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.

How a useless business guy learned to code

The summer after 8th grade, I went to computer camp with my brother and cousin. We learned BASIC, and had a lot of fun playing Starcraft with the other campers at night. For one reason or another, none of us continued to program (I didn’t know anyone who did it, and just kind of thought it was a cool thing to do over a summer…what a loser I was).

My brother eventually taught himself Matlab, R, Python, and turned that into a job as an algo trader on wall street. I played around with some python a few times, but never really sat down to learn anything useful until about 6 months ago.

I want to work with technology, and maybe even start my own company. So, I thought it made sense to learn the basics of programming. How do you do this? There are lots of opinions out there, here’s my story.

Last march I had an idea I was pretty passionate about (it still pains me how ugly this site is). I didn’t know anyone that wanted to work on it with me who had technical skills, thought it would be simple enough to hack together, and so did a lot of googling to build It was a lot of brain damage, a lot of missed opportunities to socialize at HBS, but also an amazing sense of accomplishment when it was done and actually worked! Plus, some people really loved it and wrote me some inspiring emails. Lastly, I got to learn some VERY basic HTML, PHP, MySQL, and Drupal. If the second part of that sentence made no sense – don’t worry, it didn’t make any sense to me either a few months ago!

This summer I put a goal in front of me – I was interning at TaskRabbit in a general management role, but wanted to commit to coding every day in my free time. It didn’t matter if it was 5 minutes, or 3 hours, I wanted to sit down at a computer, open a terminal or SublimeText, or whatever, and write code.

I wrote “code everyday” and put it as the background of my phone. I also put it over my bed. Every time I went to text someone or check my email I was forced to remember my goal and forced to think of whether or not I was hitting it.

I didn’t just want to code, I wanted to learn something useful. I picked the django framework for web development (tough choice between that and rails). I first needed more of the python basics, so I took the codecademy course, which was fun and useful. I also ended up taking the jquery course on codecademy which was pretty solid too. Afterwards, I started with chapter 1 of the Django book. The first 8 chapters are really what you need to build a site. You can do one in a few hours, if you’re being very diligent, or you can do one in 30 mins if you are coming from rails or another MVC framework.

To be honest, it was a bit painful. Programming can be REALLY frustrating, especially when you’re already good at the stuff you do at work. Learning from scratch is tough. But, it expands your mind. I always thought that engineers thought differently. It’s hard to explain, but now I have some insight as to why. As a general rule, it’s good to regularly push your brain to think about problems in new ways!

So – I now had the basics to build something and at least host it locally on my computer. Wahoo! Time to work on a passion project – this is when you really start to learn. I’m embarrassed to say that the project I started mid summer was never completed….I got back to school in September and starting working on something entirely different, and the old project died. But, I think that’s ok. I was still coding every day and continuing to learn. It was now a habit.

The last few months have brought more challenges: hosting, databases outside of sqlite, sending/receiving emails, security issues, actually writing good code with comments that can scale…The learning curve hasn’t really flattened yet.

What do I get for my efforts? For the “brain damage” and missed opportunities to watch Madmen or some other show? It turns out, a lot. I can build MVPs…check out which a classmate and I are working on. Isn’t that cool? I can talk to engineers and not get lost – maybe even have some credibility. I can recruit other technical people to work with me – I’m no whiz but I can contribute on that front now. And, I generally feel like a much more powerful person. This summer at Task Rabbit I re-wrote a piece of our mail merge script to make it A LOT more effective…that’s cool.

Net/net is it worth it? From an ROI perspective….who knows? It depends where life takes me, who I meet and get to work with, and what I do. I enjoyed the process, even the low points where I thought I’d never figure out a problem. And, the highs of getting something to work are pretty incredible too.

I’m relating my story because I know many people out there are trying to learn to code for a variety of reasons. Here’s my advice:
-Get the basics on a language through something like Codecademy.
-Pick a web framework (django, rails) and do the basic tutorials to learn how to create pages and host them locally.
-Pick a PASSION project – something you think the world desperately needs, and figure out a way to hack it together. Break down every step into googleable queries and put it together piece by piece
-Do it EVERYDAY. Don’t let it go 3 days because you’re busy or on vacation, you will lose steam.
-Write down your goal and look at it at least twice a day. It helped me during my wrestling days, and it definitely helped me this summer coding.
-Enjoy the experience. Life is short!

Introducing –

I’ve kept a journal in some form or another since 5th grade. Sometimes I write every day, and sometimes I go a few months without writing anything down. The consistent trend with my writing is that I get a lot of value out of it.

When I was in highschool, I used to break down my wrestling practices and meets, remembering how I felt before/during/after in an attempt to get better at a mentally challenging sport.

In college, I wrote a lot about the summer internships I had. The brain has an amazing capacity to change our memories and backfill history, so I’ve learned. But, the act of recording history trumps your brain’s ability to deceive.

One act of journaling was quite pivotal in my life: After my junior year, I interned at a large investment bank. I didn’t have a great summer and knew I wanted to do something else. Nonetheless, 3 weeks after getting back to campus in September, I was ready to sign my full time offer for this bank. I’d completely forgotten how much I was dissatisfied with my internship, and what my original goals were. Luckily, before I signed the offer, I re-read a journal entry I’d written over the summer, and remembered how much I didn’t want to go back…. the 15 minute exercise of writing that journal entry literally saved me a few years in a job I didn’t want.

Because of this experience, I recently created . The discipline to journal, write down what will be relevant in the future, and unearth these facts at the right time is hard! makes this process a whole lot easier and automated for those of us doing internships this summer. Now others can save 2 years through a 10 minute exercise!