Why Contradictory Feedback Is a Good Thing
Last week here on Inc.com VC Fred Wilson addressed the issue of what he calls ‘mentor whiplash.’ What is it? That head-spinning experience of having several highly qualified and respected mentors give you completely contradictory advice on your startup.
"I think it is a big problem," he writes. "You cannot meet with a potential investor (me included) or mentor/advisor without getting a lot of feedback about your business. If you take many of those meetings a week, then you are going to get pushed and pulled in lots of different directions and it will cause confusion, wasted time and energy, and even a loss of confidence in what you set out to do."
But is there another way to view this confusing diversity of feedback? In a response to Wilson’s post, fellow VC and Techstar co-founder Brad Feld suggests there is. Feld doesn’t disagree that newbie entrepreneurs are likely to experience a serious case of mentor whiplash, he just disagrees that this is necessarily a bad thing. Sifting through conflicting advice and messy data is an entrepreneur's main job, Feld, insists, so if you want to make it as a founder you may as well get good at it now. He argues:
It’s the essence of one of things an accelerator program is trying to teach the entrepreneurs going through it. Specifically, building muscle around processing data and feedback, and making your own decisions.
At Techstars, we view mentor whiplash as a positive attribute. We talk about it openly - all the time. I believe that if you ask five mentors the same question you’ll get seven different answers. This is especially true early in any relationship, when the mentors are just getting to know you and your company.
That’s good. That’s how business works. As an entrepreneur you get an endless stream of conflicting data on every issue. Your job is to sort the signal from the noise... As the business grows, there are more points of stimuli, more agendas, more exogenous factors, and more potential whiplash. If you don’t build your own muscle around collecting, synthesizing, dealing with, and decided what to do with all the data that is coming at you, then you are going to have massive problems as your company scales up. So learning how to do this early on your journey is very powerful.
An entrepreneur complaining about plentiful and diverse data and opinions, in other words, is similar to a track and field athlete complaining about all that exhausting running. If you can’t deal with confusing or flat out contradictory feedback, you’re probably not cut out for life as a business owner.
Which doesn’t mean Feld doesn’t have any advice for entrepreneurs who are just learning to deal with this welter of voices. Like Wilson, Feld coaches inexperienced founders to have faith in their own judgement. "At Techstars, we repeat over and over again the following mantra to the entrepreneurs going through the accelerator: It’s just data. It’s your company," he writes. Welcome the voices, the advice, the numbers, but nothing will change the fact that you need to make up your own mind about your own company.
How do you see mentor whiplash: a big problem or an essential and healthy part of starting a business?
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.