Feedback – and the Truth

Good feedback needs to hurt.

Anyone who is trying to pitch a new business idea needs to hear the hard truth, whether or not you are an entrepreneur doing the angel investment circuit or you are pitching your boss on upgrading your computer.

It may be very uncomfortable to hear the truth, but the worst thing you can get is a bunch of platitudes with no real feedback.

Almost 15 years ago, I had an idea for how to finance the cost of patents for startup companies.  As a patent attorney, I was unhappy with the conflict of interest between the patent attorney and their clients.  The problem can be summarized by “Don’t ask the barber if you need a haircut.”

I had been a member of One Million Cups in Ft. Collins.  One Million Cups is a weekly meeting for people to give help to entrepreneurs. 

Every week, one or two entrepreneurs would do a 5-8 minute pitch, and they would get questions and feedback from the audience.  It is a chance to practice your business pitch in front of a crowd, and an opportunity for the community to help the entrepreneur dissect and improve their pitch.

I did a pitch in Ft. Collins, then I did the ‘circuit’ through the other Colorado meetings: Denver, Boulder, and finally Colorado Springs.

In Ft. Collins, everyone knew me.  I had been going to this event every week for years, and the feedback was very thin.  Nobody wanted to criticize me or make me look bad.  I did not get much better feedback in Denver, but in Boulder, there was one person, another lawyer, who nailed me with a few pointed questions.

Colorado Springs is about a two-hour drive for me, so I drove down the night before for the 9 am meeting.

I knew nobody at the meeting.

I did my pitch, and I had a heckler in the back.  This guy was a venture capital investor who took me to task on my business plan.  He pointed out my assumptions and questioned me about them.  He drilled me about everything: value proposition, pricing, customer need, and on and on.

Being ‘brutal’ is the most loving thing you can do.

The questioning was brutal.

It was also one of the most loving things anyone had done for me.

I had two hours to drive home, licking my wounds and thinking through everything that he said.

That feedback gave me confidence that I was onto something valuable because I struck a nerve with him.  However, he dissected my business model so thoroughly that I needed to rethink it and address his points.

That feedback was not easy to hear, nor was it easy to stand up in front of a bunch of strangers and be humiliated.  But that is what I needed.

As entrepreneurs or anyone trying to make the world a better place, we need the brutal truth.  We hate having to go through it, but we need that feedback to try to make things better.

As mentors and advisors, or maybe just a friend of an entrepreneur, we should not hold back on our feedback.  Obviously, some people take feedback in different ways, and we should communicate as effectively as possible with their personality and temperament.

The only feedback that mattered to me was the feedback that hurt.  It was the feedback that made me rethink the business model and come up with better solutions.  It made me come up with different ways to communicate, different phrasing, different go to market techniques, and countless other little details that made my company a success.

As you analyze the motivations of the people affected by your business, be as brutal and honest as you can be.