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!”.
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.