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Ask HN: Should I stand tall in the face of negative feedback?
27 points by hellweaver666 on Aug 4, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 56 comments
I recently got some seed money for an idea I've been sitting on for a while, have formed the company and done all the necessary legal stuff. The seed money is now in my account and I'm ready to get this thing going. Up until today, I was excited and positive that I was finally taking one of my ideas to market.

I recently emailed a well known blogger in the industry to discuss the possibility of using his blog to leverage some initial traffic to the site at launch and his reply was... well, it was depressing.

He basically shit all over my idea, and explained in a long and detailed email why I would fail. He has a lot more experience and insider knowledge than me, and backed it up his points with facts and figures.

This has really knocked my confidence and I'm racking my brains trying to decide what to do next. The choices are either to ignore him and continue irrespective of his feedback or modify my business plan and try something different (possibly in a totally different sector).

Luckily, the person funding me is very understanding and I think he would be fine with me taking a different route, so I'm not too worried about that.

What do you guys think?

He basically shit all over my idea, and explained in a long and detailed email why I would fail.

This exact same thing has preceded every success I've ever had.

In fact, I'd say it's a prerequisite. It you're not getting extreme negative feedback, then your probably not pushing boundaries enough.

I'm not suggesting that this person is right or wrong or that you should abandon common sense, it's just that without knowing more, I would give his feedback the weight it deserves, which is probably very little.

If you can't "stand tall in the face of negative feedback", then what are you doing starting a business? Carry on.

There are two types of negative feedback. One is from people that are attempting to predict the future, and the other is from customers that actually use a product. You should only trust the feedback of customers (but not necessarily their suggestions.) You could get a better understanding by allowing a small subset of individuals to use a clean beta version of the product. That would let you know what to fix even if you do not know what to abandon.

I think we all tend to overestimate the power of people "in the know" to predict what people would like. There was a time when all of the people with "insider knowledge" said that internet search was a shitty business to be in because all you did was send people to other sites, and that even if it weren't, nobody would ever get people to leave Yahoo. Google now has a market cap of $156 billion.

I am not saying that the guy who told you that your idea is bad is entirely wrong. But even if he's right, it may have the germ of something that will grow into something people do want, and you'll never know if you don't try.

So consider his arguments and let that be one mere data point informing the direction your product takes.

The idea was a niche stock photography site floated somewhere between the current microstock business and the traditional rights managed business (quality and great service, fair prices and a fair share of the proceeds going to the contributors).

One of his arguments was that you can't bootstrap this kind of business because the photographers won't sign up unless you can guarantee sales and/or see that you are going to throw a lot of money at marketing.

He thinks the only photographers I'm going to attract initially are the hobbyists and that the quality won't be there to attract the sales, which you need to attract the pros.

Also from his position, he sees a lot of new startups in the industry every month, and most of them fail in no time, because they couldn't get enough photographers contributing to get off the ground and didn't have the budget to take on the big boys (iStock photo etc).

Have you talked to actual photographers about this business? Have you asked an actual photographer "What would it take to convince you to sign up for a new stock art site?" Has an actual photographer said "Well, there would have to be a baseline of sales, obviously" Does this sequence of events happen a lot?

A good blogger (or any type of professional communicator) can make just about anything sound convincing. That is practically the definition of being a good communicator. Trust, but verify.

Edit to elaborate: If you decide he is right that getting photographers on board is the stumbling block, then you can build the business in miniature around a way to get over just that one particular stumbling block. StackOverflow for photo geeks, I don't know. If you become confident that you can get over that stumbling block, you do so. If not, you might consider killing the project early, prior to spending a few years and lots of money trying to spend your way to solvency.

StackOverflow for photo geeks:


Edit: here's a search for questions on stock photos, maybe of interest.


You've just been given a gift. If he's right, he's saving you a ton of time and effort - and perhaps will put you on track to finding a better business model for the space.

Now you need to go out and find out if he's right - and for that, you should be talking to both the photographers (especially the pros) and the buyers of stock photography. Don't give up hope, just continue to learn more about your market.

He is right that you're going to find it easier to attract hobbyists than pros. But I don't give it the same weight that he does.

What he didn't tell you is that photography is undergoing a sea change right now. For a start the widespread availability of high quality digital cameras has eliminated a lot of barriers to entry for hobbyists who want to go pro. (Many pros compensate with a lot of snobbery for the upstarts - which may be part of his story.) A second problem is that it is now easy for anyone who gets a digital version of an image to print acceptably good photographic products from it fairly cheaply. Which changes customer expectations about how much you can charge for those products. This has resulted in a lot of challenges to traditional ways of doing photography, and traditional business models.

Because of this I wouldn't worry too much about his hobbyist versus pro issue, it is less important in the bigger scheme of things. Figure out how you hope to survive and thrive given the bigger picture of what is happening to everyone in that industry.

Besides from your point of view hobbyists are great initial beta testers. They are more likely to be forgiving of issues, and are more likely to have spare time to spend on figuring out your offering and giving you feedback on it. Eventually you need to get into the pro market. But don't turn your nose up at the hobbyists!

(Disclaimer: I've not tried to follow the photography business, but I did spend a couple of years doing reporting for a company that is in that space. Hence some stuff about it has rubbed off on me.)

I agree. I'm a photographer (but not in stock), and I've watched as the stock/microstock industry has threshed around. I think the future might consist of a few high-end boutique agencies/collections (probably all owned by Getty), and well-run microstock sites built on the backs of hobbyists. Maybe you ought to pursue the latter? Curating hobbyist work, 'assigning' by publishing needed themes and images. Make it a community. Something like JPG magazine, but with images for sale.

Speaking as a former pro photographer, your blogger's advice is unfortunately high-quality. However, with that said, there are other photographers (well known ones like George Lepp) who are making their own photo stock agencies because the margins paid by the big houses are incredibly bad. The terms are always dictated by the stock house and the little guy is left in the cold.

If you want to pursue this, that's some validation for you right there. But the competition is fierce in this industry and you need to either fill some niche they can't, or execute 1000% better than they do.

Overall, the problem (as he sees it) is that you won't have a business because you won't have quality photos on the site (because you'll have "hobbyists" putting photos on there). Maybe just find some forums / blogs that cater towards "prosumer"-type photographers...the kind of people that buy high-end equipment, are really into the art, etc. -- but that might only be doing it for the fun (until they realize they have the opportunity to make a few bucks for doing nothing except submitting their best photos to your website).

As an aside, maybe you can have some kind of rating system whereby photos can be rated by (and only by) other photographers who have submitted photos to the website; photographer-users would only be able to see their rating of a photo (not the aggregate rating), but the aggregate would determine it's place in "top {N} in {CATEGORY}" lists and the price that was charged for the photo.

Anyway, to answer your question...if you believe you've acquired enough domain knowledge to build a successful business, then I think you should go for it...otherwise, you'll always be second-guessing yourself and wondering if you threw a fortune away because someone else told you not to go through with it.

I'm also doing a startup in the stock photo industry.

As a tech guy that's new to this industry, I've learnt a lot of things.

So far, its been hard attracting pro photographers to the Microstock movement. Some have made the jump, iStockPhoto trying to get those guys in, but for most photographers, the microstock rates mean that the production values for photos can't be too high.

Some guys are going the other way, i.e. Microstockers who've gotten bigger, e.g. Yuri Arcurs employs 20 people and wants to sell "premium" photos now.

The types of images that sell on iStockPhoto are different than what sells on say gettyimages.com; they cater to a different segment of the market, albeit with some overlap.

iStockPhoto allows individuals that want photos for business needs to get them on the cheap. Prior to iStockPhoto, if you bought a stock photo, you were a professional or were willing to pay pro-prices.

Another difference is for instance that some istockphoto images have been photoshop-processed... e.g. a black and white filter has been added, or other effects applied. Pro photos tend to be minimally edited and leave it up to a designer to stylize.

So, as opposed to a microstock agency, if you're building an aggregator of professionally shot images, what makes you different from say:

http://blendimages.com, http://imagesource.com, http://moodboard.com?

They think its a matter of dumping cash on marketing to do direct sales. I think otherwise.

If you want to get in touch, send me an email.

Just some general business advice. I know absolutely nothing about the stock photo industry:

1) Critical, i think, to any successful business endeavor, is value creation. The best companies create something tangible, and something of value.

2) It's very hard to compete on price. You cannot build a duplicate product and sell it for cheaper. Consumers might buy a product if it is cheaper from a well established player, but as a startup, you have to also show some value creation in the product.

3) From a layman's POV, here's the problem I see with your idea: you're not really creating anything of significant value. You're taking a niche (stock photos for cheap) that's dominated by some "big" players now (istockphoto), and trying to divide it up into smaller niches.

Your value-add of "well once I have the platform built, I can expand to another niches" doesn't really help the consumer, it only helps you.

4) Presumably, you would have the same content/subject matter of stock photos as istockphoto. They're a big site. What's stopping them from having advertising campaigns, adwords, more marketing etc., attacking your niche? You probably will not be able to outspend them, so how are you going to draw in customers?

5) It's not enough to say, "well we'll give our photographers better margins." In my experience, they're going to have a value-add other than potential income stream - mainly because their current revenue stream is actually real, as yours is well, only tangible. Once you submit to iStockPhoto, can you submit elsewhere (I don't know how this works, really). If someone is making $1 per photo from 10,000 sales at iStockPhoto (and cannot submit anywhere else) they're not going to switch to you even if you offer $10 a photo. Their existing revenue stream, current relationships are worth more.

The choices are either to ignore him and continue irrespective of his feedback or modify my business plan and try something different (possibly in a totally different sector).

Ignoring him is just irresponsible. If he's got facts and figures, you need to deal with them. Analyze them. Look for hidden assumptions. If your perspective is different than his, try to figure out why.

The fact that you and a well-known blogger in your industry disagree is not a reason (by itself) to pivot-- but it is a wake-up call.

I don't really disagree with him, but he's dampened my enthusiasm quite a bit.

I still think the potential is there, and once the platform is built, it would make it easy for me to launch other niche stock photography sites in the future and "expand".

In that case, let's see if you can rebuild the enthusiasm, on an even firmer foundation.

You want to do a niche stock photography site, and your advisor is telling you that you need to get traction with professional photographers, and that this is expensive.

So: what niche is there available for you to exploit where (for some reason to be developed) getting traction with the pros won't be that expensive?

Have you talked to target customers? What do they think of your idea?

"Dog goggles" - whenever I get feedback that bashes my ideas I think "dog goggles" a million dollar business... Who would have ever said that's a great idea!

Just take a look at the feedback and then move ahead. What was his motivation behind detailing why you would fail? Is he trying to save you the pain of failing? Is he working for or on a similar concept? Is he just a negative person? I just don't get it. My advice is never ask an insider about doing or making something different. It's so easy "shit all over an idea" and even site facts and figures but does the guy really know that your concept will fail before you try it? When I worked for a newspaper - I tried to tell the powers that be - that they should consider changing the way we did things but the current facts and figures told them I was wrong.

I definitely think this is standard operating procedure. I've had tons of people shit on my idea. In fact, it sounds like you haven't put yourself out there that much yet (in the online world, that is) and so I'd expect a lot more shit as you do.

It's not pleasant but it does get easier as time goes on. For one, if your blog posts get on Reddit or Digg or even HN (depending) - DON'T read them. People get nasty when they're on social media sites. On YOUR site it's all "I disagree completely and I don't think it will work" and on a social media site it sounds like "She's an ugly hoe-bag who is so stupid for ever thinking of this and deserves to die". Trust me, don't read them.

As soon as you get a nastygram on your own site, either a comment or an email, delete it. Don't respond because that just feeds the beast.

This article really helped me: http://blog.asmartbear.com/distinguishing-constructive-criti...

Oftentimes it comes in the form of "friendly" business advice. Everyone wants to tell me to start doing X, Y and Z and that's the only way my business will succeed and all the advice basically boils down to "do what I do" even if they're not successful. But you can't be everyone else, you just have to do what's right for you.

So in this case I'd just say "Ok, thanks for your input." and never contact him again.

Unless you have some sort of NDA, why don't you just discuss your actual idea and its criticism here? You will most likely not get much useful help by being so vague.

If the blogger is giving facts and figures to say why your idea will fail, then he is either pointing to improvements in your execution plan or other more important problems that you should be solving instead. Surely, he's not claiming that there are no unsolved problems in your whole chosen area of work?

Good point... I wasn't sure it was relevant to the discussion, but I've added a comment with a bit more detail.

One of the main criticisms was that my niche (photos on a white background) wouldn't be niche enough, which is a fair point, so it may be worth me pivoting and just targeting another niche instead.

Great, looks like there might be some people here who know a thing or two about the photography business.

(Aside for anyone posting for help on HN: Seriously, don't try to hide your idea. Your biggest problem is obscurity, not idea-thieves.)

On the point about your niche though, a business does not necessarily have to serve a niche to succeed. You can simply compete on good old things like customer service, quality of product and even pricing (I mean expensive rather than cheap).

"Pivoting" before you even start making something may not be a good idea. What will you do when someone else criticises your pivot idea? Jump to another idea again?

Why don't you build something small that will be useful to some photographers? In the process, you will at least start a conversation with your target customers and then have a chance to find out their real problems.

I know this may not be in line with the Lean Startup methodology (where the current cool thing to do is to make landing pages and boast about signups without having a product at all). But if you start building something that anyone uses at all, you will have a base to pivot from if the need arises.

Mark Pincus of Zynga said in his Stanford talk that the biggest mistake he made when starting out was focussing too much on trying out just one game idea. He should have been thinking about building a platform on which to try out many game ideas. I like that approach and you could probably benefit from it too.

i think you can still do it. Just seed your initial site with curated istockphotos. Those sites have so many photos, that if you search for a simple phrase, you'll end up with 15,000 results.

And if you look at the first 200 pages or so, you'll see the same photos that you see all over the web. If you curated the photos to create a list of 1,000 photos you'd have something to offer. Then just offer photographers a chance to submit their photos to your site.

Bam you solved the chicken and egg problem, and offer something that the big sites don't offer.

I think you should build an early beta before you decide to dump the idea. You are jumping the gun, you don't have anything real, just a lot of talk that someone disagrees with. From my experience, ideas change to become more useful while they are being built.

Also, IMHO, you should not have spent all that money without having some basic implementation.

So far, I've only spent about £30 which is what it costs to form a limited company in the UK and the cost of a domain. I'm still in the early planning stages and was planning on launching a "coming soon" type page in the next couple of days.

The problem with the industry (stock photography) is that I need to attract the photographers first - no point putting a beta site live without any pictures, so my focus was to be on building a streamlined sign up and image submission process that does away with all of the bullshit you have to go through with iStock etc.

That shouldn't take to long, why don't you just build it and see what you think after you get 20 users.

That's what I'm thinking at the moment. It won't cost me much to get to that stage and see if the interest is there - if I can get a few contributors in, then I can at least build up the library and basic functionality and launch the main site with minimal cost.

If it works, great - I can go from there, if it doesn't it's a bit of a shit, but I haven't wasted a lot of money and can still try out other ideas.

It's hard to say without knowing your idea and the criticism, but you shouldn't take one person disagreeing with you as a reason to give up. There's always someone who'll disagree that your idea is good / workable.

Do you agree with his comments? Are they convincing, or just dispiriting?

You'll hear the word 'pivot' around here quite a lot... very rarely does an idea become a business without being altered by feedback.

The comments really knocked the wind out of me, but he had a lot of valid points.

I definitely think there needs to be a modification to my business plan, just setting up a stock photography site and "hoping for the best" as it were, clearly isn't going to cut it.

May be you should try a different spin on your business model. Instead of trying to setup one big central site and attract photographers to it, you should create a product that can be hosted or installed on photographer's own site.

George Lepp was mentioned earlier in the comments. He set up sales directly from his web site and does not have to pay to stock agencies. I bet many photographers would like to do the same - a niche your platform / product could fill. It should be beautiful out of the box, yet customizable since photographers are artist and sure they will want their own look and feel. It should offer easy integration with payment systems (major point of pain), help with discoverability (built-in SEO), embed watermarks for free demos and what not (you should know that way better than me).

In other words don't try to be next Amazon, Zappos, eBay or Yahoo Shopping of stock photos. Be shopify.com of stock photos.

Different model, different niche, maybe even different requirements to the product, but still something to consider. Good luck with your endeavors!

"No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame."

Ahhh... thats what people said about the first iPod wasn't it? Brilliant quote, I'm going to print that off and put it on my wall to remind me that there will always be people saying negative things about great products.

I would take his criticism and categorize it as part of the "social-beta-test" for the future of your life as an entrepreneur. You had an idea, you got sophisticated outside criticism that upped the ante of your awareness.

Now you need to take this new awareness and run with it.

Sometimes the shit just hurts. :)

Thanks for that... I was really excited when I got the email and it was the first thing I read when I got out of bed.

Reading it was like being kicked in the nuts, it stung like hell but I think, once I've got up off my knees my balls should still be working sufficiently to create something decent from the experience. ;)

1. Dont get dishearten.

2. Dont blow the guy off, without going through his comments, he did take time to collect facts and write you a detailed email. Also he has is seen many ideas, so he _may_ be knowing what he is talking about.

3. Take his comments as constructive criticism, and act on valid suggestions.

I think its perfectly fine to contact this blogger again with one of these "fat ass questions". First of all thank him for his very helpful reply -it was helpful, right?

Then you can continue in many directions asking smthg like 1.What is the weakest point in my project? 2 What would you change/improve in plan/market/strategy etc 3.What of my assumptions are unrealistic etc 4.Whould you like to be a mentor/adviser for my project?

PPl usually respect appreciation for their knowledge and are willing to help in such cases.

Overall its a HUGE luck for you that you fund such a helpful adviser at the very begining of your venture. You need to change you mindset about that and start using this opportunity as seems like this guys could be very helpful for you.

Do not take a "different route" based on the informed assumptions of one blogger. This is one person is too small a sample. Unless they have tried and failed at this exact idea or something very similar to it-chances are they are rehashing data to reinforce their opinion.

If this amazing idea of yours solves and brings value to solving a fundamental problem: then the challenge is in the execution, not your idea. The seed is an investment to get the idea in play against an up and running execution. Make it a best effort given the resources available in fastest possible O(n) to beta.

Absorb the essential and warranted "caution flags" of this naysayer and incorporate into your product's execution.

Lots of people will tell you'll fail whatever you do, so you have to get used to that to a certain extent.

He has articulated the problem that you'll have getting traction in an established market, though it doesn't mean it can't be done.

I don't personally see why you need pros for this, lots of people who take photos in their spare time take very good photos (look at Flickr for example) and many wouldn't mind earning some extra money. In fact I'm looking at doing this with iStock, i.e. not full time. Some people may just be looking for somewhere to put their own portfolio, set the prices, get a bigger cut and promote it via their own network - for example.

Indeed. And from what I've heard, iStockPhoto has a ridiculous process that you have to go through to get approved...I think they are basically so "full" of submitters, if you aren't already in the system it's hard to break in. Maybe focus on that? (Not saying offer terrible pictures from just anyone, just saying that maybe their site has gotten almost too big...maybe there is a glut in the market.)

Something else you might consider doing is good integration/importing. For example Flickr has a check-box where you can easily "offer your photo for sale on Getty images"...while you probably can't get Flickr to add a box for your site right away, use their API to allow new users to easily import some or all of their Flickr photos right into your site for sale.

Perhaps also consider offering a mix of high-quality free and paid photos. For example (again using the Flickr API since I am familiar with it to some degree) there are a lot of amazing photos on Flickr that are license Creative Commons, meaning they are free for use in non-commercial works. Maybe go through yourself and find a few hundred really high-quality ones and offer those alongside the paid ones on your site, categorized and tagged.

There are definitely opportunities to be had, it's just a question of finding them.

I can attest that it's hard to get into iStock. I've had only had one photo approved from 6 I've submitted and mostly those were photos others thought were pretty good on Flickr. One of the photos rejected had been used in publication before (for free).

One of my favorite quotes: "Who could believe an ant in theory? A giraffe in blueprint? Ten thousand doctors of what's possible could reason half the jungle out of being".

Naysayers could be right according to existing models, what they cannot predict is how things may change. Just because some guy wrote you a message shouldn't be a downer. The two choices you give are not comprehensive. Another choice is to still go ahead with the plan but taking some of his points into account. Giving up before you've tried anything is not very entrepreneurial.

You said that you have only spent 30 Gbp so far in one of your comments. Spend another 30gbp and buy four steps to the epiphany by Steve Blank. Then I would go out and find some photographers and tell them about the proposition and ask them if they would use a site like that. If they all say, no I use corbis then I would drop it. If they all say that they use corbis but they hate it, then maybe you have something.

Thanks - It doesn't seem to be available on Amazon, but I'll have a hunt around and see if I can find a copy somewhere.

Just go to Steveblank.com

Seriously, figure out if there is a market before doing any work or spending any money. Just because things like istockphoto and cobras exists doesn't mean that there no opportunity. You just have to figure out why they suck ( if they do) and if anybody cares.

Maybe. But do it anyway. That way you'll know for sure.

In the end, even the insiders are just regular people with equally as strong opinions. They just typically happen to be read / watched by more people than an average person would have access to.

This doesn't make their opinion any more correct than anyone else's. If anything, his inability to see your idea succeeding is a good sign that you are doing something that has the potential to be highly rewarding.

Someone who's in the industry you're looking to disrupt thinks you're crazy? Probably just evidence you're on the right track.

More on this -- realize that the "insider" you're talking to will have some dissonance of his own going on. After all, if he's in the industry and hasn't done it yet, (to him) the idea's not worth doing!

If he thought it was a good idea, he probably would be acting on it. Just because he passed on the idea doesn't mean it's a bad one.

Now, if your customers (maybe his readers, by proxy) hate the idea... then you've got some work to do.

I'd suggest that you ask him if you can write up a post for him, for his blog, explaining the idea (make sure it seems like idea generation, rather than pitching your product). Have a poll / encourage comments. That's a cheap way to do customer discovery and validation.

If he won't post your article, try making him a bet. Something like, "I bet 75% of people who respond to the poll will love the idea" or "I bet you get 15 comments on this post." Wager a small amount, like $20 amazon gift card on it.

Step 3: profit!

It really depends on whether you think his argument is right. If it sounds more or less correct, drop the idea and think up something else. (Of course, if you can't evaluate it for yourself, then you are screwed anyway.)

If you truly believe that you have a good idea, go for it. Nobody believed in 1976 that normal people would want to use computers. Nobody believed in 2006 that anybody would ever want to use "twttr" in a million years.

You don't need to listen to a random blogger now, go find your first user instead! After you talk to your first potential users & have adjusted plans, go back & talk to that blogger.

predictive feedback isn't all that useful. if someone is trying to predict success or failure before a product or feature is released, you shouldn't weigh it so heavily. you can find plenty of people who, in past writings, dismissed things like the internet or mp3 players as trivial or fad-ish.

responsive feedback is useful. if someone who is using your product has something to say about it, pay attention. you don't necessarily need to act upon a single person's feedback, but it is still worth making notes upon for future reference.

No matter how experienced he is, and no matter what arguments he makes, he is still one guy.

You should worry only if multiple people tell you the same thing and if you can't get any traction.

Don't lose this oportunity. Fail as soon as possible!

Haters gonna hate - you're always gonna find resistance from some people. Maybe it'll end up that your idea won't work as originally planned, but how is that different from any idea? No plan survives contact with the enemy.

I dont see why this guy has to be hater? Its unclear from the original post.

Imagine someone coming to you and saying I am going to build "twitter, but for 150 characters"/"facebook but for kids under 21"/"Digg but for Texas users". And instead of saing go f yourself (example: http://www.27bslash6.com/p2p2.html) you take your time and write very long and detailed letter where you explain why this is a bad idea to your believe, showing numbers/facts and statistics. He is not "hater/enemy" of yours he is your Angel!

Telling someone why their idea is worthless and will fail is, while also useful, pretty negative. Telling someone how they can change their idea and informing them of the obstacles they'll need to overcome and being nice about is more useful. The first seems more haterish than the second.

It's my impression the guy wrote a somewhat scathing email.

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