‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ is one of my favourite stories from childhood. It’s one of the very few things that I recall from my school textbooks. What I find most striking in the story is not that the king gets duped, but that even all his ministers and his subjects heap praise on the non-existent and invisible suit – simply a cover as to not be thought of as fools.
I get to interact with a lot of startups and entrepreneurs as part of my job, and I am reminded of The Emperor’s New Clothes all the time. I am often left wondering if it’s just my ignorance that I can’t see how X startup will make it, or if I am the child in the story, who sees that the Emperor (the startup) is actually parading naked.
I was a long-time resident of Pune prior to my move to Bengaluru. Pune has a rich tradition of reform and education, but it is also infamous for the highbrow and curt mannerisms of true-blue Punekars. It seems to have rubbed off a bit on me, and so irreverence and low tolerance for fluff come quite naturally to me.
- “Success” in startup land isn’t the same as in other walks of life: Startups are often considered successful based on valuations, acquisitions, funds raised, and media accolades. Whether the startup actually makes money or not is often an afterthought. So, it’s quite likely that my definition of “success” might not be the same as some founders.
- A lot of “successful” startups seemed non-starters to begin with: There have been startups that looked like starving ponies to me, but then suddenly sprouted a pointy horn and were unveiled as a unicorn on primetime TV!
- Starting up takes great courage: It feels just awful to be the naysayer and the one who took the wind out of the entrepreneur’s sail. It’s easier to encourage a founder, say something nice about the idea, and hope for the best.
I was an entrepreneur for over a decade, until just about 18 months ago. I was on the other side, and often at the receiving end of hollow praise. So looking back, I wonder what advice I would give to myself, the entrepreneur. How should I have gone about soliciting honest and constructive inputs – feedback that actually mattered? Here I go with reasoning again:
- People/partners “invested”: You would get useful feedback primarily from people who are invested in your business in some way, as in proverbial “money on the table”. It could be a potential investor, someone considering joining you, an incubator or accelerator that selected you, or even somebody who has invested some of his/her time and effort to travel across town to meet you and understand your business. Ownership and investment change everything.
- Customers – the key: The best feedback almost always comes from the person who actually paid for your product or service. Note that feedback from users can at times be misleading, especially if they weren’t the ones actually paying for it or involved in the decision making. You want feedback from the actual buyer.
- Be wary of family and friends: Far too many entrepreneurs go adrift because of negative, and more often positive, feedback from friends and family. Such reviews are rarely well thought out and should be considered only if the reviewers are also willing to put their money where their mouth is.
- Ask for specifics: Ask people to share specific concerns and criticisms. I find that somehow explicitly asking about concerns, and insisting on specifics, seems to get people to cut the hollow praise and share genuine comments and concerns.
- Take two: It usually takes people more than one interaction to truly understand what you are doing, open up, and then provide useful inputs (exception: disgruntled users/customers). So, in most cases, you can safely ignore feedback from your first interaction!
Being a startup is partly about building castles in the air, while also imagining that you are wearing the finest robes even when you are naked. However, great things happen only when you combine that dream and passion with a hint of pragmatism and a dash of wisdom.
Harshad Oak heads the Oracle Startup Cloud Accelerator programme in JAPAC and France.