When we humans believe in something strongly we naturally seek out others who believe similarly. This Kool-Aid drinking tendency applies equally to politics, religion and startups.

Buy me a beer sometime and I’ll tell you what I think about the echo chambers we create around our political and religious beliefs. But I’ll tell you what I think about startup echo chambers right here, right now, for free.

As I’ve written before, passion for an idea can make us blind to the viability of an idea to become a business. As a hedge to our Kool-Aid drinking tendencies, the wise among us seek validation from knowledgeable characters around them.

If you’re not actively doing this then you are failing, day by day. But even if you think you are actively seeking honest, qualified feedback on your idea/market/model, you still may be failing.

Here’s how things often go badly:

Bob Crimmins

When entrepreneurs first begin to look for people for feedback on their idea, they inevitably start with family, friends, colleagues — people who know them and probably like them. So the very earliest third-party validation that lots of entrepreneurs get comes from people who want to support them and encourage them and, frankly, aren’t qualified to add much value (and even when they are qualified) they rarely have a clue about what valuable feedback for a startup looks like.

It’s also the case that many early entrepreneurs don’t know what valuable feedback looks like either. Our natural Kool-Aid drinking tendency will make you want to find the folks who will tell you that your idea is great. (And doesn’t it feel good when you find one!)

Each new friend/family/colleague you talk to pours you that tall, refreshing drink of Kool-Aid that tastes and feels so good. Each time, your assumptions are reinforced, your passion justified — setting them in your mind ever more solidly.

But they aren’t telling you anything you didn’t already believe. Sure, you’ll get some good ideas about useful features you could add or how your model could extend into other industries. But is that really what a newly minted startup needs? No way!

In my humble opinion, what you need to do is seek out qualified people who DON’T like your idea.

–Customers who say they’d never use it or don’t understand it.

–Investors who say they’d never invest in it.

–Industry veterans who know why the same idea failed before.

It may not feel like it right away, but folks like that are gold. Even if you really don’t think they are right, still have the conversation, ask questions, listen closely and drill in everywhere you can.

In academic philosophy, students are taught a very useful technique for proving that a premise is true by assuming first that it’s false.

The technique is called reductio ad absurdum, which means “reduction to absurdity.”

Very basically, if you start from the premise that your claim is false and can show that doing so leads to an absurd conclusion then you must have been right all along.

Applying the technique directly to validating your startup’s assumptions would be a lot of work and probably not the best use of your time. But the main idea of starting from the premise that you’re idea/market/model is not the bread slicer you think it is is a very healthy approach.

But you’re drunk on Kool-Aid and so when you finally do find a qualified critic of your idea you feel like you have the “data” you need to blow them off as “he just doesn’t understand” or “she’s not really in our target customer demographic” or “we’re just not a good fit for their portfolio” or “you can’t please everyone” or “I’m sure I could answer those objections but I just don’t have time to do the research.”

If you find yourself saying things like this very often then you very well could have drunk too much or your own Kool-Aid.

Early on in the ideation process, I’m constantly on the look out for smart critics; and when I find one that’s willing to talk in depth they get my full attention. If you want to feel a rush as an entrepreneur, then try converting someone who initially didn’t like your idea into someone who loves it and wants to work with you on it… or at least no longer hates it and is suddenly interested in joining the beta when it’s ready. Booyah!

So next time you ask someone for feedback and you find that the person really likes your idea, say thank you, smile and nod… and then put the cork back in the Kool-Aid bottle and go find someone who thinks you’re out of your mind and offer to by them coffee.

Seattle entrepreneur Bob Crimmins is a serial entrepreneur whose latest startup is MoonTango. He’s also the organizer of Startup Poker 2.0 and Geeks on a Trail. You can follow him on Twitter, or read his blog here.

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  • Anonymous

    Ugh..that refreshing taste of cool-aid, I know the feeling. What happens when you live in a place where people seem to understand the problem you are trying to solve, but don’t actually understand the solution? In my many travels, something I have found quite interesting is discovering how people adopt certain solutions to basically the same problem differently. Hence, the feedback you get in say, Seattle or the Bay area, might be very different from what you get in Dallas or …London :)

    Question now is, if you are trying to solve a problem that exists in several places (i.e. the “market” is large enough and spread out across different geographies, cultures, etc), how do you differentiate?

    • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

      Hmm… interesting problem.  If it’s the case that you can’t be successful unless you’re successful everywhere all at once then you have hard problem indeed.  But my inclination would be to pick the one or two most-promising sub-markets and concentrate on them.  If you can crack the nut in one of those places then you can apply the lessons learned in the other place next? 

      • Anonymous

        Interesting. My question was mostly based from my experiences…I spent over 8 years at Nokia (with the now defunct Symbian group), and you probably know our story. We were very successful globally, but sucked in the US market. We were able to replicate our products, albeit with different “flavors”, in different markets quite successfully.  Cracking the nut in one place won’t necessarily translate to other places, event though they have the same issues. I was wondering what kind of lessons startups/entrepreneurs can pull from this.

  • http://www.jrotech.com/ Jeff Rodenburg

    Really shrewd advice, Bob. Nicely written.

    • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

      Thanks, Jeff.  If it’s shrewd it’s only because I wasn’t for a long, long time.

  • Dan

    very well said. always hard to balance passion and discipline but the best entrepreneurs do it.

    • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

      Thanks, Dan.  I agree, it’s about balance.  Regrettably, it’s easy to get out of balance, especially early in the process when there are not many natural incentives for folks to be brutally honest.  Seeking out smart people explicitly to have them beat me up is my favorite hedge against kool aide syndrome.

  • Web3dot0

    The true Kool Aid test  eventually is you either get investors, or not, or get paying sutomers, or not.

    The Kool AId thing will only last so long before it becomes cyanide.

    • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

      Love the cyanide transformation… I may use that. 

  • http://www.puzzazz.com Roy Leban

    The way I say this is similar but a bit different: Don’t believe your own hype. The point is that we all want to and should promote what we’re doing, we should tell other people how great we are, how great our products are, and how great our companies are. In other words, we should hype. But we also have to take a step back and make sure that we’re always looking at reality, not our own hype.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=562790974 Brad Hefta-Gaub

    Great article Bob!

    Not to be a downer, but, if we’re going to really examine the “Don’t drink your own Kool-Aid” expression, we should be historically accurate. It turns out the Jim Jones never drank the Kool-Aid… he was sick… true, but he either knew that it was all a lie — or — he was too much of a wimp to take the same hard path he chose for his followers.

    I’m not sure what that tells us about the whole ‘drinking of the Kool-Aid mythos’… since clearly “Be like Jim Jones, and don’t drink the Kool-Aid” is not likely to be a winning tag line in the start-up space. ;) But, maybe, we should find a better allegory to teach this very salient start-up lesson… I’m just saying…. (But please, don’t dis-invite me to poker for being so blunt!)

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