The hardest thing to do in entrepreneurship is to seek out, accept and prioritize feedback. This is one of the most common mistakes I see entrepreneurs make. Why we suffer from anti-input cognitive biases will be the topic of another essay, but suffice it to say that you need to master this skill.
Plus, the sooner you start exposing yourself to others’ opinions of your team, company, product and market, the better your chances of success.
Based on my work with startups in my coaching and mentorship practice, I’ve developed a 7-step approach for dealing with feedback about your startup. These steps can be used whether you are getting opinions from mentors, investors, team members, analysts or customers.
Know Their Backgrounds
Almost any meeting at which you’re pitching your startup idea will provide you with some background on the people you’re speaking to. Check out their bios or Linkedin profiles beforehand and understand where each of them are coming from. Perhaps one mentor has industry experience that would be relevant to you, while another has never even interacted with your category. Knowing their backgrounds will help illuminate their biases and allow you to contextualize the substance of their feedback.
Record the Meeting
Wherever possible you should record sessions where you’re receiving feedback. Make sure to get participants’ permission to do so beforehand. After the session, you can replay the feedback and take detailed notes. Often, during the pitch process it can be hard to catch the nuance and subtlety of someone’s feedback. This is due — in part — to our adrenaline running wild when we’re selling something. Adrenaline activates our fight-or-flight reflex and this can make it tough to actually hear what the other people are saying.
Listen — Don’t Argue
Because of this heightened adrenal state, it’s critical that you spend the vast majority of time interacting with feedback by listening. Do not argue with the things people are saying to you unless they specifically ask you a question. Unless the listener clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of your pitch, don’t even try to clarify things. You will probably seem defensive, and defensiveness sets the wrong tone.
The more you let others in the room speak, the more content and fidelity you get. But if you feel your blood boiling or you’re getting a run up of nerves, take a deep breath, calm yourself and lean into that feeling without taking outward action. The more intentionally you do this, the easier it will be.
Ask Clarifying Questions
Most entrepreneurs spend their precious time trying to rebut or shape listeners’ perceptions of their startup during feedback sessions. If you are going to speak, the absolute best use of your time is to ask questions. The best question to ask is “why”, as in — “Why do you feel that way?” or “What experience have you had that informs your belief in that outcome?” These kinds of questions only help you get further clarity about what specifically the expert is proposing. This is particularly relevant with customer interviews, where you really want to know a few key things about your users’ experience:
- What is your problem?
- How does this solve your problem?
- How do you solve your problem today (without this thing)?
If you think of your prospective investors and mentors as “customers” (they buy in by investing or agreeing to mentor you), this may also help how you run your Q&A.
Try to avoid questions like “What would you do” or “What do you propose we do.” These will make you seem weak and lacking in market knowledge or conviction. If you want to get someone to answer this question (because you’re looking for true market knowledge) it’s better to frame it as “What experiences have you had that are similar, and what did you do?”
Process Offline with Your Team
The time to process feedback is after the meeting, not during. Make a point of scheduling time with your co-founder or others after the session to review feedback, make notes and distill what was learned. If you have a recording, you can play it back at this meeting. I usually recommend waiting until the next day if possible to synthesize feedback. This way you can be better rested and not in a heightened state when thinking deeply about what to do with what you’ve been told.
Compile in a Doc
Take all the feedback you’ve received and put it in a shared document. You can divide it by section of your company pitch (e.g. team, product, market, etc) or by type of feedback. Either way, it would behoove you to note the main feedback, the person giving it, and whether it was positive, negative or neutral. Use the answers to your clarifying questions to fill in the gaps of your understanding, and don’t hesitate to track down and reach out to those prospective investors or mentors with questions after the fact.
Look for Patterns
As you digest the content of your feedback spreadsheet, your goal is to look for patterns. And this pattern-matching can be as — if not more — important than your gut instinct about what to do.
For example, in one startup I mentored, investor feedback repeatedly pointed out that their category (salon bookings) had a lot of competition, and that competition was not doing great. After hearing this a few times from different corners, the founders retooled their market focus and presentation to higher-end and multi-site salons, who were not being served by their competitors. They went on to raise significant capital and have done a stellar job of execution. This is not solely because of the feedback, but rather the feedback helped them see something and short-circuit an otherwise costly customer development process.
As you’re looking at patterns, be sure to include a “weighting” element based on the speaker’s experience and interest. In the salon example above, a single point of target-market feedback would be more heavily influential if given from a prospective salon owner than from a junior venture partner. Just like VCs, you’re trying to match patterns and find leverage in discerning signal from noise.
Deciding What to Do
Now that you’ve followed the process and received a ton of (well-organized) feedback, what do you do with that information? How do you turn feedback into action?
The first thing to remember is that this is your startup. You (and your co-founder) ultimately make the decisions and have to live with those decisions. Mentors, customers and investors get to go home at night. You’re living/breathing/sleeping your startup. If something legitimately doesn’t sit right with you, don’t do it.
Beyond that, you’re looking for patterns — and from people who you trust/have good opinions on the matter. Be especially conscious of the times when the feedback you’re receiving contradicts your plans or vision for the future. This is often the place where you get the most interesting learnings and outcomes.
Just don’t be over-reactive. I’ve seen many startups (my own included) whipsaw from one strategy to another after a single investor meeting. This is rarely a good idea, and can actively work against you by muddying your message and undermining your convictions or confidence.
Be true to yourself and persevere. But as my grandfather once said, “If 10 people tell you you’re drunk, lie down.” I think this is great advice for any alcoholic — or startup founder.