Balancing conviction and feedback – a key skill for entrepreneurs

I think that one of the hardest things about being an entrepreneur is figuring out who to listen to and when to take feedback on board. At the earliest stages there may well be precious few people who understand what you do well enough to provide constructive criticism and there may well be hoards of people (particularly non-techie friends and family) who don’t get what you are doing and advise you to stop what you are doing or radically change course. At these earliest stages most successful entrepreneurs fall back on their conviction and become determined to prove to the world that they were right.

But as your company develops and you build networks of people who get what you do and particularly as you start to get customers then the dynamic changes. At this stage the best entrepreneurs listen well and iterate their plans and business models accordingly. They don’t take all the feedback on board of course (even customers often don’t know what they want) but they start to balance their conviction with the feedback they receive.

Making this shift requires a change in mindset and is often challenging. When I am working with companies I am liberal with my opinions, but I don’t expect all of them to be taken on board. I like to think that they are listened to, and that some of them will be good, but I expect the entrepreneur to balance my feedback with her conviction and other sources of ideas. In fact I look to the skill with which they perform that balancing act as an indicator of likely future success. Listening poorly or listening too much are both red flags.

I’m writing this today because Roger Ehrenberg wrote a great post on this topic earlier this week. This is the best bit:

Having deep conviction around solving a specific problem or engaging users in a meaningful way is the essential element for starting a company. From there, however, art and science diverge. As you build the company, shape the product and spend time working with and trying to acquire customers, you will collect a bunch of data. This data will give you a sense of whether or not you are on the right track and if a broader array of users perceive your product’s value in the way you do. You will also likely observe others in the marketplace, both direct competitors and those whom you aspire to be which will influence your thinking. You might also have mentors and advisers with relevant experience and perspective who will weigh in, filling out the information mosaic.

Distilling relevant input and shaping the product  without losing the essence of the vision and mission is the delicate balancing act most founders face. Some founders hit product/market fit just right the first time. But the overwhelming majority do not. They have to synthesize massive amounts of structured and unstructured data and make good decisions. This is the magic of great builders.

Accelerator programmes are sometimes criticised because the startups are buffeted by too much feedback from mentors. I don’t think that too much feedback should ever be a problem per se (although startups must spend time doing things as well as talking with mentors), the issue is more how it is dealt with, as Roger eloquently described. I suspect that most good accelerator programmes already advise companies on how to process feedback. Maybe they could do so a little more.

  • On entering a new industry, I find that there are plenty of those who have advice on the market and industry dynamics that if taken on a one-to-one basis can be damaging – especially if there are other, unseen, agendas at play – which being new one almost never sees. When dealing with market/industry views those starting new businesses need to make the most of their ability to take and assimilate a wide range of views. However, when it comes to the actual mechanics of running a business, we need to be adept at finding advisors whose motivations lie firmly in us doing well. Finding these people can be tough, and out growing them easier than you think. I have learnt (the hard way) the importance of having the courage to break these relationships and find new ones as you grow and develop. This is a continuous activity of personal and professional development.There are 7 Billion people out there….(excluding you) the right advisor with the most appropriate set of objectives is there….somewhere!Listen lots, discern more.

  • Great point. As a business grows new and different advisors are required

  • I suspect that most startups are influenced by the fact that their “mentors”, whose advice they must balance with their conviction, are the potential investors, future customers or even competitors (as they build a network of people who get what they do). Operational necessities and constraints mean that startups are in some sense stuck with the mentors who are available, in the right place at the right time – whatever their incentives may be.

    That’s why I like this as a development: (TechCrunch also did a piece on it yesterday)

    A big part of getting startups to make the shift in mindset, and trust mentors’ guidance, is to have them trust that they are being mentored by the right people. And a key part of that is breaking down the basic operational barriers to them making those connections.

  • Yes, the blurred line between mentor and potential inveator/customer makes finding the right balance harder.

  • Yes, the blurred line between mentor and potential inveator/customer makes finding the right balance harder.