startup advice

How to not be (such) a Sensitive Founder

Rick Nucci
April 22, 2015
Read Time: 3 mins

After a year into my current startup, one challenge we have is how to consistently get brutally honest feedback about our product and messaging. But why is it so hard? Well one reason is, as humans many of us are hard wired to just be nice. Nice is easier. It’s the path of least resistance. You can just say, “your startup is interesting” and fake some vague interest in a follow-on conversation. We’ve all done it.

But as the person giving the advice, you may be doing a great disservice to that startup. You may not care, and maybe you shouldn’t care. However, if you yourself are starting a company, or working for another startup, or you invest in startups, or you advise/mentor startups, then you should care! You need to be honest and candid. Startups need to hear honest and candid feedback; it’s one of the key ingredients to getting to product market fit.

And this brings me to the Sensitive Founder. You have worked tirelessly on your product for months, poured your heart and soul into it and come out the other end with what you know is an amazing product. I get it, startups are emotional, startups are personal, startups can be all-consuming. But get over yourself. Your product almost certainly sucks in the beginning. It kind of SHOULD suck because you should be showing it to people well before it’s awesome. But you can detect the Sensitive Founder almost right away. Someone starts asking them benign questions, and Sensitive Founder starts getting flush. They are critiqued on an element of the team growth or spend, and their body language closes off. You try to share some experiences you have had with a segment of their go-to-market, and they tell you all the reasons why you’re wrong.

So sensitive

And what is the result of this conversation? As I already said, as humans many of us are wired to be nice. Giving brutally honest feedback is a skill that must be developed like any other. And those on the path to learn how to help and give advice take a step backwards after every meeting they have with Sensitive Founder.

So you need to tone down the sensitivity. But how? Like I said, startups are personal, so it is natural for you to have an emotional connection to your product. Speaking as a Recovering Sensitive Founder, here is what I do:

  1. Value it like revenue. Especially when you are just starting up. If you start valuing all forms of feedback, even negative, your brain will start to re-wire itself to not fire off internal rage-neurons.
  2. Ask for critical feedback up front. Right at the start of the meeting. I even go so far as to say “attack! nothing you say can hurt our feelings!” Making the person feel totally disarmed that you won’t curl into the fetal position when they start questioning you starts things off on the right foot.
  3. Be thankful when you get it! Someone actually gave a shit about your product, at least enough to tell you what they don’t like about it. That is honestly a huge deal. The real bad sign is not when you get negative feedback, it’s when you get no feedback at all.
  4. Discard it. Yup, I’m a hypocrite! Yes you treat it like revenue, but not all of it. In fact not most of it. Feedback is an aggregation process. You are looking for patterns of consistency in what you hear. Did you hear about the same missing feature in your product 5 out of 10 demos, all from the same buyer persona? You are on to something. Preparing yourself to potentially discard feedback also helps you disconnect emotionally when you hear it.
  5. Ask follow up questions. When someone critiques an aspect of what you are doing, ask them why. Is it based on their past experience? Is it based on their perceived use of your product? Is it based on a misunderstanding or poor explanation of your company? The answers to any of those questions help you understand where you need to focus, i.e. product feature, website messaging, bad semantics, etc.

Now you're ready: so get out there and find someone to shit on that idea you spent the last year pursuing ☺

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