One Surprising Reason You’re Not Getting Honest Feedback

Fundraising can be frustrating for companies. There are a myriad of reasons, including the time it takes from making a real product and helping customers. Beyond that, the most frustrating aspect for me personally is the lack of feedback.

I had thought that the million ways investors can say “no” indirectly was about keeping optionality. They want to be able to come back later to invest, and this desire blocks the honest negative feedback you’d expect with a direct “no”.

I recently learned something surprising from an ex-VC about what is really going on. If investors gave a direct “no” with a detailed explanation, the problem isn’t you, but other bad founders.

A good founder would listen attentively to any feedback. They’d try to understand if it was a problem with clarity in their pitch. They’d seek to find where they could make their company better.

A bad founder will think the person giving negative feedback is an asshole and an idiot. They’ll take it personally. They don’t have a growth mindset, so will lash out at those that give honest feedback.

The result for the investor is that their reputation gets hurt. Bad founders will go around telling people not to even pitch that asshole investor. The investor will have no avenue to explain the context. This isn’t some open dialog, but stories shared privately over a drink.

This highlights that the community of founders and investors is actually quite small, probably smaller than you think. Just a few founders spreading stories can ripple out to affect how everyone treats that investor.

This is a real shame for people like me that can handle negative feedback without taking it personally. Giving good feedback would probably be the most helpful thing someone who doesn’t invest will ever do for your startup. If anyone I’ve ever pitched is reading this, know that I appreciate all your feedback, good and bad.

YC’s Thoughtful Feedback

As I write this, Y Combinator just sent invitations to interview for applicants of their next accelerator batch. Go read this blog post about how they make mistakes. On Twitter, YC President Sam Altman highlighted another dimension to founder feedback: bad feedback can be damaging. So unless you’re thoughtful, don’t give feedback.

YC doesn’t have the time to give feedback to the thousands of applicants who didn’t get an interview. This is unfortunate because YC partners and alums have a great deal of help they can give, in aggregate, for all those applicants. But the risk of causal feedback causing damage makes them hold back.

The good news is that some feedback is universal and given publicly if you listen. For example, Sam tweeted about how clarity is essential for a YC application:

after reading lots of YC apps, i always end up thinking “what’s the best way to teach people to articulate their ideas clearly/concisely?” - @sama

Having reviewing around 100 applications, I completely agree. Go back and edit your ideas and explanations.

That is the silver lining around this whole thread about feedback. So much negative feedback is actually about how your ideas are delivered. Many are just misunderstandings. Refining how you explain something will actually improve the quality of your thoughts.


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