of mentors. Say no to forced mentoring sessions on which you can’t see value. Focus on the ones that structure their feebdback, provide high-touch treatment and track your results over time.

You may guess VCs are excellent mentors, and they might be. However, they are too focused on their work and rarely provide consistent feedback over time. Find experienced founders who have executed operations that look like yours, listen to them and then ask for whoever they recommend.

For mentors, instead of the mentor badge, add your skills and market specialties to your profile title. You will help founders consider if you may be a suitable advice source. If that happens, please engage and use your candor the right way.

Want to hear my view on mentoring? Check out this post.