Easy to criticize, hard to create

I can rip any business idea to shreds.

Take NetFlix: The costs of inventory logistics, millions of non-technical customers, the Postal Service, and loss from wear and delivery will make profit impossible with a reasonable retail price. Movie-watchers are accustomed to the immediate gratification of browsing and selecting. People will copy movies, pissing off suppliers. Blockbuster will duplicate the model and undercut the price, combining the convenience of home delivery with the equally convenient option of store browsing and returns.

Terrible idea that could never work. Except that now Blockbuster (who did copy it) is bankrupt and NetFlix turned a profit of $60m last quarter, which is more than Blockbuster was doing in its heyday.

I suppose if your goal in life is to be right, you should bet against every startup, certainly against any novel ideas. You’ll be right much more often than wrong. Congratulations. You’re right, and utterly useless.

The goal of the entrepreneur is not to be “right.”

It’s to construct with humility. To listen and talk simultaneously. To infect customers and employees with your peculiar disease. To live to fight another day. To acknowledge being wrong before the fault turns fatal.

To realize that even if a particular venture is a “failure,” it never is. I’ve never met a “failed” entrepreneur who doesn’t proudly declare they’re better off now: developed skills they never thought possible, learned what makes them excited to get up in the morning, came face-to-face with their fundamental limitations, and now more confident than ever in what they’re capable of, regardless of the future shape of their career.

The Lean Startup movement also values learning and experience over “being right,” specifically casting this concept as “running experiments.” And the great Francis Crick (Nobel-winner for discovery of DNA) posthumously agrees with that analogy:

“The dangerous man is the one who has only one idea, because then he’ll fight and die for it. The way real science goes is that you come up with lots of ideas, and most of them will be wrong.”

Real science is mostly being wrong, but staying vigilant and honest enough to continue being wrong until you’re not wrong. So it is with dating. Or startups.

The problem with armchair criticism is it’s so easy. Which was easier — my rant on the perils of the Startup Genome Project or the effort in collecting and analyzing the data for that project?

Of course it’s easy. Is it even theoretically possible for the Startup Genome Project to not have holes for me to poke at? Does that really make the project dubious? I stand firm that my criticism was sound, but… so what?

Designers want to be “right,” but have to temper that with analytics data. The true masters are those who embrace metrics as an incontrovertible goal while also being creative enough to retain the aesthetics, creativity, and philosophy which makes their craft an art.

Programmers want to be “right,” but have to temper that with getting things built and shipped, even before it’s ready, even with bugs, willing to build features pulled by the market instead of pushed by internal rationalization.

Backseat advisors and pundits (like me) want to be “right,” but have to temper that with the more important goal of inspiring people to be a better version of themselves instead of indoctrinating them with our own biases and experiences.

But as a founder, you still need to listen with half an ear. Sometimes you’ve been blind. I still resist opposition to my ideas, more than I know I should. I still hate being wrong.

But it has to be possible to be able negate you, otherwise you are certainly pig-headed. As the CEO of WP Engine I feel that most days are filled with more contradictions than construction — balancing customer needs with internal costs, following our nose against what competitors are doing, or staying true to our “vision” while also flexing as we learn what the market wants and even what we want for ourselves.

It’s easy to criticize but it’s just as easy for you to dismiss criticism without consideration. That’s equally hazardous.

How do you tell the difference between useless and constructive criticism? Let’s continue in the comments.

34 responses to “Easy to criticize, hard to create”

  1. Reminds me of one of _why’s quotes:

    “When you don’t create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability. Your tastes only narrow and exclude people. So create.”

  2. “If you wanna do that, you’ll have to fight me. And you’ll have a quite reasonable chance of winning.” 

    It’s all about making the case. And being *able* to make the case. 
    Frankly, I think every project, every intended large scale action, absolutely *needs* a naysayer — and needs to vanquish it to move forward.

    • I second this. Having others expose the hurdles mitigates paralysis by analysis.  Striving to objectify (find evidence) instead of guessing and hoping is easy advice to give and take.

  3. Identifiers of constructive criticism:
    1) Points to a problem you were unaware of that you agree is real
    2) Validates doubts about parts of your product you already had
    3) Will apply to more than a small number of your customers
    4) Destroys prejudices you had about your product that were wrong

    You should hate being wrong (some of the time). If you are passionate about what you are doing then some ideas are going to hurt when you have to let them go.

    • Absolutely, positively brilliant response!  I hate being wrong – ever.  But now (finally, after years of fighting this), every time I get that bristle on the back of my neck, I realize something’s going to improve if I pay attention to it.  So it converts to a positive experience.

  4. Useless criticism:  Anything said to me that delivers obstacles, reasons to stop, or generally contains negative energy.

    Constructive criticism:  Anything said to me that helps us improve things, delivers ideas for change with the intent of being helpful, or generally contains positive energy.

    It’s easy (for me, at least) to separate the nay-sayers from the people who really want to help.  Anyone else able to spot this?

    • Be careful with your definition of “useless criticism” because sometimes a reason to stop what you’re currently doing actually does help improve things. In my book it’s all about intent.

      Useless criticism is flippant generic advise meant to condescend, destroy, or build someone’s ego. Constructive criticism is meant to improve the product itself. 

  5. Who is this post written for?  Failed entrepreneurs?  Armchair cynics?  I am going to exercise my right to criticize the author for failing to create an article of any value whatsoever.  Hope the process of creating it was valuable for you.

  6. Good question. I sort of wish you had more of an answer because I also hate being wrong and it sometimes bothers me. I was reading the strong opinions, weakly held post again yesterday and thinking of how I approach advice or feedback that challenges my opinions. At this point, I basically just have my gut, which is great sometimes. However, I have recently found that my gut is not telling me anything in some cases. Normally I would assume this means the issue is not important, but I know this isn’t right on some of them.

    I guess all of that is to say I just don’t know. I guess I will go talk it out with some other people and see what pops out.

    • I think a lot of questions in a startup are how you describe — no clear “correct” answer, and no strong gut feel on what to do, because you’re being honest.

      Sometimes an adviser has a better feel, but often they don’t know either.
      Because you’re doing something new! Or at least, unknown. So it’s to be expected.

      I think the trick here, after recognizing the condition, is to minimize the time spent dallying and dithering, and just act. If more time isn’t adding information, some action is better than no action.

  7. I do my best to give all ‘criticism’ the same weight. I hear it, consider it, extract what I personally deem worthwhile, and move on. What makes this process difficult for me is the level of respect I have for the provider of that criticism.

    Part of considering the criticism is considering the source of that criticism. Which should not ‘devalue’ it, but instead be a direct piece of it. Similarly to surveys.

  8. Useless criticism: that which is directed at an individual.  Criticise ideas; implementations; processes; et cetera.  Never people.  

  9. Do often find that most valuable criticism is the one you were afraid to aknowledge yourself & it hurts when someone else is saying it..

  10. A more important (but much harder) question to ask a new startup is whether the experiments that it proposes to conduct have a high enough expected value to outweigh their cost (direct and opportunity).  It’s relatively easy to have a gut feeling about whether you think something will work or not, but much harder to have a probability-weighed sense of it’s value.

    Unfortunately, I haven’t a clue how to develop that sort of intuition, if it’s even possible.

  11. You really hit the nail on the head.  I am a critical pessimist when evaluating new businnesses and business ideas, it’s a self defense mechanism against being sucked down a hole, but you have to move past that.  We are all champions of our own ideas, but we have to be open to allowing the best ideas and thoughts to enter, always looking for improvement and the best ideas and ways, even if they are not our own.  This also rewards others in our sphere and organization and encourages then to contribute.  The rule is:  there is always a better way, so be open to looking for them in order to achieve continual improvement in everything that you do!

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