Entrepreneurs are inundated with advice, suggestions and feedback. Without a clear process in place for tracking and synthesizing this feedback -- in the form of advice from mentors, investors, coaches, friends, family and other entrepreneurs -- business owners can quickly become overwhelmed.
Related: 6 Tips for Hearing Tough Feedback
So, how do you decide what's useful and what to ignore? How can you stay true to your founding vision, especially if you're creating a whole new industry or disrupting an existing one with an idea no one believes will actually work?
Recently, I sat down with entrepreneur Armen Gharabegian to discuss the best ways to track and manage startup feedback. As the CEO and founder of California robotic company ShadeCraft, Gharabegian is no stranger to being inundated with advice, especially given the technology underlying his company:
Founded in 2013, ShadeCraft incorporates artificial intelligence and internet of things technology into otherwise ordinary outdoor consumer products, like an outdoor parasol. Its Sunflower product is touted as being the first solar-powered robotic shading system that integrates people with their natural surroundings.
To date, ShadeCraft has raised $2 million and is entering its Series A with strong investment backing -- but it hasn't always been like this. "Innovative ideas by default will be scrutinized until they become the norm," Gharabegian told me. "I remember a meeting two years ago with a well-known investor who asked me why we need intelligent objects outdoors. I told him I would give him ten reasons -- as soon as he explained to me why we needed intelligent toilets."
Proving the Naysayers Wrong
Gharabegian said that most of the feedback he received while developing Sunflower was well intentioned but missed the mark. Like many entrepreneurs, he got used to hearing that his "timing was off," "the market was terrible" or his idea simply "wasn't practical." While it's always satisfying to prove the naysayers wrong, Gharabegian knew that not all this feedback was irrelevant or off base. So, his challenge was to distinguish the pearls of wisdom from the background noise.
"We are more connected to information today than we ever have been," Gharabegian said. "Sometimes, information bogs down your process and strategy, because you get locked into a particular cycle. In order to think outside of the box, you have to think of ways to come up with solutions without necessarily being affected by the norm."
Struggling to synthesize feedback for your own startup? Keep the following in mind:
Track, record and organize. Put processes in place to track your feedback. Log the conversation date, name of the person you spoke with and what advice was offered. Categorize feedback (e.g. fundraising, product development, marketing, leadership, growth strategy, etc.) to make it easier to review at a later date.
After all, a piece of advice might not be relevant now but could have a huge impact six or 12 months down the line, depending on your product cycle and company growth. Look for patterns: Are investors consistently concerned about the same problem? That doesn't mean you need to change course; but you may need to shift your communication strategy to ensure you address this concern in future pitches.
Carve out personal time to reflect. It's hard to "listen to your gut" if you're so busy that you don't know what your gut is saying! Gharabegian called himself a firm believer in carving out personal time to think, be that a morning bike ride, a midday yoga class or simply a walk around the block when things get hectic.
"In today's climate, we don't realize how much time is wasted in dealing with day-to-day correspondence," says Gharabegian. "Taking time for yourself allows you to clear your mind and step away from distractions."
Watch out for echo chambers. Living inside a "founder's bubble" where nothing ever goes wrong can be just as pernicious as listening to naysayers. While naysayers convince you that your idea will never work, a founder's bubble is different: You become so convinced that your way is the right way that you can't see the obvious problems. The solution: Surround yourself with a team that believes in your vision but whose members aren't afraid to speak up or challenge your direction.
"To be successful, you need to focus on working smart as well as working hard," said Gharabegian. "Working smart means building a team that believes in your vision and complements your skillset. One of the greatest lessons I learned early on as an entrepreneur was to choose [my] partners wisely. They need to align with your vision and believe in you and your goal. Nothing is more time consuming than trying to defend your ideas when you believe in them and your partners don't."
Not everyone will believe in your idea, and that's okay. Resist the tendency to dismiss critical advice outright. Take time to reflect on the feedback and your mission. After all, sometimes listening to the naysayers can actually make your startup stronger and help you develop a better product.