“Uh, your company is named what?”
I heard this countless times in the early stages of the startup I’ve been working on since college, which is a fundraising platform called Givebutter and is now my full-time pursuit. Questions like, “How is it different?” and, “Doesn’t this exist already?” and, “Wait, just to make sure I heard you right the first time, it’s called Givebutter?????” are popular follow-ups.
One night at dinner, when I was just starting out, my dad asked me all of these questions. I proudly delivered my best pitch in response, but slumped in my chair when he proceeded to tell me that he just didn’t really understand any of it. “How’s the job hunt going?” he asked.
Other times, though, it seemed I could do no wrong. “When’s the IPO?” my more supportive friends sometimes ask me.
At some point, it dawned on me that nearly every person I talked to had an opinion that was affecting how I thought about my idea, regardless of whether I’d asked for their two cents. Their opinions could push me to throw away something that was great, or keep pursuing an idea that was bad. I’ve taken to calling this phenomenon “feedback bias”–the impulse to act on feedback, no matter how unnecessary or ill-advised, simply because you’ve heard it. Obviously, sifting out feedback that isn’t helpful is a crucial skill for successful entrepreneurs. Here’s how I’ve learned to do that for three different types of feedback:
When founders need to raise seed capital, they usually hit up “the three Fs” first: friends, family, and fools. Naturally, this group of people frequently supplies the first round of feedback on a startup idea, and much the way raising money from the three Fs can have a serious impact on your success, leaning on their input too much can also pose risks early on.
Friends and family will often have a very surface-level understanding of your business, and unless they’re hyper-engaged, have domain expertise, or are an actual customer, their general-purpose feedback typically isn’t that valuable. It’s like asking someone to take an exam when they only read the cover of the textbook. Chances are you already know that asking your siblings or parents for business advice might not always be the best idea. But for everyone else in your life, it can be much harder to take their input with a grain of salt.
The solution? Use your personal relationships for emotional support (they’re great for that!) but not for strategic insight. Focus on getting validation from real or potential customers, users, or benefactors of your idea instead.
Imagine you’re a restaurant owner looking for ways to improve diners’ experiences. You decide to include a comment card with every meal and incentivize those who complete one with a chance to win a $100 gift card. To your surprise, fewer than 10% of diners actually bother to fill out the card, and the results are all over the map.
Perhaps the opportunity to win a gift card encourages some customers to write down a bunch of positive comments in hopes of winning. For others, maybe the invitation to share feedback primes them to think negatively about a perfectly fine evening and only point out the flaws. As the owner, you’ve just put yourself at risk of changing things–for good or for bad–that some 90% of your customers might very well like just the way they are.
As a rule, you should assume that solicited feedback will be more unreliable than not. Sometimes it surfaces helpful insights, but be careful about using it to inform really crucial business decisions. Most of the data you have to prompt customers to deliver is often skewed to extremes, since it’s subject to the so-called “brag-and-moan” bias of only those customers with strong opinions to share. And on top of all of this, there’s some evidence to suggest that customers actually dislike being asked for feedback after the fact, leaving a bad taste in their mouths.
Instead of soliciting feedback at the end of a customer interaction, look for ways to gather it in real time. Reactionary feedback is likely to be more genuine. By meeting your customers where they are and observing their behavior, whether in-person or online, you can dramatically improve their experience and receive higher-quality feedback as it occurs to them.
I’ll never forget when one of my classmates told me I had a “balloon head” in second grade. I’m still not even sure what that means, but I came home crying that day and felt self-conscious about my head for years. I’ll also never forget when I was offered a $50,000 investment in my first startup and told, “I believe in you, and I believe in your idea.” While I didn’t take the investment, I clung to this stamp of faith as a reason to keep going when all other signs (and people) told me to stop.
There’s certain feedback that never leaves you. Often it’s excessively positive or brutally critical, and even though a rational thinker should be able to dismiss extreme, one-off feedback as an anomaly, I’ve found that it can permeate everything you do. A single piece of negative feedback can dissuade you from pursuing your dream, cause you to radically change your product, or throw you into a bout of depression. The complete opposite can be true for positive feedback.
In my experience, the best way to combat extreme feedback is to recognize when it exists in isolation. Remember that you’re in the driver’s seat, and no single opinion should cause you to change direction. You are the expert on your own business, product, or idea, and no one will ever understand it as well as you do. So if someone has a strong view, take note of it, and then find out if other trustworthy, well-informed people feel the same way. When it comes to feedback, quantity is quality. In the meantime, just being aware feedback bias exists is the first step toward resolving it.
At Givebutter, we’ve tied customer service directly into our product development cycle to create the tightest feedback loop possible. To do this, we provide live chat on our site through a tool called Intercom and use this real-time feedback to inform our strategy. One day, a customer messaged us with a complaint, and a few hours later we released a feature that not only fixed her problem but was quickly adopted by thousands of other users.
Of course, changing your assumptions over time based on feedback is crucial for making any great idea work. But so is filtering out feedback bias and knowing when to make a change and when to stick to your guns–or, for that matter, to the name “Givebutter.”
This article originally appeared in Fast Company.