Don't Ask Founders for Feedback!

Imagine you're a first-time founder.

You've decided on building a SaaS that helps companies with their employee onboarding.

The trouble is, you don't know how to find the right people to talk to.

Barney from The Flintstones scratching his head

So, you brainstorm different ways of getting in touch with your target audience.

First, you think about building the entire product, followed by launching on websites like ProductHunt, and emailing anyone who signs up.

However, you quickly realize the problem with this approach - a lack of customer conversation.

AskTina was a live video chat widget for experts to install on their blogs and allow their readers to place live, pay per minute calls to their mobile phones through the AskTina app.

We built an MVP, had 35 Experts install it on their blog and with 10,000 page loads of the widget, we had 0 paid calls placed through the software. This was the objective data we needed to make the judgment to kill the project.

Ideally, we could have discovered this before we spent 6 months working on AskTina by interviewing the readers of specific blogs.

- Tom Hunt,

This route will push your customer exploration back until after the product is built - which isn't great. So, you decide to scrap this approach.

Next, you consider reaching out to your target companies with no product at all! But you can't imagine they'll take you seriously - so you scratch that, too.

Finally, you come up with an approach that you know you shouldn't do, but you can't see any other options. You decide to get feedback from other founders instead of your own customers.

Group Facepalm

If you've done this, you're not alone.

Take a look at the Ideas and Validation group on Indie Hackers, sort by newest, and you'll almost inevitably see founders asking if something is a "good idea."

An example of someone seeking idea validation of a food startup from other founders.

On the surface, asking founders for idea validation sounds great. After all, they'll have fantastic insights on marketing strategies, sales, and even positioning your product for the right audience, so why wouldn't you ask them for advice?

The problem isn't that you're asking questions... it's that you're asking the wrong ones.

Hands down, one of my most hated questions is "How did you get your first 25 customers?".

The question is not specific enough to gain learnings from... [it] makes the indirect assumption that both Product A and Product B are equal, and therefore by knowing how A got customers, one can apply the same methods to B and enjoy the same success.

Here's the reality check: Your product is different. It has a different market, different use case, different value proposition, and different relevant distribution channels.

- Jon Yongfook,

Why do founders mess this up?

So then, why do people seek validation from peers instead of potential customers?

Personally, I think there are two major reasons... and they might surprise you.

The first is that they actually don't know how to reach their customers.

I think a lot of founders are so focused on the product they're building that they miss a critical step - identifying how to reach their target audience. And instead of looking closer or exploring how other founders have approached this problem, they take the natural/easy approach and ask other founders instead.

In their heads, I think it goes something like this:

"It's so easy to do, so why not post and see the response? Maybe, if the response is positive, you can even skip customer exploration entirely and just go build the product!"

Doesn't that sound great? We can even call it "stealth mode" so it sounds cool, and people will think that we know what we're doing!

Guy saying 'stealth mode!' and getting excited

Okay, I'm joking a bit here. But it's true - it's far easier to ask peers in a low-pressure environment than it is to really put yourself out there. And it's one of the primary reasons people take the easy route and seek validation from other founders.

I think there's also a bit of 'hopium' going on here, too - hoping that, if someone reads their post and likes the idea, they'll ask to be an early customer.

But if the people reading it aren't your target audience, you're just wasting your time.

Is it ever okay to ask founders if an idea is good?

The main scenario it makes sense to get idea validation from founders is if your product actually sells to founders. In that case, those are your customers, so getting feedback from them makes sense!

Unfortunately, many newer founders see these "do you like my idea" posts written by people targeting the founder market and don't realize this fundamental difference. Then, they assume that the same approach will work for them, even though they sell to a different audience.

Another idea validation post. Subtitle below

An example of a founder asking for feedback, but this time the product targets the right audience. At least, in this case, they are asking the right audience! But many founders get confused and think that they should do this regardless of the target audience, which is a Founder Flub.

The other time it makes sense to seek validation from another founder is if that particular founder has experience in the market you are building in.

In that case, they'll have specific insights from their time in the market, which is far different from posting a general "would you buy this?" post.

So I should never ask founders for advice or feedback?

Not at all! You just shouldn't ask if your idea is worth pursuing. It's the wrong question.

Instead, you want to get answers to business questions from founders. Here are a few great examples of questions to ask founders:

1) Can you please look at my landing page and see if it comes across as a trustworthy, reputable site?

Notice how we are intentionally moving away from getting idea feedback here. Instead, we are trying to understand whether people feel that the site is trustworthy enough to convince people to buy.

Site trustworthiness is something that, in most niches, won't change from person to person, which means that founders are usually just as good as a real customer for giving you this feedback.

2) Have you seen success with <marketing channel>? If so, what's your product and strategy?

Here, we focus less on our own idea and focus on a particular marketing channel instead. This could be Twitter, SEO, or any way to reach customers.

Again, notice that we are explicitly avoiding asking if an idea is good or bad - that's not where you can get the most valuable learning from founders as a whole.

PS: Asking people to include their product and strategy is a nice little hack, by the way - it encourages people to share since they have an incentive to self-promote. Not really relevant to this article, but something to keep in mind!

3) How did you build a successful product WITHOUT an audience? (link)

An example of a question I asked a few years ago that had some fantastic responses. I highly recommend giving it a read!

Hopefully, you're seeing the theme: don't ask about ideas. Ask about tactics and strategies.

Founder Flubs is my take on the most common mistakes I see (or that I've made myself) from running my own startups and working alongside hundreds of founders over at Software Ideas.

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