Cynical feedback

I talk about LendSquare a ton, either because I want to, or as a result of the all-too-common “so, what do you do?”. Usually the conversation is pleasant, but every once in a while the person I’m talking about is so cynical and frustrating that I leave a conversation in worse shape than how I started it. I call this kind of feedback defeatist feedback. It’s draining, it’s useless, and it should be avoided at all costs.

A few days ago, José, Nick, a stranger, and I had one such conversation, and it went something like this, :

Stranger: What do you guys do?
José: Through our website, small businesses borrow money from their customers and neighbors.
Stranger: I can see a few problems with that.
Nick: Like what? I want to know so we can make this product better.

Here’s what happened next:

  1. The stranger mentioned a potential problem with our business.
  2. Nick or José said that, while the problem is certainly interesting, we don’t think it will break our business because of [reason X].
  3. The stranger said “Oh, but you still might get [problem Y].
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until everyone was exhausted and annoyed.

I’ve learned that when a person’s very first comment is “that won’t work”, they don’t want to be convinced. Every argument has a counter argument and you can never win. It’s incredibly draining.

People like that don’t want to learn. They want to be right. In fact, they probably are right, because most things fail. But we already know that.

I’ve spent 2 years of my life thinking about all the reasons my company won’t work. The odds that a complete stranger will think of an original problem with my product after knowing about it for less than 30 seconds is basically zero.

There are only two instances in which I’m ok with hearing, before anything else, “that won’t work”:

  1. You have a reputation for being very smart.
  2. You are an expert in the field.

Here’s how I have handled similar conversations in a more successful way:

Stranger: I can see a few things that are problems with that.
Anyone else: Gee, that’s interesting… but is there anything you like about the idea?

I can pay attention to their word choice and incorporate it into my pitch, or learn an interesting anecdote. At the very least I have a pleasant, if unremarkable, conversation.

Avoiding defeatist feedback is not about avoiding criticism, it’s about maximizing useful criticism. Most batters strike when they swing, but that doesn’t make baseball a game of catch.

  1. Talking about feedback is difficult. The terms positive feedback and negative feedback have different meanings in engineering and in common speech. In common speech, negative feedback has a connotation of “bad” or “bad results” and “positive feedback” means “good”. By contrast, in engineering, negative feedback means “stabilizing” and “positive feedback” means “prone to spiraling out of control.” I think the term “defeatist feedback” can avoid this confusion.