Giving and receiving open and honest feedback is not really in our culture. And it is an essential skill for a founder to master. It is the tool to use in validation of your business model, and can save you from many mistakes. I was even recently invited to be on an “advisory board” by a colleague searching for a new job. He wants a reality check and to be kept accountable. What a nice idea! For you, the founder, even more so. As a founder, depending on your startup’s stage, you’ll be seeking different types of feedback from different kinds of people. But you’ll always need it.
Let me share 5 thoughts on how to ask for and receive feedback.
1. Ask. You’ll get little feedback if you do not ask for it. The good news is, this is the easy part. People love to give advice. It makes them feel smart and validated. You’ll be surprised how many otherwise busy people will agree to spend some time with you.
When asking, make it clear you are seeking feedback and advice, and respect their time (you’ll get plenty of value from an experienced person in 15-30 minutes time). Make it easy for them – join an event they attend, drop by their office at their convenience or buy them a cup of coffee nearby. If all you can get is a quick phone call, take it.
2. Whom to ask? In the very beginning, ask anyone willing to listen. Friends, colleagues, your significant other. My first go-to person is my wife.
In the next phase, go for experienced entrepreneurs – people who’d done it before. There are a few events designed exactly for this (e.g. Westartup organizes member’s night events). There are also startup programs employing experienced mentors (such as MIC boostcamp or Founder Institute).
The people from whom you actually want most feedback are your customers. You can also talk to other people in your target market (“thought leaders”, domain experts, consultants, or just people who have been working in the industry for a while).
3. What to ask? In the beginning, you want to get feedback on your idea, so prepare a pitch. A good simple format to follow: “My [company] is building a [product] to help the [target customer] solve a [problem] [with secret sauce]“. Check out Mad Libs For Pitches: How To Perfect The One Sentence Pitch from Adeo Ressi.
You can ask feedback on any aspect of your business model. You can also ask for – and you’ll get – different types of feedback (on your idea, your strategy, tactics, presentation form…).
If you are asking feedback from customers, a good place to start is the problem you are solving for them. Describe the problem you are solving, and ask them if it resonates with them. Ask follow up question (e.g. why is this difficult, how do you deal with it today…). Then ask them to rate the problem on a scale from 1 to 5 (1 being “don’t need a solution for this”, and 5 “I must have a solution to this problem!”). If you see there’s resonance, you can then show them a short demo, or a screen shot and ask if this would solve their problem (test which features are must haves and check for any barriers to adoption). If the solution resonates, you can do a price test. You can a complete interview in 15 minutes. I once done 15 customers in one week. When will you do yours? Seriously, plan it, there is no reason to postpone.
As your product goes live with real users, you will make it easy for them to provide feedback, and use actionable metrics as a form of objective feedback. Before the site goes live, you can also play with Google Ads – where you can A/B test different value propositions.
4. Listen, don’t convince. You are asking for feedback to learn. You want them to be honest and open. And in turn you have to open yourself up to learning. Most of us seem to have a big difficulty with this. One sure way to immediately block learning is to start defending your idea and arguing. Instead of arguing, probe deeper, make sure you understand what they are saying and why they are saying that.
I know it’s your baby, but just because you want it to succeed, listen. Market will be much less forgiving and nice to you than your adviser. You are too attached, too close, it’s normal you don’t see everything. Prepare mentally to hear stuff you don’t want to hear and get in the mindset of learning.
5. Apply. What is the smallest actionable thing you can do to put what you’ve learned in practice? Go ahead and do it. That doesn’t mean blindly following what people say. You are in charge. Think critically about the feedback. But also about your idea.
In the quest for feedback, you will inevitably meet the non-believers. This is a special breed of people who had seen too many well-meant but poorly executed and short lived initiatives, and have learned to be skeptical. They will live among your customers. They will have difficulty envisioning a solution and believing in your vision. Take them for what they are. Listen to them too, as they are typically very smart people with lots of experience. Let them point out errors in your reasoning and obstacles you will need to overcome on your path to customers. Consider their feedback a challenge to your creativity.
But also acknowledge you are a different breed – a dreamer with a vision on a quest to make this world a better place, with an innate ability to ignore the facts (“reality distortion field”). I need you to stay this way, just also be smart and take every opportunity to learn.