As a mentor to both 500 Startups and Montreal’s FounderFuel, I’ve met a lot of founders, read a lot of business plans, and given a lot of feedback. And I use the same two disclaimers with every founder I meet:
- My feedback will be brutal and honest.
- Feel free to ignore any of it.
I’ve looked founders in the eyes and questioned the very core of their product, strategy, business model, etc. And to this day, I’ve heard nothing but thank-you’s. In fact, the most consistent statement I hear back from founders is “I wish others had told me this earlier!” For example, here’s a reply to an email I sent someone, in which I apologized if my feedback was only critical:
Please do not apologize, I need this perspective desperately! Everyone I have sent it to says it reads well and I know it needs to be ripped apart…
Mentors – you are there to help improve businesses, not be buddies. It’s almost like parenting – sure I want to be “friends” with my kids, but not if it gets in the way of being their father, which must always come first. There’s plenty of time and room for nurturing – and also time to call out problems when they arise.
The comment above is not the first time I’ve heard something like it. Founders know they have problems and need help, and when mentors give nothing but praise and head-nodding, it hurts the company’s chances of success. I tell all founders “you have friends and family, right? their role is to pat you on the back, tell you you’ll be a billionaire, and lift you up any time you need it.” And it’s not to say that my role is to tear someone apart – it’s to help them think critically, challenge their own assumptions, and get refreshing input and worldview onto their initiatives.
Additionally, I have a strong tendency to avoid giving specific feedback on areas where I have no expertise. I don’t know much about SEO, so I don’t comment. But when it comes to product, marketing strategy, communications and messaging, and fundraising, I am ready to dive into the weeds with any entrepreneur, and help get to the core “why?” of whatever they are doing.
A mentor of mine has a big thing about asking “why?” – basically he won’t stop asking it until all assumptions are challenged and taken down to their core. It’s almost excruciating to go through, and unquestionably has made any session I’ve ever had one that improved my strategies, plans, visions, etc. Try it sometime – work with a trusted advisor/mentor/friend and push yourselves to the very limit of “WHY?” until you truly can’t go any further. By that I mean, both parties agree that the answer is fully rational AND cannot be dissected into a smaller question.
It’s great to support entrepreneurs, and never want to discourage them. But if you leave a meeting with some founder, and you are thinking to yourself “that distribution strategy makes no sense” and you didn’t say it out loud? That’s the same as me telling my kids they’ll be great swimmers, and never taking them for lessons.