I Give You Permission To Hate My Feedback

Last night Amy and I had an awesome dinner at Perla with Fred Wilson, Joanne Wilson, Matt Blumberg, and Mariquita Blumberg. Fred and I have been involved in Return Path for a dozen years and this has become an annual tradition for us when Amy and I are in NYC. At 12 years of service, Return Path gives a six week sabbatical and a pair of red Addidas sneakers as a “get ready for your sabbatical” gift. Fred and I got the sneakers, but not the six week sabbatical.

I sat across from Joanne and since the restaurant was noisy our table ended up having two separate conversations going. Joanne is awesome – if you don’t read her blog, you should start right now, especially if you are interested in NY entrepreneurship, women entrepreneurs, food, and the thoughts of an amazing woman. I still remember meeting her for the first time around 1995 and thinking how dynamite she was.

Oh – and if you are a seed stage company in NYC looking to raise money, you are an idiot if you don’t immediately reach out to Joanne and try to get her involved. She is one of the most thoughtful angel investors I’ve ever met.

We talked a lot about seed stage investing during our part of the conversation. Joanne has done about 25 investments in the past few years and has a very clear strategy for what she invests in. She works incredibly hard for the companies she invests in, is deeply passionate about the products and the entrepreneurs, and clearly loves what she does.

During the conversation we had a moment where we were talking about feedback. I told her about my approach of saying no in less than 60 seconds. She told me a story about giving entrepreneurs blunt feedback in the first meeting, which I always try to do also. And then she said something that stuck with me.

Joanne will often start a meeting by saying something like I give you permission to hate my feedback. You can decide that you want to tell me ‘fuck you’ after the meeting. But I’m going to tell you what my direct and honest reaction is.

Now Joanne is a New Yorker through and through. Aggressive, direct, and clear. But never hostile. Ever. And a deeply loyal supporter. So this feedback, while direct, is incredibly powerful. It’s often extremely hard for someone to hear, especially if they are in “I’m trying to convince you to fund my company mode.”

I play the same way. At Foundry Group, one of our deeply held beliefs is that we always be intellectually honest, no matter how difficult it may be. At TechStars we pride ourselves on providing direct feedback, but always saying “this is only data”, letting the entrepreneur make their own decision about what to do.

These are versions of Joanne’s permission to “hate her feedback.” It’s a powerful way to frame any discussion. And I know I’ll be using the phrase “I give you permission to hate my feedback” many times in the future.

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan

    Aggressive, direct and clear.. but also warm, engaging and a people person through and through.

    (Sorry, but just thought I would add the other side :))

  • http://www.samedaydr.com/ Rich Weisberger

    Love it! Nothing worse than the arrogant silent treatment.

  • http://freepository.com John Minnihan

    I’m going to take the other side of this: “giving me permission to…” well, do anything comes across as pat/maternalistic. I don’t know Joanne – never met her, but have read some of her stuff – so maybe the recounting here has lost something.

    I doubt I’d ever tell someone who’d taken time to listen to me pitch an idea “…to fuck off”, but you never know. My point is I don’t need permission to speak my mind.

  • James Mitchell

    Looking at Joanne’s blog, I get the sense she invests almost exclusive in female entrepreneurs. Am I correct?

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      No.

    • http://engag.io/ William Mougayar

      Not entirely correct. See this post from Joanne http://www.gothamgal.com/gotham_gal/2012/09/working-women-on-labor-day.htmlFor e.g., Engagio is one of her investment, and I’m the founder.

    • DaveJ

      Even if she did, it seems like that would be simply investing in an undervalued opportunity, since most VC firms either do not or only barely invest in female entrepreneurs.

  • http://byJess.net/ Jess Bachman

    I often am told my feedback is too blunt or rude. I suppose Joannes pre-amble might be affective. When soliciting feedback myself, I always look for the very first reactions no matter how blunt, but I think some people just are not like that. I think any entrepreneur should be able to handle, manage, deflect, retort to feedback no matter how blunt. It’s good practice.

  • http://engag.io/ William Mougayar

    Having that stance is a great ice breaker or a good release valve for when the meeting ends.  

    If we stick to the VC/Entrepreneur paradigm, any feedback is good feedback and carries a message with it. Feedback is the breakfast of champions.

    A Yes, a No,  a Maybe, a Give me more, a Your product sucks, a This won’t scale nor monetize, or a Have you thought about this…are all good feedback. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

  • http://twitter.com/andyidsinga andyidsinga

    but nobody has permission to hate the Perla website …that is exactly what a restaurant site should be :)

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Indeed – it’s a winner site AND an awesome restaurant.

      • http://twitter.com/andyidsinga andyidsinga

        i want to go to there

    • http://byJess.net/ Jess Bachman

      the food photos look a touch too ‘enhanced’

      • http://twitter.com/andyidsinga andyidsinga

        enhanced for your viewing pleasure! ;)

  • http://engag.io/ William Mougayar

    The sneakers story reminded me of when Michael Jordan said- “I don’t comment on politics…Republicans buy sneakers too.”

  • http://petegrif.tumblr.com/ Pete Griffiths

    The funny thing about feedback is that permission or not it is incredibly hard to provide good quality feedback. A lot of the time people just don’t feel comfortable with an idea/presentation/demo/pitch and say no but even if they were brutally honest they couldn’t necessarily give great feedback as to why. Nothing wrong with that. In fact if your honest feedback is ‘Can’t put my finger on why but it isn’t working for me.’ that is just fine. Funnily enough bad feedback, no matter how honest, is a much bigger problem because the poor sap who hears it may beat his/her brains out trying to make it fit. A person who is not only honest but can provide great feedback after what is typically a very short exposure is worth their weight in gold. :)

  • http://twitter.com/mgav Mark Gavagan

    Clear, honest feedback is hard to find because well-meaning people often don’t have the heart for it, even though it’s what we truly need to hear.

  • http://about.me/kirsten.lambertsen Kirsten Lambertsen

    I had the good fortune to attend a Q&A event with Joanne at The Hatchery, and it was immediately obvious that she is indeed dynamite. I’ve followed her blog for a while, and it’s also clear that she has a big heart.

    She’s one of those New Yorkers who embodies everything good about the city :)

  • Slugdoc

    Cut to the quick. Be honest. Let us learn from the feedback. I wish every investor was able to say no when they felt it.

  • Scott Johnson

    Brad – entrepreneurs tell me I am unusually blunt with feedback – and I try to be. But I have one exception, which is when I think the entrepreneur is not up to the task. I could be wrong and I really don’t want to discourage anyone. So I have to confess that, sometimes when I say “this is too early”, what I am really thinking is: “you have a good concept, but we invest in people, and I am going to let someone else back you on this one until you prove me wrong.” And I always hope to be wrong. Wish I was so more often in this case.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      This is a really tough one. I run into all the time. I try to focus on being specific about what I think they are missing on rather than just being generic, but it’s often hard especially when you are in the first interaction with someone.

    • ariannasimpson

      I’m interested in what exactly suggests to you that an entrepreneur may or may not be up to the task. Is it more of a gut reaction, or are there specific criteria that you use to decide? Obviously things like track record etc matter, but how about when you’re dealing with first-timers?

  • panterosa,

    Getting permission, or giving permission, is a concept that sadly many women need, or shall I say, still need, to do/say what they want. I say ‘they’ as a woman myself, since I didn’t participate in the needing permission movement many women went thru. But hey, if some women still need it then it is valid to give it. The point is to let the women know, since Joanne is mainly focused on female entrepreneurs, that she’s running a straight shooting style conversation and investment. I would expect that puts many women at ease and changes the level of straightforwardness.

    @joannewilson am I wrong here?
    BTW I have met with Joanne with another founder, so I have witnessed her style first hand.

  • http://about.me/Carl_Rahn_Griffith/ Carl Rahn Griffith

    It reminds me of the ‘Fail Quickly’ mantra.

    So true.

    Shame that people are so accustomed to bullshit and platitudes that good old fashioned honesty is seen as being blunt.

  • Allen Canete

    Wow. Really? “Lady, I don’t need your permission. I’ll tell you what I think of your comments as bluntly and honestly as I can, as well. This could be the start of a great working relationship.” There’s usually a dissenter out there. Who that would be is anybody’s guess.

  • http://27perry.com/ Kelly James

    Count me in the Joanne fan club. She is approachable, very real, and very very smart. When I type “go” into my url bar, it pulls gothamgal, not google. :-)

  • http://ben.casnocha.com Ben Casnocha

    Hmm. “Feel free, of course, to totally disagree or hate my feedback” feels less condescending than “I give you permission to hate my feedback.” Agree with overall point. :)

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Eh – that’s the New Yorker style. And the intrinsicly motivated style would be “Your reaction to my feedback will have no impact on me.” And the Buddhist style will be “I am at peace with your feedback.” Egads – I’ve been on this fucking plane for too long.

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