The Startup World Phenomenon of Hating on Ideas

08 July 2014

Recently I attended a UX workshop, where two relatively-established start-ups each presented a specific UX problem they were having. The hope was to receive great UX-oriented advice from workshop participants. What ended up happening was anything but. After understanding the bare minimum of the startup's business model, the participants immediately began critiquing the business itself and offering alternative visions of what the business should be doing to make money.

This made the workshop frustrating, but it's indicative of a wider trend I've seen. People both inside and outside the tech industry (myself included) tend to jump to critiquing start-up ideas they hear about, even when there's clear evidence of that idea gaining traction with users or generating profits. Even in the heavily parodiable start-up industry, you will sometimes see a group of start-uppers scrambling over each other to poke holes in another's business plan. This seems somewhat at odds with the start-up mantras of trying out new things, being scrappy, and relishing in the "lessons learned" of failures.

What's amazing is that these critiques are often from people who have no experience with the industry under consideration. Advice coming from an experienced investor or former co-founder in the same industry is helpful. But, being tangentially related to the start-up or business world seems to empower people to, basically, hate on an idea and talk about why it will never take off.

I don't think this urge to critique necessarily comes from a place of jealousy (see: FOMO), meanness, or pessimism. Nor are these critiques even spoken in obviously harsh tones; if anything, these critiques are often couched in the most polite of language ("Have you thought of X? But aren't you, perhaps, at risk of Y?"). Let's put aside the tone (though shame on those of us who use the off-handed "stupid" label), and think about why this critiquing is so common.

The main reason why I think critiquing comes so naturally is that most of us in start-ups or business have spent years learning to think critically. Our years of formal education train us to think about arguments and counter-arguments. We are taught to analyze text and speech for all the sneaky ways the author is trying to persuade us of something. We take it for granted that proper discussions focus on all sides of the issue, and in the face of the optimism of a fledgling company that just raised a surprising amount of money, we feel the need to point out that other side of the issue.

Another part of it is that we know it's not easy to be successful. We've heard the stories of the start-ups that fail, the ideas that once sounded so bright but eventually imploded in fiery blazes of irrational optimism. Not everybody can be a Google or a Facebook, and so by the laws of probability, the idea that you're telling me now is unlikely to succeed. So let me be the one to break it to you by pointing out the twenty things you probably haven't considered (but which, if you've given it more than ten minutes of thought, you probably have).

Yet another factor is a certain level of egocentrism. This is not the egocentrism that makes us think very highly of ourselves (which may be true), but an egocentrism where we have only experienced the world through our own experiences. This sounds obvious, but is very hard to overcome in practice. If you try to pitch a novel, paradigm-shifting new mode of communication (think Snapchat, WhatsApp, or even Yo), then by definition I have never really operated under that new paradigm. If your app does something that I've never done or desired before, then it's much harder for me to imagine how much value it can bring to my life.

The strange thing about this egocentrism is that when we try to keep our minds open to new ways of thinking, we can swing too far the other way. If I force myself to believe that a new idea can truly be game-changing, then I easily begin to rationalize why it's awesome. A concrete, recent example of this was when the app Yo suddenly blew up in the media. The hate train began pretty quickly on this one, with many ridiculing the asinine-sounding idea and lamenting the state of a world where such an app could raise $1 million. Then Marc Andreesen, noted venture capitalist, stepped in and tried to defend the idea, almost waxing romantic on the idea of "one-bit communication". Of course, this was immediately ridiculed in turn as the surest possible sign of a tech bubble (Quartz had a reasonable-sounding version of this). Only time (perhaps not much) will tell whether Yo is the (a?) Next Big Thing.

Numbers and financial models are no defense against either the unending optimism of an entrepreneur or the sharp questioning of skeptics. We live in a world of so much readily-accessible data that we can basically cherry-pick the numbers that best support our point. Financial models must rest on assumptions, and assumptions can be (must be) questioned ruthlessly. Bust out a comparable company, and I will bust out another that paints the opposite story. Numbers provide firmer, but not rock solid, ground for our arguments.

I could go on with theories about why those in Silicon Valley and their associates have a predilection to critique. But, I don't want this to sound like I'm against rational, thoughtful discussion of ideas; I'm just against irrationally one-sided critiquing. So, I wanted to propose a set of points that are commonly forgotten and rarely spoken. These are ones to keep in mind during discussion of an idea to hopefully keep things moving in a constructive and balanced way:

And I know that I'm definitely guilty of this only-critiquing mentality. So going forward, when put in this situation, I will do my best to hold to three rules:

  1. For every negative (or positive) point I make, I will try to balance it with a positive (negative) point of equal strength.
  2. I will not start talking until I hear the full idea and any supporting thoughts that go along with it.
  3. I will not start expressing opinions without first asking clarifying questions to make sure I understand the idea as you do.

I'm lucky that my friends are intellectually curious and often toss around project ideas and thoughts about different products out there. Yes, I'm partially calling some of them out for being, for lack of a better word, "haters", but I call myself out on that too. Here's to more supportive, constructive and educational conversations for all of us.

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