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Successful startups know the value of “failing faster” – that is, recognizing errors or opportunities for improvement early and course-correcting until they achieve their goals. But it isn’t always easy to take feedback in stride; after all, most startup founders hold incredible passion for their companies, which can make it hard to see objectively.
“When we invite startups to pitch in person for an Arch Grant, the feedback from our panel of judges can be substantial,” says Arch Grants’ Director of Entrepreneurship, Ben Burke. “The judges have a range of industry expertise and are formed from previous Arch Grant’s recipients too. That means, they’ve been where you are — so feel your struggle — but they want you to succeed too because they know it’s possible. But that also means they’ll be really straight with you in regards to suggesting changes in your approach to your business model or your pitch to the City.”
The sooner a founder can learn to solicit, accept, and implement constructive criticism, the better. Three entrepreneurs – and last year’s Arch Grant Recipients – share their secrets to effectively using feedback.
Seek Out Mentors and Opportunities for Feedback
For Will Edwards, founder of the flashcard app MetKnow, searching for feedback opened up access to a whole new market.
“I always had that urge to start my own business,” Edwards says. “I was always thinking – ’what kind of app can I make, what kind of product can I create?’”
After coming up with the idea for MetKnow, Edwards and his team decided to prove their use case with a focus group.
“We knew that college kids would use this app, but we didn’t know if professionals would. So we created MetKnow Political, which had every single state representative in Oklahoma on it. We sent that out to lobbyists to get their feedback, and the response was overwhelming. It became a hit.”
Edwards continued to solicit critique from as many places as would give it.
“We were going to different business and startup competitions to find out how our product would be received. It was at the Midwestern Digital Marketing Conference that we heard about Arch Grants, and they’re the reason why we’re in St. Louis now,” says Edwards.
During the pitch process for Arch Grants, judges gave Edwards an idea that changed the whole scope of his business: pursuing B2C applications as well as B2B.
“We’re really excited about our B2C pivot, and our users are excited too. This shift opens our product up from business applications to nearly any social situation where you need to know people’s names. And we wouldn’t have gotten there without Arch Grants’ input.”
View Setbacks as a Journey to Improvement
The path to a finished product or a successful business is never painless, but it can be made less so by not taking the feedback personally. Chris Ho, founder of Drug Design Methodologies, demonstrates just how tough this process can be.
“I come from an academic background,” says Ho, “and that’s a very different mindset from being a businessperson. When you write a scientific grant, you have to hit milestones and you deal with budgets, but it’s easy to get lost in the minutiae.”
Part of Ho’s journey to entrepreneurship was shifting his mindset from an academic to a business-oriented way of thinking. While he was writing his Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant, he noted that working with his coaching organization in Michigan could be rough at times.
“I’d send in my revisions and they’d come back all bloodied up with red ink, but by the end I could say, ‘Oh, that’s a lot better,’” recalls Ho.
When he started applying for the Arch Grant, Ho learned an important lesson about communication in business. “The most valuable thing Arch Grants taught me was how to communicate the value proposition of my product succinctly and efficiently. If you don’t have the minutiae, you have no product, but you can’t afford to meander in business. There are only so many land mines you can step on.”
Ultimately, Ho feels that his business “boot camp” was worth it.
“I’ve learned so much by applying for SBIR and Arch Grants. My business is infinitely better as a result of that experience.”
Ask for Help
Successful entrepreneurs aren’t afraid to ask for answers. Allison Mitchell, founder and designer of her eponymous fashion brand, discovered this when she first started her line.
“When I was just starting out in fashion, I had to learn all the industry language and practices very quickly. I never went to school for design, but I knew I had a great idea and I wanted to get it out there.”
Mitchell soon sought out her first manufacturer, and quickly realized that she needed a crash course in fashion.
“The first factory I ever worked with was so patient with me. In school, fashion designers learn how to sketch and give their factories precise measurements. I didn’t bring in any sketches; I only brought in these little clay models of what I wanted my bags to look like.”
Thankfully, the factory took Mitchell’s struggle in stride to the benefit of her brand. “[The factory] answered my questions and pointed me in the right direction so I could give them what they needed to turn my bag designs into reality.”
Go for It
All these entrepreneurs believe that the most important thing is to start, know that you’ll make mistakes, and push past them.
“My number one piece of advice to people who are interested in founding a startup is to go for it,” says Ho. “Pay attention to critique, but at the end of the day, it’s your business. Do what you think is right for the company.”