Don’t be nice to startups

These days, chances are you or someone you know is starting a company. And, whether you’re hacking on a side project, scheming with a friend, or actually working full time, the number one thing founders are after is feedback (after venture capital dollars, revenue, a CTO… you get the idea).

With that in mind, I wanted to give some advice to friends of founders, early customers, and anyone else who’s giving feedback to startups.

Simply put: don’t be nice when they ask what you think of their product.

It’s human nature to want to support your friend, or another professional who’s put time and effort into a company. This usually results in sugar coating your feedback. Don’t.

Don’t think “oh, well they’re putting their heart and soul into this thing, so I want to support them.” If you tell a company their product is “pretty good,” “interesting,” “innovative” or sugarcoat it in any way, you are doing them a disservice.

If you think “well, I don’t want to be a jerk, and I know starting a company is really hard,” then don’t be a jerk – just be honest. Startup founders are rejected on an hourly basis most days, your additional rejection bounces off the armor just like all the rest. But, a truly honest answer to any product is hard to come by and very very useful because it is so rare.

So, the next time you’re doing a survey for your pre-product friend, tell her what you really think of her idea and vision. When it comes to feedback, the only wrong answer is the inauthentic/unthoughtful one. It’s a founder’s job to parse all the info that comes in and you’re just one input – so don’t worry about being ‘wrong.’ This same advice goes for early customers, users, etc.

Mid-post disclaimer: my favorite character/investor on Shark Tank is Mr. Wonderful. My favorite judge on American Idol was Simon Cowell (not that I’d ever watch that trash). They may be a bit tough, but at least you know where they stand (and you can calibrate how you interpret their feedback as you know they are a bit tough). In light of this, maybe not everyone wants this sort of brutal, Bridgewateresque feedback.

But you don’t have to be brutal, just be honest. Maybe once in a while that means being brutal, and so be brutal. And maybe sometimes it means swiping your credit card, or using the service, then do that too ☺. And, if it’s something in between, do some soul searching to try and figure out why you are on the fence.

Ask yourself, ‘what would make me stop what I’m doing and use this right now?’ Be a method actor for a moment, breathe deeply, and articulate what you’d need to be a user/customer. Don’t list random features you can think of that might be useful in some future scenario. Think RIGHT NOW what do YOU NEED in order to USE/PAY FOR THE PRODUCT. That will be the nicest thing you could possible do for a startup.

PS please feel free to reference this article when giving me harsh (but honest) feedback.