Don’t Drink (Too Much of) Your Own Kool-Aid

[This article was originally published on GeekWire, June 25, 2011. ]

When we humans believe in something strongly we naturally seek out others who believe similarly. This Kool-Aid drinking tendency applies equally to politics, religion and startups.

Buy me a beer sometime and I’ll tell you what I think about the echo chambers we create around our political and religious beliefs. But I’ll tell you what I think about startup echo chambers right here, right now, for free.

As I’ve written before, passion for an idea can make us blind to the viability of an idea to become a business. As a hedge to our Kool-Aid drinking tendencies, the wise among us seek validation from knowledgeable characters around them.

If you’re not actively doing this then you are failing, day by day. But even if you think you are actively seeking honest, qualified feedback on your idea/market/model, you still may be failing.

Here’s how things often go badly:

When entrepreneurs first begin to look for people for feedback on their idea, they inevitably start with family, friends, colleagues — people who know them and probably like them. So the very earliest third-party validation that lots of entrepreneurs get comes from people who want to support them and encourage them and, frankly, aren’t qualified to add much value (and even when they are qualified) they rarely have a clue about what valuable feedback for a startup looks like.

It’s also the case that many early entrepreneurs don’t know what valuable feedback looks like either. Our natural Kool-Aid drinking tendency will make you want to find the folks who will tell you that your idea is great. (And doesn’t it feel good when you find one!)

Each new friend/family/colleague you talk to pours you that tall, refreshing drink of Kool-Aid that tastes and feels so good. Each time, your assumptions are reinforced, your passion justified — setting them in your mind ever more solidly.

But they aren’t telling you anything you didn’t already believe. Sure, you’ll get some good ideas about useful features you could add or how your model could extend into other industries. But is that really what a newly minted startup needs? No way!

In my humble opinion, what you need to do is seek out qualified people who DON’T like your idea.

–Customers who say they’d never use it or don’t understand it.

–Investors who say they’d never invest in it.

–Industry veterans who know why the same idea failed before.

It may not feel like it right away, but folks like that are gold. Even if you really don’t think they are right, still have the conversation, ask questions, listen closely and drill in everywhere you can.

In academic philosophy, students are taught a very useful technique for proving that a premise is true by assuming first that it’s false.

The technique is called reductio ad absurdum, which means “reduction to absurdity.”

Very basically, if you start from the premise that your claim is false and can show that doing so leads to an absurd conclusion then you must have been right all along.

Applying the technique directly to validating your startup’s assumptions would be a lot of work and probably not the best use of your time. But the main idea of starting from the premise that you’re idea/market/model is not the bread slicer you think it is is a very healthy approach.

But you’re drunk on Kool-Aid and so when you finally do find a qualified critic of your idea you feel like you have the “data” you need to blow them off as “he just doesn’t understand” or “she’s not really in our target customer demographic” or “we’re just not a good fit for their portfolio” or “you can’t please everyone” or “I’m sure I could answer those objections but I just don’t have time to do the research.”

If you find yourself saying things like this very often then you very well could have drunk too much or your own Kool-Aid.

Early on in the ideation process, I’m constantly on the look out for smart critics; and when I find one that’s willing to talk in depth they get my full attention. If you want to feel a rush as an entrepreneur, then try converting someone who initially didn’t like your idea into someone who loves it and wants to work with you on it… or at least no longer hates it and is suddenly interested in joining the beta when it’s ready. Booyah!

So next time you ask someone for feedback and you find that the person really likes your idea, say thank you, smile and nod… and then put the cork back in the Kool-Aid bottle and go find someone who thinks you’re out of your mind and offer to by them coffee.


About Bob Crimmins

Chronic Technology Entrepreneur, Investor, Philosophy Grad, Poker Instigator, Dad View all posts by Bob Crimmins

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