YESTERDAY, MY BUSINESS PARTNERS and I unveiled a product we have been working on for months—almost a year, if you count all the meetings that took place between the idea stage and now. Development of the product, alone, totals about 80 hours thus far. That’s butt-in-chair, hands on the keyboard time. And we’ve done all of it on spec. The prospect is a pro-business organization, and we have been working in tandem with the organization’s leader this entire time to create a product he strongly believes his organization needs. Now, though, it is time to reveal it to members and, hopefully, get their buy-in.
We started by sharing it with a group of “influencers,” those folks we know to be very active in the organization. We also invited a few board members, though we will not officially present to the board for another few weeks. My partners and I anticipated this group of influencers, who are serving as a focus group for us, would be by-in-large, friendly and open to this idea, and that they had been prepped a little by the organization’s leader so we were not going in cold. We were wrong.
While five of the seven people listened politely to our presentation and, ultimately, seem to be in favor of adopting our product for their organization, two did not. One, in particular, was vehemently opposed to the idea. To give you an idea of how the meeting went, here is an excerpt from the e-mail he sent to the organization’s leader after our meeting: “My initial impression (formed about 5 minutes into the presentation) is that this is NOT a good idea. I felt like this group sat down, came up with an idea and just jumped in. I heard a lot of ‘I think,’ ‘we thought,’ ‘we decided’ in the comments and presentation. What I didn’t hear was, ‘our research shows,’ ‘other similar ideas have proven,’ ‘these examples are tested.'” Yikes! Despite the fact all the others in the room responded positively to our hard work, all I could think about last night was this comment and these questions:
- How could he not understand how this would benefit his company and the organization as a whole?
- What had we said that triggered his mind to snap shut within just five minutes?
- How could he not see all the work that went into this thing and how much we had invested to bring an idea to fruition?
- What had we said (or not said) to give him the impression this was all created on a whim without input from the organization’s leader and other research?
- And, of course, since I was the one who actually presented the product, my biggest questions were: Where did I go wrong? What could I have done better? Why did he have to be so rude?
It’s no secret to those who know me best that I am conscientious, sometimes to a fault. I work very hard to make sure I do what I say I’m going to do, often pushing myself to extreme limits—and pushing others as well. Failure does not sit well with me. The image I have in my mind that best captures this tendency is being in a horse race and whipping the horse into a froth until the horse drops dead. In this scenario, I am both the rider and the horse. All that is to say, I do not take it well when some so casually criticizes my work without a thought to all the effort I put into it. But, as any business person knows, criticism (often called “feedback” to make it sound less harsh) is inevitable when you are putting yourself out there. Not everyone is going to love you, not everyone is going to agree with you, and not everyone is going to think your ideas are good ideas. While I know that intellectually, still I must find a way to grapple with it emotionally, so here’s my process:
STEP #1: Acknowledge and accept the right of others to disagree. The first step is to acknowledge the other person’s right to their opinion, particularly if you asked for it, which we did in this case. We asked, he answered. There’s no law saying he has to agree with us nor is there one that says we must agree with him.
STEP #2: Consider the source. The second step is to consider the source. We knew, and had discussed, that this product is not going to be for everyone. In fact, we had already clearly identified the type of people and businesses we expect to benefit the most from it, and this guy and his business were not necessarily one of them. Fortunately, the organization benefits him in many other ways, and he is not required to participate in using the product if it does not suit his needs. He can enjoy all the other benefits he currently is receiving. Not every client is the ideal client, not every person is meant to be a member of your tribe, nor must we act on every opinion, thought or criticism (including our own).
STEP #3: Evaluate for validity and lessons. This part can be tricky, because who wants to look at a critical comment and acknowledge that part of it may be true. In this case, we did not do a very good job of introducing ourselves and our credentials. He didn’t really know who we were and the value of what we brought to the table because we didn’t share that information with him. We also did not explain much about the process leading up to creation of this product—or that we had done it at the behest of the organization’s leader. And, as much as I hate to admit it, we did not take the time to do extensive market research before creating the product. In that way, his criticism was valid, and perhaps we do need to do a bit more research to ensure what we are creating is what this organization needs. We’ll be more prepared for the next meeting.
STEP #4: Separate (“It’s not me, it’s business.”). The hardest part for me is separating his comments about the product from me, personally. Yes, I know business people are not supposed to take criticism personally. But, when you’ve given up nights, weekends, vacations and money to make something happen, and another so cavalierly criticizes what you have done, it is personal. Also, in this particular case, the commenter made it personal when he criticized the presentation and the presenters, implying we didn’t do our homework. That said, what is behind his comments is a fear that his business will suffer if the organization adopts this product—that his competitors will have an advantage he perceives they do not have currently. His rejection of this idea is about him, not about me. He does not know me or my business partners, nor does he care to, quite frankly, and that’s okay.
STEP #5: Re-focus and get back to work. Six of the seven people were interested in what we had to say, and the organization’s leader still wants this product for his organization. All the partners in producing this product are members of the organization, and we want it. There are several hundred members in organization as a whole, and we strongly believe this will serve their needs. We owe it to them to share the idea to see what they think. We also have invested quite it bit into the creation of this product—an investment that will be lost unless we are able to help others see the value we see. For all these reasons, we have to re-focus and get back to work. Not only that, but it is just a really cool project and worthy of our time and effort. Persistence in the face of adversity is critical to success in business and in life. It is doubtful I will ever be the kind of person who allows criticism in any form to just roll of my ruffled feathers. However, that old adage about how nothing good comes easy and nothing easy is worth having still resonates with me. I’d rather take a chance and take the hits, than sit on the sidelines watching other people run the race. The rotten tomatoes I may have to dodge along the way will be quickly forgotten as soon as I cross the finish line.