Should I deliver bad news?

This one is a little personal, but I need some advice.

I have a friend who is working on creating a new web-based product/business. It’s in the consumer space and that’s all I want to say about it for now.

I’ve talked to her about this idea. She’s been working on it for several months and it will be launching this fall.

When she talks about it, she’s incredibly passionate about it, tells me in no uncertain terms, why she thinks it’s going to be successful and talks a lot about the possibilities of where it could go.

When she speaks about it, I feel the passion and come away thinking, “Hey, maybe she’s onto something.

But then when I go to beta site, and try out the application, I quickly change my view and wonder, who would really benefit from it, given other similar (but obviously not identical) applications out there.

The space her application is in is a good one, with lots of media/press attention, but I really think she’s got a huge uphill climb ahead, and I don’t see how she will succeed.

But I can’t figure out how to tell her that.

First of all, what do I really know about how the future will unfold? Maybe I’m not the target audience for this application. She’s got a lot of positive feedback from beta testers.

But, here are my reasons:

  • The market she’s entering is very competitive with several well established incumbents.
  • I think the application is not differentiated enough from other similar products
  • I think it is complex for the average consumer
  • She hasn’t done a good enough job of segmenting the market and identifying specific targets users
  • I think that it may appeal to a small niche of people, but making those people aware of it and getting them to use it may be quite an expensive proposition.

So, here’s the core question:

When someone is working on a new product idea, and you don’t think it will be successful, how can you tell them if they ask you your opinion, without jeopordizing a personal relationship in the process?

Looking forward to any help you can provide.



19 responses to “Should I deliver bad news?

  1. If your friend reads your site, you’ve already told her haven’t you?

    If not, and you feel strongly that this will fail and end in tears, isn’t a little well worded criticism now better than a massive failure later? The risk, of course, is the personal relationship. If it works out will she thumb her nose at you? If it doesn’t, will she say ‘thanks’?

    I guess the question you need to ask yourself is ‘how well do you know her’?

    Good luck!

    • Dave,

      Thanks. What? people actually read this blog? 🙂

      What I have is an opinion based on what I see and my personal experience having worked in software for many years.

      And I have no crystal ball into the future. I’ve seen many “dumb” websites succeed, and I’ve seen many “killer”sites fail.

      Even with positive beta feedback (I think it is a little skewed personally), the question is will people pay for it and if so can it be sustained?

      The Web is a fickle place, and generating revenue, sustainable revenue, is not that easy. If it were….. 🙂

      Failure is such an absolute word. I don’t see a scalable profitable business, but it may not fail. It may be a marginal success. There are many shades of gray here. It’s a tough choice for me.

  2. FWIW, this can be like the “it’s not you, it’s me” conversation. But a really important one to have.

    Consider framing it as “I love what you’ve done, but it’s a good thing that you’re not offering me a role with the company, because I’d have some concerns about joining.”

    You’re fishing for a response like “oh, tell me more.” Then you can raise the two-three meatiest issue.

    Alternative: listen for her to voice these concerns as raised by outsiders, and find a soft way to revalidate those as real issues.

    Either way, you’re probably still offering free help and advice. Friends are friends. My own no-fee advice often goes to people I love, not to projects I strongly believe in.

    • Rich,

      Thanks. I like your approach. I’m going to wait for the right time to have the “it’s not you it’s me” conversation.

  3. I’d work with her to develop mitigation strategies in case the things that you think will cause it to be unsuccessful do come true.

    Perhaps through that process she realizes some of the flaws, or realizes that she does not have the resources to overcome some potential issues.

    You avoid the “your baby is ugly” awkwardness when you join in to try to dress up the baby.

  4. Why wait? An old friend of mine once told me that “bad news early is good news”.

    I’ve come to see criticism as a useful tool. I have a friend who is pretty hard to impress. He can get excited about his own ideas but it can be hard to excite him about anything else. He’s quick to find the holes in my plans and to criticize what I do.

    I used to find this intolerable. Now I find it invaluable. He has given me some great ideas, and when I incorporate his ideas into my own, the result is much much better.

    Besides, I’ve come to expect it from him. Maybe you have an over-inflated view of what your friend thinks of you!

    And a real friend would say it, point blank. Just the way you did above – just say you don’t see it, you don’t get it, and you’re concerned for her.


  5. I would offer a different perspective — without knowing the details of your friend’s product and targeted market, why not let the market to tell her?

    You have the best intention, but you’re not the targeted user base. I’d suggest your friend to “alpha or beta test” her product with targeted audience. If it’s really as bad as you described, the user will give her the feedback.

    Let the market/users be the judge. But, you can remind her to proactively seek the market feedback before fully launching it.

  6. I would first try to verify that my opinion is sound by perhaps consulting with some other people to get their opinion about the website. Many years ago, Howard Schultz was advised not to sell coffee and espresso drinks in addition to the beans that Starbucks originally used to sell. We know what is the claim to fame for Starbucks.
    Once you are fairly sure that you are correct then do not hesitate to approach your friend and provide your opinion with some observations that can benefit her.
    Be ready for a response or acknowledgement or rejection for your opinion. In either case, your opinion will benefit her to stop pursuing her passion, adjust the product she is preparing, or continue the path. Whatever she decides your feedback will help her and she will value you for sharing your true opionion as opposed to giving a useless nod.

  7. Ross Patterson

    What does “success” mean in this context? To some folks, it means selling the company for $100M after a few years, to others it means netting $200M-300M/year so a few folks can be fully employed continuously. If the former, you can tell her what she ought to already know: breaking into a saturated market with entrenched players is a losing proposition. If the latter, then she may be riding a winner.

    • Ross Patterson

      OK, I meant “$200K-300K” – I’m not looking for a salary quite as high as that looks 🙂

  8. You have obviously given a great amount of thought to your friend’s idea.

    Based on your experience and knowledge are there suggestions that you can make?

    Your response could follow a do not just tell me a problem, but provide a solution model.

    Hence, you could state “I like what you are doing, but adding/changing/modifying (fill in the blank) would differentiate you from the other competitors in the market and make your product easier to use/more attractive (fill in the blank).”

    Good luck.

  9. Try helping her, not shooting down the ideas. Change all your criticism into questions, then ask in an innocent, non judging way. Maybe she will see it your way, maybe she has good answers.

    The market she’s entering is very competitive with several well established incumbents. – What is your USP?
    I think the application is not differentiated enough from other similar products – What is different about your app, USP?

    I think it is complex for the average consumer – I found this complex, how will average customers handle this? Can this be simplified?

    She hasn’t done a good enough job of segmenting the market and identifying specific targets users – Who is your ideal customer?

    I think that it may appeal to a small niche of people, but making those people aware of it and getting them to use it may be quite an expensive proposition. – Tell me your marketing plan? How will you reach the ideal customer?

    Use terms that show you are giving your opinion like “I think” and “this bothered me”. Watch for reactions, make sure she does not feel attacked. If you feel she is getting upset, back off a little, tell her you want her to be a success and these are things she should have in her business plan.

    She will value the real feedback. Most of the information from beta testers is positive. Just like you, they don’t want to tell someone the baby is ugly!

    Read “Crucial Conversations” if you have to do this often.

  10. If a friend was paying me for me professional advice, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell her how I felt. However, if I’m only wearing the friend hat, I feel I’ve got an obligation to be nothing but supportive and encouraging. Crossing that line could be devastating to your relationship.

  11. Saeed – MINEFIELD!!! I think you can’t really tell her at all, I think you have to guide her to see it for herself. Maybe by encouraging her to do some market analysis or potentially doing it for her, and showing her how the market is segmented, then asking: “So which segment does your product fit into?” Once she’s said “all of them” then go back to the competitive analysis and show ask her: “What makes your product different”?” I just think you’ve got to guide her, otherwise she’ll resent you for not telling her from the start

  12. You tell an Entrepreneur what you have to tell and move on. Cause most of them that I know would not get deterred by any of the reasons you’ve mentioned above.

    There are tons of examples out there where initially something was thought of as just another offering that didnt have all the func. there were 25+ companies in their space and then they went on to dominate the space.

    YouTube is one of the recent ones that comes to mind. There were atleast 20 companies doing video sharing in 2005, including the venerable “Google”. But we all know who won that race right.

  13. Thomas Lindgren

    It sounds like you could ask her about how the product will be marketed, e.g., where to focus sales/marketing/… efforts, and what the typical user will be doing with it. Most of your concerns would turn up in the discussion, when and if relevant to what she has in mind.

    Also, if the product is less than stellar it may still be possible for her to quickly improve the product/site based on customer feedback. So an important question in that event is whether she is set up to act on such feedback.

  14. I don’t think there’s much of a question whether you should tell her. Should you warn someone that they’re about to be hit by a truck? Or the dangers of investing in a Ponzi scheme?

    Of course, it matters greatly how you tell her. By no small coincidence, I had a similar conversation with someone in the same boat a few nights ago. Her response was, “I appreciated what you said, but you sounded negative from the very beginning. Almost as if I weren’t very smart.”

    People who are passionate about the idea first need to hear that someone understands it. You don’t have to agree with it to just repeat it back to them and say, “Wow, if that works out the way you expect, that’d be fantastic!”

    You’re then in a much better position to work backwards from some of the points of weakness. How will she make money? Who’s the intended audience? Etc. Better to start, where possible, with a question before you make the critique.

    But, at the end of the day, we’re all grown-ups, and we should be able to understand that someone who takes the time to critique our ideas really does care about us enough to give advice. Just don’t make it sound as dire as walking in front of a bus.

  15. You are dealing with a founder. She must believe. She must be committed, because she has to sell the idea to others.

    Once the business is actually real, she will have to be a doer. Before she gets to that point, she must test her idea against the realities.

    So suggest some tests. Suggest tests that prove out, and others that fail. Test the issues you’ve highlighted in your post. And, when you test those issues, have some positive suggestions as to how the application can pass each test.

    When we tell our children “Do not ….” All they hear is “Do ….” “Did I tell you to do that.” “Yeah.” They don’t hear the not.

    Unfortunately, as adults we do here the not, the negative. A negative is nine times more powerful than a positive. Stay positive. Find the positives. It will be tough enough when one of those tests fail, but what if in the testing, her commitment drives her to a success! You’ll be the hero. And, if you are really slick, she won’t even know you had anything to do with it.

    Frame everything in positives. Lead, don’t negative.

    “Hey, it failed.”

    “No, the test succeeded in pointing out a weakness that we can overcome. Lets get a beer?”

    Never negate. Lead.

  16. Good point, David. Switching the conversation from “I think that…” to “Let’s find out if…” would be a good thing.