An Entrepreneur’s Guide To Navigating Negative Feedback (Even From VCs)

by Ross Gordon
December 5, 2012

That will never work. No. People won’t do that. Words that hundreds of the most successful entrepreneurs ignored throughout their careers (Richard Branson, anyone?). Yet thousands of others heard the same words and should have listened but didn’t, bringing themselves to financial or emotional ruin.

So how should entrepreneurs know when to listen to “no” and when to keep pushing? 

Not all No’s are equal

Let’s be honest, some people’s opinions matter less than presidential votes in Illinois. A No from someone who knows nothing about your market, business model, or audience means nothing. That may seem obvious, but when a fresh idea excites you enough, you’ll share it with almost anyone, resulting in a lot of No’s. Make sure you filter out No’s with no basis.

What are they saying No to?

Most No’s have two sources: your idea or your execution. In pre or early launch, flawed execution may set you back, but can be fixed. Flawed ideas are often disastrous. Determine the source of the No by asking lots of questions. 

For example, a college professor tells you your education app won’t work. Ask questions to find out why. Is it the design? The courses? The tests? What if you broadened the course work? What if you simplified it? You can change your execution to remedy any of those No’s. But if he says it won’t work because most colleges won’t give credit for courses taken through an app, or that no grad school will recognize the degree, then problem lies in your core idea. You should probably listen to the No and shut ‘er down (or change your idea to something that solves the new problem you found).

Never quit because of a standalone No. Question it and find the source.

Ignore the early No’s

Most of the No’s people throw your way come early in the idea phase while you’re doing market research. When you hear the early No’s, and you’d have to be in a cave (or, as some call it, “stealth mode”) to not hear any, wait a day before doing anything. If you remain unfazed, proceed with market research until you hear more No’s. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

If after three to four weeks you have the same passion as when you started market research, move forward with your idea. Not because there’s any inherent greatness to it at this point—most likely there’s not—but because one day you’ll regret it if you don’t. And regret is a hard snake to shake.

The Shark Tank No

The Shark Tank No is more of a plea than a standard No. It’s a plea to stop hurting yourself and your family. You’re out of cash. You have little or no sales. No one will invest or lend you money (not even family or friends, but even if they would, you shouldn't take it). 

In truth, this No does not come from The Sharks (or whoever else delivers it). This No comes from all of your potential customers. You just didn’t listen. Potential customers say No to your idea or execution (or both) when they choose not to buy your product or service. Hearing a Shark Tank No only happens after ignoring too many customer No’s. 

If you get to this point, listen to the No before you continue the damage. 

No’s from VCs mean a lot less than you think

I can’t stress this enough: heed No’s from regular people in your target audience far more than those from VCs, no matter how many magazine covers they smiled for. For example, a group of small business owners telling you that your bookkeeping software won’t work carries far more weight than a VC saying the same thing (assuming you have customers telling you otherwise).

Customer feedback is greater than VC feedback. Always.

Next time you hear a No, use these tips to discover the source and determine if you should listen or keep pushing ahead.

How have you dealt with No?

Have you ignored a No and went on to succeed? Tell us about it in the comments below (I’ve already posted one of my own) or tweet me @tallross.

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