Speak No Evil

This is the seventh in a PandoDaily weekly series that chronicles the experiences of a young entrepreneur as he bootstraps his startup. Read Part 1, “The less-than-glamorous life of a young entrepreneur,” Part 2, “How to survive co-founding a company with a friend,” Part 3, “Starting a company and having a girlfriend isn’t easy,” Part 4, “Customer validation: from lean startup to craigslist,” Part 5 “Dealing with competitors without turning your product into Mr. Tumnus,” Part 6 “Why I gave up a cushy career as an investment banker to launch a startup.” Come back next Sunday to read the next installment.

Handling criticism is a routine part of most occupations. It’s a bit like hitting a curveball — while some people might have the innate ability to handle criticism gracefully, those of us who don’t can work on it by stepping up to plate early and often. I didn’t think I had a problem handling critique. That is, until my co-founder Paul and I started Treatings and began systematically launching products and blog posts into cyberspace for all to see and censure.

“That lousy, good-for-nothing asshole. I’m mad at that jerk for posting something like that for all to see. Who does he think he is?!”

A year ago, this could have been a byproduct of my reflexive defense mechanism responding to a naysayer. Instead, this was an email I received from my Mom, after she read someone’s comment on last week’s post. Among other things, he or she (the commenter was anonymous) didn’t like my name and felt that investment bankers starting companies is a signal that a market crash is imminent. This was the first time my Mom had seen such a vitriolic comment aimed at me, but I’ve been conditioned to shrug these off and place in the “not a fan of Hayden or Treatings bucket.” Unfortunately for that person, they’ll have to get in line.

I’m no longer wholly unprepared to process this type of “feedback.” The last year has provided fertile training ground for practicing my handling of constructive and deconstructive criticism, whether it’s on the idea behind Treatings, our product or my first name. As for the most recent episode, for my whole life my friends have been on a crusade to convince me that “Hayden” is in fact a girl’s name, so having it be categorized as a “d-bag” guy’s name seems a minor victory.

Dealing with feedback, specifically criticism, is difficult. I would have thought that my previous corporate job had prepared me to deftly handle criticism because I got it every day. My bosses weren’t shy about pointing out the mistakes I made. I adopted the “thank you sir, may I have another” approach, which was pretty easy given I detached myself personally from the work I produced. I’ll be the first to say that I wasn’t a great investment banking analyst. My deliverables rarely represented anything creative I’d done, just a regurgitation of past materials. There was no ego involved in my work. My goal was to appease my bosses as quickly as possible by surrendering to any changes in financial models or client presentations they wanted to make. I rarely pushed back on their critiques, because defending my work threatened to prolong the conversation, which typically ended with more work for me.

Conversely, my identity has become intertwined with Treatings, and I have so much invested in it that it is difficult not to take criticism personally and respond accordingly. We have been lucky to have many smart, experienced people be generous with their time and thoughts. I’ve never been shy about asking for feedback, in fact I often seek out criticism. The problem is that no sooner will people start picking apart an aspect of our idea or product that I’ll interject and rationalize our logic.

“I’m not clear what the incentive is for people to come to Treatings,” said a VP of Products at a local technology company.”

This was last year, and we were getting feedback on wireframes we’d created in preparation for the beta version of our site. When the question of “incentives” came out of his mouth, my eyes lit up. I knew this answer! This was something we often heard from older, more experienced people, wondering what the incentive is for users to accept coffee meeting requests on Treatings. I was delighted, because I could correct his “misunderstanding.”

I interrupted him, which in my mind was doing him a favor, because he was going to waste breath on a misinformed opinion I could surely save him from. I explained that we’re a professional networking platform aimed at connecting peers over coffee, not making “experts” available. Many of our members are people who aren’t frequently asked to meet and share their insights. They are people still in the process of navigating their own careers, but likely with insights that would have latent value to peers. I concluded the sermon by drawing parallels to online dating, saying that ultimately the responsibility falls on the person proposing the meeting to make it seem mutually beneficial.

The look on the guy’s face after I finished my diatribe was akin to the “Finish Him” final moment in a Mortal Kombat fight, where the losing character is dazed and defenseless, swaying back and forth. This is the cue for a “Fatality,” where the opponent is encouraged to take the character out of their misery by means of an executionary move, with names like “Spinal Rip” and “Soul Sucking.” I think the latter was appropriate for this situation. I had effectively sucked up all the air in the room, and the guy, who had started the conversation wanting to help us think through our product problems, had been derailed and didn’t have much energy to get back to his train of thought.

The saving grace was that this was a nice guy, and we still had time left in the allotted 45-minute meeting.

“That’s fine, but you need to not only understand the key user, but effectively convey the value-add. You only have a few seconds to capture the attention of a viewer,” he explained.

This helped snap into focus the fact that our intentions for Treatings are just that…intentions. They’re meaningless if not clearly and concisely conveyed to the visitor. Thankfully for users, I won’t be there to whisper in their ears the first time they come across Treatings about how to use the site and how it will add value to their lives. It is up to us to plainly convey this on the site. This was a simple but pivotal idea for us to understand. And it was one that we almost never got to hear.

I asked a mentor of mine about how to best take advantage of feedback sessions like the one I almost botched, and he said something that really changed the way I handle feedback.

“The less you talk, the more feedback you’ll receive.”

When someone points out a flaw in our reasoning, or suggests we think about something that we may have actually spent a lot of time considering, it is tempting to jump in and highlight every little scenario we’ve thought through. This may pad my ego, but it deprives me of the unadulterated feedback that sometimes can only be received the first time someone hears an idea or sees a product. Now, unless people explicitly inquire about the basis for decisions we’ve made, I bite my tongue every time I feel the urge to provide an unsolicited response to their stream of consciousness.

But, if you say something critical and my Mom is in the same physical or digital room, I can’t promise the same restraint.

[Image Credit: Henrik Chulu on Flickr]