05 / 06 / 2022

Tell Me What You Really Think (Or the Only Horror Is in Not Knowing)

At a screening of an early cut of “Apocalypse Now,” director Francis Ford Coppola distributed a questionnaire, along with a note saying that although he wouldn’t necessarily incorporate viewers’ opinions, he would use them in the spirit of collaboration that informs all his decisions. “This questionnaire is as important a part of making ‘Apocalypse Now’ as anything, he wrote. There’s a lesson in there for startups.

Carey Smith | Founding Contrarian

Movie studios often rely on test audiences to gauge public opinion. Everything from “Big” and “Babe 2” to “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Thelma & Louise” were changed significantly in response to viewers’ reactions. That’s because filmmakers, especially those focused on commercial success, understand that the only way to give people what they want is to ask them what they think.

The same applies when developing and improving a product. You need to solicit honest opinions from those you don’t know, and then weigh those opinions carefully, especially the critical ones, to see if they have merit — and cultivate the ability to not take personally those that don’t. Constructive feedback is crucial: it’s what makes progress possible and allows your business to grow.

One of the basic tenets of our contrarian philosophy at Unorthodox Ventures is to talk to customers. And we mean talk, not email. Call them. Call them all. Ask the right kinds of questions to pry information out of them. Don’t have them tell you only what they like about your product; get them to tell you what they don’t like, and why. It’s not always easy — people are predisposed to say nice things — but it’s necessary if you want to make your product better. And while you’re at it, ask customers what other problems they might like to see you solve. Nine out of 10 won’t offer anything, but one will, and it could turn out to be a great selling point or a new product idea.

Too often, businesses think they can bypass this step. They assume they already know what customers want: It’s what’s trending in the media! So they jump aboard the bandwagon and invest heavily in the hype. This is what McDonald’s, among other fast-food chains, did when it came out with plant-based patties in several test markets. Now, lo and behold, it turns out that while curious customers might try them once or twice, they aren’t interested in eating McPlant sandwiches on a regular basis, and there are no plans to add them to the regular menu. Clearly, the wheels have come off the faux-meat movement bandwagon. “Expensive novelty” is how one meat company executive explained away his company’s disappointing experience with plant-based alternatives. Meanwhile, Beyond Meat, the movement’s leader, has lost 90 percent of its value since going public in 2019, falling from a high of $240 to as low as $20.

Fast-food chains aren’t the only ones on that bandwagon, of course. Bandwagons are by nature crowded, and those carrying the banner of “ESG” and “sustainability” are some of the most jam-packed of all. But it’s a shame more fast-food restaurants seem unable to think outside the patty. Let vegetables be vegetables! They’re delicious simply grilled up and piled on a bun. And before you truck in the ersatz meat, for Pete’s sake “grill” your customers, too.

At the fan company we made a similar mistake when we bought into the hype about “The Internet of Things.” We drank the Kool-Aid at one too many Las Vegas conventions and developed the world’s first smart fan, believing that’s what the people wanted. But it turned out to be too smart for our own good, and customers didn’t buy it, figuratively or literally. In business, it’s good to be ahead of your time — just not too far ahead.

We may never know whether Coppola incorporated any of the responses he received on his Apocalypse Now questionnaire. But he understood that making his movie was a collaborative process involving lots of people, including the audience. Entrepreneurs need to realize this, too, and act on it. You might not always hear what you want to — in business, you can pretty much count on feeling exhilarated for 30 minutes a day and dumb as shit the remaining hours — but you’ll quickly learn to separate the wheat from the chaff. And by doing so, you’re likely to both make a higher quality product and achieve greater commercial success.