You can never have too much feedback, but you can’t satisfy everyone either

Among my lawyer friends, there’s a telling joke. If you ask 5 lawyers a question, you’ll get 10 opinions.

With startup advisors, mentors, and investors, it can be even worse. Startup founders expect to get consistent feedback on everything from what goes into a pitch deck to the terms of the raise. Instead, they get advice that not only differs, but is sometimes completely contradictory.

Should you use a SAFE, convertible note, or preferred equity for your raise? Ask 3 investors and don’t be surprised if you get 3 different answers, each of them claiming theirs is the only correct answer and anyone who suggests otherwise is clueless.

Here’s the truth: there are no correct answers. There is no 1 right way (except for my wife’s). There are only people’s opinions based on their own experience and their point of view.

Founders who aren’t used to the cacophony of responses can experience what I call “investor whiplash.”

You meet with one advisor and she says the pitch is missing an exit strategy slide that investors need to assess the investment. So you spend the day creating the perfect exit strategy slide. Then you show the pitch to another mentor and he says an exit strategy slide is a red flag for investors and if you don’t get rid of it, you won’t get any investment.

What to do? Who to believe? It’s enough to tear your hair out.

For scientists and engineers in particular, it can be frustrating and disorienting. Those of us with backgrounds in art are strangely prepared for this.

My time working on a master’s degree in writing were in some ways better preparation for dealing with the disorientation and rejection of pitching than my MBA studies where you write up your analysis and get a grade.

The writing classes were mostly workshops. Think of the program as an accelerator. We’d turn in stories, articles, and chapters of a novel to the entire class for feedback.

The writing feedback was everything from overall structure to details like word choice. The writer would have to sit silently taking notes while the class discussed everything wrong and how to improve it. Sound familiar?

We critiqued each other with the goal of getting our materials ready to submit to publishers. Similar to venture scouts and investors, the only feedback we’d usually get from them was a terse note, “Sorry, not for us. Good luck elsewhere.”

Writing is subjective, as is any art. Is it possible to give useful feedback? Absolutely. But the feedback has to be taken with a grain of salt or two. And a shot of tequila.

Constructive feedback was incredibly helpful, but it was also incredibly painful to hear that the poem you poured every ounce of your heart into “is an okay first draft.” More frustrating was that the suggestions on how to make it better were frequently contradictory.

After an hour of criticism, no matter how well-intentioned, there were 2 conflicting reactions: (1) conclude you have no talent and need to give up and get a job at WalMart; (2) rush back to write a new draft that fixes every issue. Both reactions are wrong.

Most students, including me, did the worst thing possible: we tried to do both. Even while depressed that our peers didn’t declare us a genius, we’d set to work trying to fix everything.

Inevitably, the second drafts were worse. Way worse. They felt written by committee.

A pitch is not a template to be filled in with facts and figures. It’s a story to tell investors how they’re going to make a money by investing in your startup. Hopefully it’s a pre-memoir rather than a fairy tale.

But it’s a story. And you need to tell it your way, with skill and enthusiasm.

So here’s how I eventually learned to deal with feedback:

First, don’t even think about it the same day. Take good notes and set them aside. Go home and rant to your dog that everyone is so stupid. Then get drunk.

(Just to clarify, I’m not advocating drinking, and especially not to excess. Play video games. Meditate. Pull out that 5000 piece puzzle. Do Wordle. Actually, please don’t do Wordle. But do whatever works for you to clear you head.)

The next day, look at it fresh, trying to see it from other people’s perspective. Revise the deck so it accomplishes what you want it to do, not what everyone tells you.

When you’ve completed another draft, go back and review the notes. Did you miss anything important?

One of my colleagues says she ignores 80% of the feedback, finding only 20% of it helpful. I probably use closer to 50% of the feedback, but in a different way.

If someone tells me to change something, that’s not useful by itself. What’s important is what prompted that reaction. It’s a symptom of something wrong, usually somewhere else. My goal is to figure out what prompted that reaction and fix the underlying problem.

Then I practice out loud and decide if I’m happy with the result. Because if I’m not satisfied, the enthusiasm won’t be there. And that’s the most important part of writing. And pitching, too.

So here’s my advice on how to deal with advice:

Consider the person who’s giving the advice. All feedback is useful, but some is more useful than others.

  • What is their background?
  • Are they a founder, an early-stage investor or a late-stage investor?
  • Do they come from B2B or B2C?
  • How applicable is their advice to my situation?

Are other people giving me the same feedback? If one person said they were having trouble understanding the product, they might not have been paying attention. If 5 people tell me the same thing, I’ve got a problem I have to fix. Mentor feedback is like customer feedback. Each one is a single datapoint. We need volume to draw a conclusion. Talk to as many people as I can.

The most important technique I learned is to watch other people pitch. Good ones and bad ones. Lots of them. And critique them myself. What did I like? What worked and what didn’t? What resonated with me and with others and why? Then apply the same process to my own pitch and try to be objective in seeing it from the point of view of an investor.

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