Having recently returned from a gig judging a startup competition, I was challenged once again about the nature of feedback, how it is delivered and how it is received.
I have judged, given feedback to and mentored probably hundreds of startups over the years and very happy to do so. What makes it worthwhile for me is to see the passion and commitment founders have for their ideas and their products. Given the many hours (and funds) founders put into their ‘baby’, it is no wonder that they get emotional sometimes when their ‘child’ is criticised. Emotion is no bad thing but startups who put themselves forward to pitch their idea, have to prepare to receive negative feedback and remember that feedback is just information and as information, it has its value.
Sure, the way feedback is given is important. I always aim to provide specific, factual feedback (positive or negative) rather than opinion based comments. I recognise that I cannot be the expert in all the sectors that I see startups coming from, but then neither are many investors.
When pitching, you are going to be challenged, and in the competition scenario, better to have the challenges here than when pitching before your ideal investor.
Startups do not get defensive. I know it can seem hard sometimes when a member of the jury keeps asking questions which seem to challenge the fundamentals of the product, but it is very hard sometimes to understand just how a product would work, compete or expand its market. A recent example I can think off (but obviously can’t outline the details) was aimed at replacing a lot of existing and well known products, under questioning from jurors about how the startup would challenge some of these major players the founder could only respond with ‘you don’t understand’, ‘we have everything ready’, ‘I’ve been working on this for months’, ‘it will work’. These might be valid responses if they were backed with detailed explanations as to why this was the case, but all we saw was a frustrated founder whose tone of voice implied that all the jurors were stupid and that he was wasting his time presenting to such a group of morons!
How to take the medicine:
be patient, you may think you have been asked a stupid question, but don’t let the juror know that. Take your time, and use simple, clear terms in your response.
be prepared, take advantage of every opportunity to pitch your idea/product to others and encourage questions
feedback is just information. It is not a judgement on you personally, it can be correct and it can be incorrect, but at that moment in time, the giver is seeking to understand.
It might not seem it sometimes, but believe me, if you are in a pitching situation, the jury really are there with the intention to help – we really are all on the same side!