Why You Should Embrace Opposing Views at Your Startup

Posted on Oct 11, 2011 | 73 comments


What could you learn from looking at your competitors or other tech startups in a different way?

Are you cynical about their chances in the market just because they seem to be hot in the press and that bugs you? Or you think their startup is a passing fad and yours is the real deal?

I hear views like this all the time. Even if you’re right – there’s something you may be missing.

Albert Wenger from Union Square Ventures wrote a great post the other day that reminded me I’ve been meaning to write about this topic.

“My desire for this “Opposing Views Reader” is related to my concern about information cascades.  In general, we seem to be building too many positive re-enforcement systems on the web.  How about “agree” and “disagree” buttons? If all you can do is “like” or “favorite” items, it becomes very hard to express that you care about something but have a different opinion.”

I feel the exact same way.

I’m a news junkie and love to watch the Sunday morning talk shows like Meet the Press, This Week with Christiane Amanpour or Shields & Brooks on The News Hour on Fridays. But I tape the shows. I can’t watch them live because I have to skip through the guest interviews. I’m tired of hearing one side of the story – it’s pre-packaged BS. I like the round table discussions they have later in the show because you get to hear opposing views.

And that has had me thinking about the tech sector and how dismissive both startup teams & VCs can be about both their competition and the “hot” companies in any sector.

I was at a dinner about a year ago with a few VCs and startup founders. The topic of FourSquare came up. None of the VCs were investors in FourSquare. People were being so dismissive when I checked into our restaurant, “oh, yeah, let’s see if you’re the mayor now. Oooh.”

My response

“I dunno, guys. Maybe this mayor thing will last and maybe it won’t. Maybe check-ins will be automatic in the future some day or maybe people won’t care about check-ins.

But I do know that FourSquare has captured the zeitgeist of what young, mobile & social people want. That plus great press & it’s working on some level.

I’m sure the management team & board over there know that they need to focus on what comes beyond mayors, badges & check-ins. I’m interested to see where they take it next.

But what could we learn from them today?

If you think it’s all a marketing gimmick [I don’t] then let’s discuss how we could be better at marketing in the way that they have. If you think that game mechanics are the innovation, then let’s talk about whether it would apply to our company. If you think it’s location-based services / find out where your friends are at while you’re out – let’s talk about whether we need to incorporate that into our product.

To ignore FourSquare would be dumb. I use technology precisely to try and develop an intuitive feel about what will work and what won’t”

The management team got it. The VCs snickered a bit. I was unconvincing, I guess. They knew their position on FourSquare. They weren’t looking for an opposing view.

I had a similar experience with turntable.fm.

I’m not a “music guy” so I tend to grok music stuff less than others. But I saw turntable.fm before it was a larger phenomenon. My wife was traveling so I was on the computer late at night. I logged into a room to listen to music & see what the product was all about.

Boy did I get sucked in. I wanted a turn at DJ’ing so I waited until I could find the right room to DJ in. I watched the music that others were playing to see what the vibe was. I played with the buttons “awesome” to support a DJ and saw my head bobbing up and down when I liked his music. Mostly I chatted with other people in the room that I knew. And many I didn’t know.

I trash talked their music selection. I swore to myself I’d pick cool songs. I didn’t want to be that music dork with no style.

I finally got on stage. Then I had to wait four more songs until I got my turn. I played Lenny Kravitz. The LEGEND! Everybody loves Lenny Kravitz, right? I didn’t play more obscure stuff like “Mr. Cab Driver” [ok, if you don’t know this song do yourself a favor, click on the link and listen to it.]  I played “Are You Gonna Go My Way” – an absolute KILLER of a song. [go on, listen to it as you read the rest of this post]

So I played Lenny and …. I got boo’ed. Really? Eff you guys! OK, I’ll come up with something more conventional that EVERYBODY with taste loves. I played Rage Against the Maching “Killing in the Name Of.” [go on …] Has a better male angst song EVER been written? Ah, man! Booed for that, too? How old are you guys? Do your parents know you’re up past midnight pretending to be tech people on Turntable.fm?

I got sucked in two nights in a row past 2am. My wife never knew [until now, gulp]. What a great way for a guy like me stuck in the 90’s on music to get curated music while I do other stuff. I think that’s pretty cool in the way Pandora helps me explore new music.

I got so excited to tell other people what I liked about turntable.fm. I called a bunch of portfolio companies and asked them to check it out. I said the same thing to each:

“I don’t know if it’s a real business or not. I’m not a ‘music guy.” But I know there is something addicting to what they’ve built. Check it out. Let’s see if there is anything we can learn about our behavior – good lessons or bad ones – that will inform our product design in the future.”

I loved the IM’ing with the crowd and the sense of community. I loved the competition to get on stage and then how when you’re on stage you have to wait patiently to play your tracks. I loved the anticipation of how the crowd would react to my choices. I didn’t love that nobody in the room had taste. But I lobbied hard using IM to get people to “like” my song so I could see those addictive bobbing heads. It worked!

And when I started telling other VCs to check it out I have to admit they were pretty dismissive. By now it had been in the press a bunch and there was a sort of “here we go again” attitude.

“It will never work. The labels will kill them. It’s just a fad propped up by the Silicon Valley elite marketing machine.”

Wow. Who pee’d in your Cheerios this morning?

I don’t care if turntable.fm succeeds [I hope it does]. That’s not the point. What could we learn from their success? The goal isn’t to copycat them. I don’t want to see any more freakin’ “we’re the turntable.fm of …X.” No, you’re not. I want people to look at what components of it work (product, art work, invite system, marketing … whatever you think it is that drove people to flock there in the first place).

And even more pertinent to you specifically at your startup …

The number of companies I talk to (or even portfolio companies) who are dismissive of their competitors is enormous. Have respect for your competitors. Understand what they do well and why. Don’t just mentally write off their features or marketing as “dumb” – ask internally what you could learn from it.

I talked to one company who had build really differentiated IP and had great customer traction. Yet they somehow never got as much press as one of their less-funded competitors who had less good of a product and significantly fewer customers.

I said:

“Guys, let’s stop whining about it and do something about it. Let’s understand why they’re getting better press. Let’s think about whether that is hurting us or not. Let’s understand what about our approach isn’t resonating with journalists. Are we off message? Is our product not as pretty? Do we have the wrong PR firm? Are we not at enough tech events?

… And only after we answer these questions should we decide if we WANT to be better than them in this way or not. But let’s at least understand it.”

So the next time you’re tempted to write off the latest hot company: Instagram, Pintrest, Tumblr, Spotify, AirBnB, or whatever – in stead of being envious or dismissive be “dissecting.” Find out what you think in their product is working and what you don’t think matters. Understand why they’re getting user adoption and what you could learn from that.

Is it just that they have the right VCs and therefore they’re deemed as hot? If so, what are you going to do about that? Do they have a tighter integration with Facebook and therefore are getting lower-cost customer adoption – fix that. Did they crawl through Craigslist spamming people to acquire customers more rapidly? What guerilla tactics do you want to use? What’s fair game? What’s not?

Never be dismissive. Sometimes hyped companies and competitors are just that – hyped. But often there are some kernels of magic that are happening in that place that’s helping propel them in to a place that you wish you were.

What could you learn from them?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Too many years – I’ve forgotten all of my Talmudic lessons ;-)

    I’ve always believed that you learn most from your peers. And from teaching others.

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

    This is a really really great post.  There are few things more destructive of original compelling products than conventional wisdom.  Self censorship is the most cruel of all.

  • Anonymous

    The other extreme from ignoring your competition is obsessing about them. Everything they do is better and everything you do sucks and there’s no way you’ll ever be good enough. There needs to be some way to be open and observant and appreciative of other people’s innovations while still being stubborn, confident with a thick enough hide to survive the criticisms of your own innovations.

  • Anonymous

    This post is so true!! I like to learn about what works and what doesn’t and when others are dismissive I look at other startups to learn.

    Dismissiveness is so ingrained in the tech industry that people hear it when it’s not present.  Here is an example I was pitching to some successful CEOs and potential investors when I pointed out what a major social network does not serve a particular segment well, I was not dismissive of the hugely successful social network, but I was pointing out a user segment that would be better served with  our solution.  Afterwards one CEO said I have been dismissive of the successful social network.  Since that pitch I always point out what they do well and then point out what they do not and how we will serve that segment better.  

  • Anonymous

    Excellent post Mark.  As founder of a startup (www.pogoseat.com) I all too often quickly dismiss other players in our space, maybe because I don’t want to admit we have competition.  Going forward I will change tact and “dissect” all players, because if you’re not learning from your competition, you’re missing an opportunity to make yourself better.  Thanks again.

  • http://www.twosides.co Jono Lee

    I’ll look into opposingviews.com, thanks for the tip Mark!

  • http://avc.com fredwilson

    could you curse more often on this blog please? ;)

  • http://twitter.com/spandana Spandana Inspiration

    Totally agree, success is a lot of luck (necessary but not a sufficient condition) but almost always involves doing something right and innovative. learn!!

  • Anonymous

    There’s always a few exceptions to every rule, right? :)

    I don’t get trying to create real world experiences online. Dancing on a table with a girl in a club is something special. Watching my avatar do it for me while I’m watching on my laptop in my boxer shorts doesn’t quite do it for me. Sorry TMI.

    They have got a huge amount of traction though so I definitely need to hold back the cynicism and learn what I can

  • http://joeyevoli.com Joe Yevoli

    Ha, I know both of those songs, and I like them. But, you gotta know your audience. Take some of your own advice and stick to what works! If you’re in a 90’s room play some Pearl Jam, Nirvana, or STP to start out. Start with crowd favorites, and then you can take some risks and branch out with Lenny…

  • http://blog.inkaudio.com/ David O.

    I think that market for recommending places to eat/stay is well served. Think yelp, google places and similar services. Moreover recommendation is part of our daily conversations, it is a big part of the conversation on twitter, people giving recommendation asking for recommendation. And on twitter you get a little context compare to just checking in with 4sq.  I went shopping today and the cashier was asking me to signup for points/rewards card, gave me a card to put on my key chain. I don’t want another card on my key chain, and I don’t want to sign up for another card. What if I only had to signed up with 4sq and simply just grant access to what ever store I frequent ? Just a thought, remember the smart people at Google recently bought a startup working on this very problem.

  • http://ericklind.com Erick

    Mark,
    Interesting.  I’m still on the fence about FourSquare mostly because I don’t see a need for me to use it.  It doesn’t interest me because I’m not a big fan of broadcasting my whereabouts to the world.  But that doesn’t mean that it’s not interesting to others who find it fun to do so.  

    But I had similar experience with Turntable.fm.  But I am a music guy so I saw exactly what it did.  It’s basically like when we used to buy a record/cassette/CD and go home a listen to with our buddies.  But in this case, they’re spread all over the world and you get to meet new people.  In fact, I’ve made a lot of friends on there because of our love of the same kinds of music.  I’ve even met several in real life, and have some invites to visit others and even stay at their homes.  It was once said that the biggest killer app of the internet was email because it was about communicating and connecting.  That’s what turntable.fm is about – connecting with people about music, and music is such an emotional and core thing.

    So, with that being said, I can see how my own personal bias would lead me towards turntable.fm and not FourSquare.  I think people want to understand a product before they invest in it, so you can’t fault them for that.  But I think that’s what makes a good VC – being able to look at something and be open to it, ven if you don’t understand it at first.  I think that can be true about most professions.

  • http://www.plugandplayegypt.com Roham Gharegozlou

    Really awesome post, hit the nail on the head as usual. I’m a big fan of this – everyone has something to teach, whether it’s your friend or your worst enemy. 

  • http://sephskerritt.com Seph250

    Well said!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    After a decade of living in the UK, any cursing on this blog is tame, I can assure you! (I find clever ways to spell words I might otherwise say)

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    Impressed that you got on stage on turntable.fm.  

    I also wonder if it might be helpful for tech companies to be more aware of what’s working in the non-tech world.

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    You can change your display name once you’re in.  Every 7 days.

  • http://dissertation-service.co.uk/ dissertation uk

    very nice post! thansk a lot for sharing!

  • Anonymous

    oh damn now you hooked me. I am a regular of avc.com and feld.com. Always knew I had to turn to your blog at some point as absolutely love This Week in VC so much. This article has done just that. Hooked me. I was one of the first tt users, huge fan of the founders and for me thats what is always about. I am no where near any level of financial investment status but as a user I am very much about the founders of the company. As a film lover I watch films based solely on the directors. And its how I am with web products. Dont think its a coincidence that every site, blog, product or service I use online, I am as obsessed with the founders. Amazon/Bezos, Google/Brin/Page, WP/Mullenweg, Twitter/Williams/Stone/Dorsey and so on and with tt fell in love (non sexually of course) with Goldstein and Chasen. I am yet to fall in love with a product and not its founders. 

  • http://www.rhoventures.com/Farooq-Javed.htm Farooq Javed

    Mark, long time reader, first time writer here. 

    Have you read anything by Daniel Kahneman? He won the Nobel Prize in economics even though he’s a psychologist because he pointed out that some assumptions that economists make about human behavior might just be plain wrong. He writes about this sort of thing a lot–how there are elements to our psychology as human beings that lead to predictable errors in how we see the world. In this case, I think he’d argue that confirmation bias is taking hold. People have in some way committed to an action or view of the world (different strategy, not investing, etc.), and now they’re viewing the world through a lens that biases information to confirm that view. I’ll ignore good news about a competitor but fixate on bad news. Or worse: since the people around me know I react better to the bad news about them, they’re more likely to tell me the bad news.  

    It’s fundamental and widespread–and very harmful. But realizing that these biases exist is the first step to addressing them at the individual and organizational level. 

    Great job on identifying the tendency in yourself and taking steps to counteract it. It will serve you well as I’m sure it already has. 

  • Anonymous

    Mark, It’s always good to find someone else still devoted to the Sunday morning talking heads.  I bet you were a fan of “DC Follies” (http://www.hulu.com/dc-follies).  I found it hard to catch up on all my DVR news shows and was getting behind.  So I started getting the podcasts and listening to them in the car on the drive to and from work.  Some tips: Create a playlist. Note that iTunes has trouble sync’ing a playlist unless I have at least one song in the list, I have no idea why.  Refresh on Monday, because sometimes they don’t get the Sunday shows posted until very late. All that you noted come on podcast, plus some recommendations: NPR It’s All Politics, Slate Political Gabfest, GAO Watchdog Report, SupremePodcast and of course the whole ThisWeekIn series.  McLaughlin Group stopped their podcast, that was a loss.  I still miss CNN’s Crossfire for the exact reasons you cite, everyone needs a little counterpoint in life. 

  • Mat Tyndall

    I love learning from my competitors, mostly because when I really study them, it turns out we’re not actually competing. 

  • Pauldog11

    I embrace it, I always have, although right now i am seeking to hire a new business plan writer and she she thinks she knows more than me. Its important to allow such views to be heard, and often times listened to, but at other times one’s voice should prevail.

    Paul Azous
    Businessplanq.com, CEO
    Brooklyn