“More Open, Smart, and Honest Criticism”

The other day, on Twitter, I asked: “Open Q: If there are too many blogs, angels, startups, apps, and VCs in Valley — then, what does the Valley need “more” of? What’s missing?” There’s a lot of chatter about the market here, and I’m ignoring most of that and trying to think constructively about what could be added to the mix. And, it generated a ton of responses. My favorite, however, was this one by Ryan Lawler: “@semil more open, smart, and honest criticism.

But, here’s the rub…there’s no incentive for anyone to do this, even though this may be what the system needs. Perhaps this is obvious to everyone and doesn’t need any explanation, but I think it’s hard to dampen the inherent enthusiasm of the startup world and the Valley specifically. I can’t speak for other people, but there are many reasons I elect not to critique. I’ve tried and failed to build something a while ago. The market is the ultimate test and usually hands down sentences of failure. Even though times are hard for many people, it’s important (and healthy) to be optimistic.

All this said, there are perverse incentives embedded into today’s system and media that compounds these problems:

  1. In competitive deals, valuation negotiations can be primed further by generating buzz or hype in public spaces (online) that directly impact startups and existing investors.
  2. Raising money is actually really hard, and letting the world know does, in many cases, help startups signal to the community that they may be hiring, or have some cushioning, or so on.
  3. A lof of people writing about startups professionally, for a living, are also friendly with and live/work in close proximity with startups. They also inherently want them to succeed.
  4. Investors don’t ever like to publicly acknowledge a startup investment gone sour, let alone even letting others know that they “saw a deal but opted to pass” that turned into a mega-billion dollar company.
  5. Oftentimes, players in the system, at all levels, are not willing to risk the potential consequences of drawing attention to bad behavior.

Anyway, you get the point. There are 101 explanations. But, the bottom-line is that Ryan’s answer is probably right, as a way to cut through the hype and the noise. Imagine if there was a writer or blogger out there, maybe he or she worked in a company, or was like Bill James in the 1980s working in a Kansas City factory by day and ripping up baseball statistics by night, that has the desire to publicly critique — in an honest, open, smart way — startups and the news sites that purportedly cover the news. I’d bet that person’s work would cut through the noise and dampen some of the hype. Or, maybe this person has already made their money and doesn’t need to answer to others, and they feel compelled to share their voice in this manner. Some of this actually happens on Quora. We’ve seen this activity when companies release public statements, for instance. But by then, it’s too late. Well, it’s late, and I don’t have any answers, but I thought this was an interesting topic. I’d love to read posts by people who take this tack, but I’m not holding my breath because there’s little incentive for anyone to do so. They have to be compelled. Curious to hear what you think…

Haywire is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2014 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus