An Alternative to Cheerleading in Startup Scenes

April 4, 2013

9:00 am

If you listen to organizers across the country, you might get the impression that nearly every state has its own Silicon Valley. Every city is bustling with activity, the investors are interested, the entrepreneurs are excited, the exits are imminent – or so the story goes.

Startup scenes love to cheerlead for their city, and for good reason – being an entrepreneur is hard. Starting a company, then sticking with it when you only have a handful of users on your site and a handful of dollars in your bank account is a constant challenge. Telling entrepreneurs that their city is awesome, that the funds are flowing, helps them get out of bed in the morning.

“It’s real easy to get sucked into cheerleader mode. It’s human nature to want to tell everyone how great everything is. That’s part of the entrepreneurial trap,” says Sean Casto, CEO of Preapps.

But the argument for being critical is just as compelling. Honest feedback in startup scenes raises problems quickly and gets them solved quickly, rather than wasting time because no one is brave enough to bring them up (just as it does within companies). If your city doesn’t have enough investors, the answer is to acknowledge that and try to change it, not pretend it’s not true. As Francisco Dao points out, honest feedback (not empty support) is the true form of loyalty – a loyalty that really cares about the best interests of its object.

Here are some parameters for bringing more constructive criticism into your startup scene without scaring people off.

Who. I don’t believe in lying, but you can focus on different things with different people. Emphasize the scene’s successes more to non-entrepreneurs than to entrepreneurs. They are the ones who need an extra boost to jump into the startup world; entrepreneurs (at least the more experienced among them) are the ones who need to know what’s wrong with their community to help fix it. Also – as startup scenes already do – emphasize benefits more to outsiders than to insiders. All the little problems and shortcomings and missteps don’t necessarily needed to be aired publicly.

But even here, it doesn’t help your case to exaggerate. As Dan Pink explains in To Sell is Human, listing a negative trait about yourself after some positive traits has been shown as a better selling technique. People trust you more when you’re admitting the fuller truth. As a journalist, I know that it’s refreshing to hear an objective take on a startup scene rather than the “everything’s rosy” refrain.

When. As your city’s startup scene grows, increase the amount of honest criticism you share while acknowledging what you have accomplished. A young scene has a million things to improve on, of course. But there’s no point in dwelling on them until you can do something about it. It’s like watching a child first learn to talk: you don’t start criticizing grammar until they have the capacity to do better.

Where. Startup communities might think about setting up dedicated meetings to discuss progress and improvements needed. This way, you have a forum to brainstorm solutions rather than grumbling all over town but not doing anything about it.

What. Obviously, the spirit of constructive criticism is to be constructive. Startup scenes shouldn’t tolerate criticism for the sake of criticism. And, as entrepreneur Rob Boyle points out, there’s a distinction between encouragement – “You can do it!” – and insincere feedback – “Your idea is awesome!” Favor the former, if it’s the most you can (truly) offer.

In the end, indiscriminate cheerleading will pump up the team, but it won’t win the game. Your job as members of a startup community is to be the coach, supportive but critical, encouraging but honest.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact [email protected]

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