Brutal Honesty

There are a lot of different kinds of people in this world. I’ve found that I get along best with the ones that are brutally honest.

Earlier this evening I interviewed Vinod Khosla at the jam-packed Startup Weekend Seattle event. We had a long talk – nearly an hour in total, which is a lot longer than most interviews I do and allowed us to take a deep dive on a number of issues important to Vinod. There’s good coverage of the event at Xconomy, GeekWire (again) and

What strikes me most about the man aren’t his views on technology or venture capital, but his communication style.

During the pre-interview prep I carefully brought up an issue that I’ve heard from a number of people – that Vinod is somewhat “difficult.” “I hear he can be a massive pain in the ass,” someone told me last week while asking if he’d be a good potential investor for their startup.

So I asked Vinod about it, and carefully watched his reaction. I did not want to ask him this on stage if it was going to make everything go sideways. He chuckled, said this was a fine topic to discuss on stage, and asked me if I’d read the quote on the Khosla Ventures site about brutal honesty. I hadn’t, but here’s what it says: “We prefer brutal honesty to hypocritical politeness.”

He told me stories, and then repeated them on stage, about a variety of entrepreneurs he’s been “brutally honest” with. A startup that still had $50 million in the bank when he realized with certainty that they’d fail and suggested they shut down and liquidate. Two years later, he says, they had $3 million left in the bank and sold for $2 million. Yes, I double checked those numbers with him – the company sold for less than the cash they had in the bank (there are a variety of reasons why this can make sense for the sellers).

He talked about passing on investing in Joe Krause’ Jot because it wasn’t, in his opinion, a big enough idea. And he talked about how he gives his brutal, unvarnished opinion to entrepreneurs who seek his attention and money.

VC’s give lots of reasons for turning down a startup, he told me. Things like “it’s too early,” or “it’s too late,” or “I couldn’t get my partners comfortable with it.” Those are the easy ways out, he says. He prefers to give the exact reason. The one he seems to give most often is that the idea simply isn’t big enough to matter.

It’s tough to hear those kinds of things as an entrepreneur, and it’s no wonder some of them pass along their opinion that he’s a “pain in the ass.”

In my world I’ve had to learn about brutal honesty in a couple of different ways. The first is when you first hear a startup pitch and you know it’s not going to make it. I’ve tried the brutal honesty approach in the past, and some percentage of those entrepreneurs become enemies, sometimes lifelong enemies. I’ve tried a softer, more polite approach. In those cases the entrepreneur remains eagerly on the hook. If you don’t respond later, though, you get the same result.

After years of tinkering I’ve found two excellent ways of minimizing the damage from these people. If I’m at a tech event in public I put on my full (invisible) body armor. Smile, shake hands if I must and perform the right type of theatrical engagement. “Amazing. Love to hear more. Do you have a card? I’ll contact you.”

That contact never comes. And for some reason far fewer people ever become upset v. the other ways of handling things.

I really don’t like doing this, but it’s the one thing that keeps me sane and allows me to continue to engage with the community. And every once in a blue moon someone does manage to sneak in past the armor and make a lasting impression on me. Still, I’d rather be more like Vinod in this way, and I’m going to experiment to see if I can make it work.

Here’s the other way brutal honesty works for me – in chasing down a story or interviewing someone. I just ran across this story on VentureBeat this evening from September 16. I believe it gives a good overview of how I conduct myself in interviews. I ask a hard question. I get “bullshit, bullshit, polite nonsense bullshit” in response. I respond that my question wasn’t answered, and ask again. and again. and again. And then, finally, for example, Kevin Rose admits he sold much of his Twitter stock over the summer. Or Matt Cohler, after three tries, simply gives me that look that suggests I stop asking him if he’d invested in Dropbox. Or Carol Bartz gets so frustrated with my attempts to penetrate through the haze of bullshit that she yells “so fuck off!”

I’m not trying to make people uncomfortable on stage. I respect (eventually) their refusal to answer and simply move on. But what drives me crazy are the people who are so politicized and media trained that they can speak for hours about everything in particular but never answer the question I’m putting to them. I appreciate their art, but I don’t respect their unwillingness to engage in the truth.

Bad news, good news, no news, it should all be spread truthfully and succinctly. There are exceptions, but they can usually be dealt with by saying “I’m not going to answer that question,” and we can move on. That’s why I enjoy interviewing certain people more than others.

Doug Leone plays it straight and fears no question. Marissa Mayer is excellent at going deep on issues she likes, and skirting those that she doesn’t. But she doesn’t engage in idle bullshit. Roelof Botha, Ron Conway, Josh Felser, Jeff Clavier, Dave McClure are all straight shooters. Reid Hoffman will talk about anything at all with the innocence of a newborn (he sleeps well at night, I think). Matt Cohler, who was whelped by Hoffman in a previous life at LinkedIn, is much the same way. His trademark move, though, is to simply stare you down silently when you ask something he doesn’t like. It’s direct, communicative and it works. I often simply move on. When I talk to John Doerr, on stage or off, I get the distinct feeling that the man can create matter from the swirls of his words. I don’t know if that’s bullshit or honesty, but it keeps me interested and, I admit, willing to imagine a better world is actually possible.

Sometimes people call me a jerk for the way I interview these people. I get why they think that. But I think I do a good job of showing off the shiny parts of a person’s achievements, and letting them get their words out to the world. When I cut them off, it’s only because I expect more from them. Better. These people keep coming back for interviews year after year, so I know they’re not entirely unpleased with the experience.

Back to Vinod…All this brutal honesty seems to be working out nicely for him. Entrepreneurs come back to him time and time again as they move from one startup to the next. They often take significantly lower valuations to be part of his family. Just this week, in fact, a startup I’ve invested in took a term sheet from Vinod valuing the company at $6 million. Another very good firm was offering $10 million. I asked him why he did that. “Because a startup with Vinod is a lot better than a startup without Vinod,” he said.

Which says it all. Direct, brutal, no frills, awesome, wonderful, honesty. Versus being smile fucked by someone who’s hypocritically polite. I’ll take the honesty any day for the win.

Disclosure: Khosla Ventures is an investor in CrunchFund. I think this is kinda rad.

130 thoughts on “Brutal Honesty

  1. Congrats on getting funded. I will take some of the spare cash off your hands.

  2. Hung Dang says:

    As a student still learning about how to vet ideas, it is hard to hear that my ideas will not go anywhere. Yet the sooner I realized the opinions I seek are about the ideas and not me personally, the more appreciative I became of honest and direct advice.

    What you want to hear and what you need to hear are rarely ever the same thing.

  3. Fuck Yeah. Now you are getting to some real meat on how it should be done. Keep putting it forward like this and you will keep getting shared ;]

  4. Wherever possible ‘no’ should be clear, direct, but wrapped in some positives. “If you want to be in that space I’d look for at xyz” etc. But absolutely, honesty rules.. I’ve been on the receiving end of plenty of it, and while sometimes it takes a while to digest ultimately it’s just what I’ve needed.

  5. I will not forget the question “How the f¤&*k are you?” Which was directed to former yahoo C.E.O . What would that be called? Lethal Honesty or Crowd laughing?
    Good and relevant information here dude, keep uncrunching.

    • Michael Arrington says:

      was just a joke about how she always curses in interviews. I cleared that with her beforehand, wasn’t an issue. For people who hadn’t seen her interviewed before, that was confusing.

      • i saw your carol bartz interview live, and read all about it, after, etc. i didn’t know you asked her first. i like that as i was a put off then because it felt like just an attempt to throw her off kilter. of course my larger thought was how can someone be ceo of a major public company & get so flummoxed that she can’t succinctly and effectively state what her company does ( anyway, thx for sharing this.

  6. I’m reading along and here’s the part that really jumps off the page, “Versus being smile fucked by someone who’s hypocritically polite.” I see your point. Part of me thinks people who dodge a particular question (that’s of actual importance) to dive into great detail about something else more or less unrelated, don’t see very clearly how their own ideas are connected. When put that way it seems less about dodging the question and more about how having a clear, concise thought process is a challenge for them. When a little speed bump is presented it sends them completely tangential with respect to the original thought.

  7. Ravi Sheth says:

    Also this might be the most successful blog, with the shittest layout on the internet. Successful meaning hits .

  8. By all means you must be brutally honest with your interviewees. Otherwise it’s just another boring PR interview. They’re successful enough to take the odd criticism.

    As for Entrepreneurs, yes by all means be honest with them but don’t be “brutal”. They’re not successful yet, they can learn and improve over time. But being brutal just hurts them with no offer of how they can do better.

    I believe Mike, you can do both, being honest but not being brutal. And the comment that you made about your shaking their hand and asking for a card and saying; “I’ll contact you” just so you can get them out of the way to me is wholly deplorable. Don’t be a bullshitter Mike. Rather say to them; “Dude, I respect what you’re doing but it’s just not for me”. End of story.

    If the Entrepreneur is smart he’ll ask “what would you do differently”? In which case, be brief but again be honest. At least he can go away with alternatives to consider and improve.

    • Michael Arrington says:

      work in progress

    • Ram P Singh says:

      @DavidSmuts Why do you think brutal honesty would hurt entrepreneurs who aren’t successful yet? Brutal honesty doesn’t necessarily mean using cuss words or calling them a loser or making fun of them, etc. It simply means telling them exactly how you think about what they are doing without any sugar-coating. It’s the sugar-coating (or smile f*ing in Arrington’s words) that hurts, not the actual message.

      I haven’t dealt with VC’s yet, but I have had managers at the big company who sugar-coated bad news to make sure people didn’t get hurt but then people ended up not getting the real message and they didn’t change anything, and then at the year-end review reality didn’t meet expectations and people were unhappy. And then I had one manager who would yell at his reports and tell them exactly how crappy something was and sometimes publicly question how someone rose to the ladder level they were at – leading to temporary hurt state, but then people got the message and promptly took corrective action and at the year-end reviews there were no surprises for anybody and everybody was happy.

      To me, brutal honesty is just about delivering bad news and delivering it faster than you would deliver good news.

  9. marvinvista says:

    Brutally awesome piece Mr. Arrington.

  10. euro vc says:

    The.other day I saw a good deal – had tripled revenue to $1m in a year. last time we declined because of “too early”. This time I’ll decline again b/c the entrepreneur is missing that little extra – the spark that turns me on. How do I tell him?

    • Michael Arrington says:

      I guess you tell him he’s failed to turn you on. see what happens next.

      • I agree. Tell him the truth. Unfortunately it’s hard to define or explain “that sparkle” but I know exactly what you mean. Apart from finding another CEO, there’s not a lot he can do about the missing sparkle.

        But on another front…, why do you need “sparkle” per se, to create a successful company? There a loads of them with CEOs without any sparkle! It’s product what sells not sparkle.

        Why not just suggest someone else as CEO?

        • Mark T says:

          Because when building a company, as CEO, you’re always selling. Selling the vision to potential employees, selling the strategy to existing ones. Selling the benefits to customers, and the dream to investors. The CEO’s job is to convince people to do things. If he’s not convincing to an investor, how can that investor be confident he’ll be convincing to the thousand other people he’ll have to convince during the life of the company.

      • completely agree. brutal honesty doesn’t mean having to be a dick & then laugh the person off the stage. it’s helping them really understand that they really don’t have something they need. it helps them so they can work even harder on developing it. if you have the raw drive to become an entrepreneur, you can develop a lot – become a better speaker, go lean, hire better, identify market opportunities better, etc.

  11. Motmaitre says:

    What you call brutal honesty is just emotional immaturity. What you call hyprocritical politeness is the expression of high emotional intelligence. It lubricates social situations and allows people top get along at work, at play, at home. At the age of forty, you should know this. Another word for it is maturity. Brutal honesty is the behavior of self-important teenagers and emotionally immature adults. The pains in the ass.

    On the plus side, kudos on writing about VC-ing. This blog should be about something, and a TC clone is NOT that something (‘breaking’ news about Google’s offsite employee meeting was just weak).

    This is why wearing your ‘Unpaid Blogger’ t-shirt on stage was just childish. When do you plan to move on emotionally from TC? You’re acting like a boyfriend who got dumped and still walks past his ex-girlfriend’s house 5 times a day hoping he’ll run into her. Move on. TC was your past- nobody forced you to sell it. If you weren’t emotionally ready to move on you should not have sold it. Selling TechCrunch and then naming your new blog Uncrunched and drawing out the whole Unpaid blogger Huffington fiasco just makes you look like you desperately need to get a life after TC.

    You follow startups- how many tech founders who sell continue to hang around their old companies trying to be relevant? They move on and start something else. This blog was your chance to start something else. Instead you’re still acting like the fifth wheel at TC.

    Let it go. Your ex has a new boyfriend.

    • Michael Arrington says:

      “You’re acting like a boyfriend who got dumped and still walks past his ex-girlfriend’s house 5 times a day hoping he’ll run into her. ” – I don’t deny that. I’m just not ready…yet…to move on. sniff.

    • Rohan Jayasekera says:

      Calling hypocritical politeness “an expression of high emotional intelligence” or “maturity” is a cop-out. It’s not a requirement for people to get along — it’s one way to do that, but not the only way. Face it: it’s dishonesty. Just because it’s easy and popular doesn’t make it right. If you were to use it with me, I would find it offensive.

      Anyway, you don’t even believe in it yourself. If you did, you wouldn’t have told Arrington he was being childish for wearing that T-shirt, etc.

      • FJ says:

        I think the ideal is for there to be balance. There are ways to tell people the truth without being abrupt or obnoxious or hurtful. That does require emotional intelligence and developed social skills. A lot of “big shots” get away with not doing that because it’s their way of showing they don’t need to. It’s a way of demonstrating value. Jack Welch was against what he called “superficial congeniality”, which was the correlate of “hypocritical politeness”, but the jury is out on whether that strengthened or weakened GE. Though he was a hero back in the day his unsubtle approach doesn’t have many admirers these days.

        I think ultimately you simply have to be accurate. No entrepreneur wants to hear “I’m just not feeling it”, because it seems lazy and there’s no content to that comment. Say the market’s too small or the team is too weak or the founder doesn’t seem to have the required passion. At least that way he knows what to work on. (The last of these is complex because some of the best people I’ve worked with in IT come across like the living dead but they work hard and fast every single day. I don’t know if they’re passionate or not but I know they execute).

        • Rohan Jayasekera says:

          Agreed: the goal is accuracy. Saying, for instance, “I’ll contact you” with no intention of doing so is not accurate, and I’m glad that Arrington finds it painful to do that; I wish everyone did.

          Also agreed that accuracy can be done nicely. I didn’t get the impression that Arrington was recommending being obnoxious.

    • Sometimes suggestions and comments are made just to pull down the person brutally. I think everyone know it Arrington was forced to move on. You can count people on fingers who break stories. Finally you can not stop a blogger to blog about something.

    • Larry says:

      “At the age of forty, you should know this. Another word for it is maturity. Brutal honesty is the behavior of self-important teenagers and emotionally immature adults. ”

      Actually I would say your comments are “projection”

      While Mike has acknowledged below that he is not ready to move on, I also think there is a nice PR benefit for him at this point to not move on.

      Just think of all the covers Jennifer Aniston made (and is still making to this day) because she played the same tune when Brad Pitt dumped her. As opposed to a comparable actress who was dumped and said nothing.

      “Vibald du farshtaist dein narishkeit, bistu a kluger.”

      Um, don’t think he hasn’t thought about this strategy.

      • Larry says:

        This “Vibald du farshtaist dein narishkeit, bistu a kluger.” is quoting a yiddish phrase which means “As long as you understand your foolishness, you are smart.”

        (In other words this is not quoting something in the comments but a quote elsewhere which is why the last line might be confusing.)

    • Vit says:

      Isn’t a sign of emotional maturity is someone who can take and accept brutally honest criticism and make themselves and their biz better because of it?

    • Joshua Bolin says:

      This is just a silly comment; entrepreneurship is about passion. A labor of love and a period of momentary insanity with bipolar like ups and downs. When you are emotionally invested in an idea, see it come to life and nurture this thing that you have built it becomes like a child. In the sense that you spend the better part of your life not to mention resources and relationships to see a dream through.

      The trouble with TechCrunch will be AH and the fact that the owner and coach of the team was told he was no longer needed; sit in the stands and watch. And from the stands he has earned every right to cheer or boo the team he put in place while rooting for his conceptualized dream.

      Who can blame him for having the feeling: ‘put me in coach I am ready to play’.

  12. timdl says:

    why don’t you use facebook comments ?

  13. Alan says:

    The question is: does brutal honesty work in the corporate world ? I don’t think so.

  14. very nice dude keep it up

  15. Vc’s have an 80%+ failure rate.

  16. Isn’t he the same guy who turned down Google’s price of $1million to sell their search engine back in 1999, that’s too much price to be paid for being brutally honest I guess !!

  17. As someone who has to deal with university students and heading the startup incubation program, talking to a student for the first time, its really difficult to know how do you let the guy know that his idea is not really worth pursuing. Or even making changes to his idea so that we may look further into it. Ideas are precious to the inventor / entrepreneur, but unless objectifying the idea and gauging it in terms of market livability is done, I’d say better show ’em now instead of hurting later.

    Great perspective these you bring up here though.

  18. Iba Masood says:

    We need some of these brutally honest VCs in the Middle East, tough to find someone here who calls you on your bullshit. As a recent grad, launching a startup, I can say first hand that it’s really hard in this region to find real and honest investors.

  19. Great piece Mike, glad you put this down in words. Saying the blunt truth seems harder than a polite brush off — but its not. I believe that whats important is to not ignore people but rather tell them clearly and in a non personal way why what they are doing isnt interesting to you. The alternative is actually a lot worse, because what you are really communicating is that your words dont matter. It is sometimes hard to do — but such is life. Every minute of every day there is a hard door and an easy one – take your pick.
    Thanks writing.

  20. Peter Mullen says:

    Nice post. OK, so you’re a pain in the ass. Big deal. Nothing more to see here.

  21. I ❤ this line so much I'm considering as a tattoo (not on my lower back b/c that would be trashy): "Direct, brutal, no frills, awesome, wonderful, honesty. Versus being smile fucked by someone who’s hypocritically polite. I’ll take the honesty any day for the win."

    BRILLIANT post! Embracing the truth (which I get is relative b/c clearly my truth may not be yours) BUT the point is that being honest is ONE simple thing each of us can do to quickly create a better future. Note that I didn't say it's easy. It's probably the hardest thing to do, but clearly the world isn't getting better quickly – seems to be getting worse faster.

    I've been accused of not having much of a filter and openly sharing too much vs. being "nice" which is probably why I'm particularly fond of this post! It feels so personal. A rallying cry. It needs a theme song! I swear I'm hearing the theme from 'Rocky' in my head but that seems so old school – which may signal that it's perfect!


  22. markkat says:

    This is why I used to read TC.

    However, I think it needs to be mentioned that sometimes ‘brutal honesty’ can be a bullshit act in of itself. I don’t know Vinod, -and I am not saying he does this. But, I’ve found that some insecure people just act like assholes because 1) it makes them feel superior, and/or 2) they are uncomfortable engaging people on the level.

    I think if you dwell on this stuff too much, you’ll make yourself crazy. I don’t know you Mike, but I have read a lot of your posts. IMHO, sometimes you are a bullshitter, and sometimes you are crazy honest. But, what I like most, is that you aren’t boring.

  23. Frank Denbow says:

    Great topic and post. I wrote about this a few months ago also:

    I’m wondering how you contrast Vinod’s style to Paul Graham’s. The office hours videos from the past 2 Disrupts seem to show a style that gets people to dream bigger when their idea is too small, without the harshness of a more direct approach. What are your thoughts on Paul’s style?

  24. Yes, be brutally hones Mr. Arrington, but please don’t spread the word. Just imagine all your cashiers, service people etc being brutally honest next time.

  25. Great post, Michael. I have recently started a different tactic as well when being sought out for advice on an idea or a startup: The Power of Spite. I want to be helpful and honest, but I don’t want to be brutal, per se. Then I remembered all of the stories I’d heard about how “being told I couldn’t do it really motivated me to prove everyone wrong”.

    That made me think: It doesn’t matter what I think. It shouldn’t matter. All that matters is if the founder believes it. In fact, it’s a kind of test. So now I tell people, “Before we begin, I want you to remember that it doesn’t matter what I think. It shouldn’t matter. So I’m going to be honest, and I’m going to focus on where I think your idea does not work. I hope The Power of Spite will spur you on to prove me wrong”.

    It has allowed me to be brutally honest, without messing with the relationship.

  26. Venkatesh says:

    Love it. Welcome back to the real Mike. Feel like I am reading techcrunch in 2005.

  27. Jebb Dykstra says:

    Great article. I got the polite brush-off from you in Pasadena at the Fortune event. You were very smooth and polite about it. Switching to brutal honesty as new method will be liberating if done right. But remember it’s about keeping your sanity – what works perfectly well with Vinod, may very well stress you.

    BTW – sleeping like a baby is one of the great misnomers of all time. Sleeping like a baby goes like this — sleeps for 2 hours, then wakes up crying for a bottle. just when you are hitting REM sleep, then the baby wants a clean diaper. And so on through the night.

    Glad you are back writing where ever. Missed your writing the last year (too few articles).

  28. Great post Mike and thanks for the links to GeekWire. Loved the interview with Khosla, especially the back-and-forth on VCs.

    I think the points about constructive criticism for entrepreneurs is a good one, and entrepreneurs for the most part do appreciate that brutal honesty.

    Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a “chief of staff” to answer emails and field pitches, does it?

    Maybe you can get some part time help from Khosla’s chief of staff. 🙂

  29. This is why Vinod’s an investor here at Rearden Commerce. I place the same premium on Brutal Intellectual Honesty and wish it were a far more prevalent component of the Silicon Valley DNA but it’s not. Bummed Vinod isn’t a bigger shareholder, but glad he’s a part of the Rearden Nation.

  30. One thing I’ve always loved about you, Mike, is that you are brutally honest. I know exactly where I stand with you. Whether I’m inside your circle, or out.

    Some things I’ve found:

    1. If you have a point of view, often times you can get people to engage on that. For instance, I believe every Silicon Valley company must have a Facebook strategy now (and if you don’t have one you better be able to explain why). I asked eBay’s CEO about that and got some good answers yesterday:

    2. If you give them a chance to straighten out their bullshit, often they will. Recently I was railing on a startup during an interview. I kept hammering on them over and over, finally they got a clue that they were looking clueless and obviously hadn’t thought out some things (I was their first press interview). I turned off the camera and had a deeper conversation about the strategy of the company. I don’t see it necessary to point this out in public, but now they are far more prepared for their Techcrunch interview.

    3. Sometimes it’s just necessary to tell the other person “listen, I know you are using me, just like I’m using you, but this will go a lot better if we knock that off.” It ALWAYS goes better for companies when you are able to have a conversation about the marketplace and set yourself up as an authority in that marketplace than try to simply pitch your company. I don’t get why CEOs don’t get this, but oh well.

    Eventually having only a bullshit strategy catches up to you. Carol Bartz had nothing OTHER than bullshit and she blew it big time on stage with you. It was funny, though, and I appreciated being in the front row.

    Keep on truckin!

    By the way, you once told me you don’t like people. I’m glad you are taking a more nuanced approach now. 🙂

  31. Mike to be honest the chances of your fund being sucessful is slim. face it we dont need another startup for anything. theres enough to work with. innovation is stagnant/apexed and anyone with 30 bucks a month can have super powers. the web has reached a turning point. your disrupt winner is a farmville with facebook. how long till facebook has the same offering or bans the api and crushes it. mike you sat on your laurels too long. from my personal experience your not a talent scout. youve ignored talented people banging on your door, when at the same time you claim to be an entrepreneurs care-giver. its time you start opening that door and speaking to entrepreneurs that are creating something of value that even a layman can recoginize. You sold your biz at just the right time and i hope you know that. i doubt in 5 years anyone will be writing about startups at all. they will be writing about start-ins, the top 100 major player destinations that will rule 99.9% of the web forever. Best of Skill.

    • K says:

      Holy crap. Locator Dude is back! Nice.

      Uncrunched is already becoming more fun to read than TechCrunch, thanks to Arrington’s openness + open comments. I don’t think I’ve commented once on TC since they switched to Facebook comments.

    • “Everything that can be invented has been invented”.
      — Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. patent office, 1899

    • Gern Blanstein says:

      Look, locator douche is back. He knows everything, we/you know nothing. And in every post, he will shamelessly plug his URL, which he thinks is a serious start up. Mike, in particular, knows much less than Danny boy here. Because Mike has invested in how many companies, written about how many companies, and exited how many companies? Meanwhile, Danny (that’s locator dude’s real name) has been cleaning out shit pipes. See, he runs a company too, but his company is a plumbing business. Nothing wrong with that, someone’s gotta do it. But plumbers should stick to plumbing instead of opining on that which they nothing about. Mike isn’t writing about stopped up toilets so no need to correct him.

  32. Hi Mike,,

    Good luck on your new venture/adventure. Brutal honestly is the only way to get legit results… especially when we remember to practice it on ourselves.

  33. Jason Nazar says:

    I’ve watched most of those interviews you have done, and would say your probably in my to 3 favorite persons to watch do interview across any sector. It’s not only that you are willing to ask the same questions over and over, but you get right to the point and ask the questions that are always on our minds: how much did you make, would you have hired that person again, did you fuck up?

    My only issue with your post is “Brutal Honestly” can often be done without the “Brutal”. The trick of getting away with telling people the things about themselves that they don’t want to hear (and that no one else will say), is to do it with sincerity and a kind heart. You can say the most shocking things to a person by public standards, but if you do so without any malice or ego, still remain friends or even build a relationship on that. In fact I think that’s how you often get away with being brutally honest, you just happen to have a more brutal style than the rest of us…:)

  34. @arrington – nice to see you paying homage to one seattle startup (icanhascheezburger) and participating in another local event. hope to see you out and about in your new hometown more.

  35. Here’s that “voice” that makes all the difference. Hear hear.

  36. I think anyone who gets ‘brutal honesty’ in any situation walks away a little tougher. I often think someone who is considered this is also considered a jerk (yes that can be true) but more often then not this is way off. If you are a start up (we are) you are going to need this to be successful and competitive. This is not an area where you just want to be a mom and pop, and no good investor will allow you to be such. A little hair on the chest never hurt anyone 😉

  37. How does Vinod define a big idea?

  38. Thanks, awesome post!!

    As an entrepreneur I wish investors would be brutally honest with me.
    How are we supposed to learn and improve if we don’t hear what’s wrong with what we’re doing?!?

    hope your message propagates to the minds of investors and entrepreneurs alike.

  39. Steven Sarmiento says:

    I always like the way you interview people. You get under there skin and kind of force them to answer the question, kind of like Howard Stern interviews. In any case i usually don’t laugh when listening or watching an interview but when i see some of yours I crack up. keep up the brutal honesty mike!

  40. dave mcclure says:

    good piece.

    most folks don’t get that it’s the brutal honesty that is generous, and the politeness which is stingy.

    if I take the time to actually *tell* someone their idea sucks, I’m giving them more (time) & taking more risk, rather than just smiling & telling them some BS about followup later.

    sometimes however, I just get tired of this shit… it’s challenging to be brutally honest 24x7x365, and it can be emotionally exhausting to continually express my excruciating opinion of people’s life work, and depress the fuck out of them when they realize their pitch ain’t going nowhere with me. and while I know I’m probably wrong a lot of times too, I don’t really have the energy to be all rainbows & unicorns polite to every delusional startup founder I meet. but neither do I always have to have an opinion, or needlessly crush their hopes & dreams if I don’t believe they are likely to listen anyway or handle direct feedback well.

    in short, being brutal & honest is often the more generous act. it says 1) even though I don’t think your precious little pony is beautiful, 2) I’m still taking the time & energy to tell you so when I could just STFU & walk away, & 3) I’m also taking the risk of pissing you off / creating an enemy / going postal on me.

    being polite is often the most selfish act. it means 1) I’m lying when I agree & say your shitty little pony is beautiful or interesting, 2) I’m tired of being the straight shooter (which might take another 10m to explain) & just want to get the hell outta there, & 3) I don’t really need another founder pissed at me anyway, and so sometimes I take the easy — and selfish — way out.

    so remember: when I actually tell you your startup is full if shit, it’s only because I care… 😉


    • Michael Arrington says:

      great comment! “being polite is often the most selfish act.”

    • Jeff Clavier says:

      Very true. When you see a line of 50 guys waiting for you after a talk, and you want to get the fuck out to go back to your family to see them for the first time that week, it is trouper-esque to spend the time to give some honest feedback. And if one pissed off founder starts arguing that you are wrong (and arguably, we are often wrong), there is a tricky balance between politely retreating and building up your argument – and trying to be helpful.

      Entrepreneurs need to remember that we are not smarter, and don’t know better, we just have seen hundreds of companies build up, make mistakes/succeed, and we match patterns very quickly as part of our decision tree.

      • Jeffrey W says:

        A VC complaining about how hard his job is just pathetic. You’re not working half as hard as most founders are.

        You want the exposure of talking at conferences without having to, ya know, actually spend a few minutes talking to the little people?

        What a typical VC attitude.

        • dave mcclure says:

          you’re right we are complaining. and we should probably STFU since we have a pretty cush job.

          that said, I work equally hard as the average startup founder. but working hard doesn’t mean shit either.

          and just cuz I’m a VC these days doesn’t mean I have to listen 2u if you’re an annoying shit who has no concern for your fellow human being. I’ve been a programmer and entrepreneur in the past, and neither profession is any more virtuous than any other.

          it’s a 2-way street. if you’re not an a-hole, then I’ll try not 2b an a-hole too.

    • “when I actually tell you your startup is full if shit, it’s only because I care.” so well said. this should be highlighted on your homepage

  41. Cool post Mike. It was cool to realize that we get lucky because of this guy (though he’s been brutally honest to us!). About brutal honesty, it’s tough indeed, I would say that brutal honesty can be well mixed with cold logic / to explain or challenge the startup you talk to. Brutal honesty without an explanation might just look like an insult (ie I don’t give a Or the SF equivalent “interrrreeeeesting”)

  42. Great post – Thanks for being brutally honest! And to those who say you should stay away from tech stories now that you are no longer with TC, I would question why would you ever suggest someone to leave an arena of which they are well educated and passionate?

    You have valuable insight and I am happy to gain knowledge from your interviews. Keep it up!

    PS. Ex-girlfriends can be tough to get over, especially when they were your first:)

  43. Israeli entreprenuer here.

    Maybe one of the reasons for the relative success of the Israeli start-up ecosystem is exactly that.

    From the lawyer, fellow entreprenuers to investors and potential employees, I think the level of brutal honesty is pretty high.

    Makes you learn to swim fast.

    Btw, there is even a popular word for that – dugri
    (If you followed Israeli PM’s latest speech – he used it to make his point)

    I’m happy you opened this blog, in techcrunch we got a diluted version of arrington(your voice sounded through your writers, while you seldomly wrote), here we get the concentrate.

    • Rohan Jayasekera says:

      I’ve long wondered the same thing! I’ve noticed that sometimes in a group of people it’s only the Israeli who will tell it like it is. My favourite customer ever was not only Israeli but someone who had lived in New York City for a long time (New Yorkers are also known for being “in your face”). He took me aside from a project meeting (I was the project manager) and was brutally honest with me about the concerns he had. In ten minutes we had everything sorted out: I knew exactly what he was expecting from us, he knew exactly what I intended to deliver, and we both knew that the two matched up.

  44. sundroid says:

    “Brutal honesty” works mostly for the giver, not the recipient, particularly when there is a huge “experience gap” between a giver and a recipient.

    For Vinod Khosla, a 56-year-old multimillionaire who was the founder of a giant tech firm, to say to a 24-year-old eager-eyed: “Your idea sucks,” is not going to help him, even if the youngster retorts in “brutal honesty” style by saying, “Man of your stature and intellect owes me an explanation as to why my idea sucks,” and then, hypothetically, Mr. Khosla pauses and provides an explanation, I doubt the youngster is capable of soaking up the essence of what the 56-year-old tech legend says in one conversation, simply because the “experience gap” is too deep.

    Being “brutally honest” might be a good way for someone like Mr. Khosla, who is probably being pitched 24/7, to tell the pitcher not to bother him again, alas, all hopes are not lost to the young “deer in the headlight” wannabe entrepreneur, because clearly, successful people like Page, Brin, Zuckerberg, et all, have had their fair shares of “brutal honesty” spat in their young faces when they were just starting out.

  45. Jeff Reine says:

    Good stuff, Mike. I find that most people are simply conflict averse and prefer a polite non-response or brush-off. Most people just want to avoid an argument. They dont want to negotiate or be challenged directly. It’s a damn shame because conflict is where great ideas are born. As long as the ‘brutal honesty’ comes from a good place it can only help push both parties to arrive at a better answer. Anyway, good post. thanks for going back to the keyboard.

  46. JD says:

    Good point. The point of this exercise is not to offend people but rather to achieve the truth. In many ways it is similar to navigating NYC subways: to be politely aggressive and maintaining civility.

  47. nickmartn says:

    There’s a BIG difference between being ‘honest’ with a founder when you’ve taken the time and effort to do a serious deep dive into their concept and vision over a decent length of time and after a 30 second elevator pitch in a conference situation.

    In the later it’s impossible to give an accurate rendition of whether the business has legs and it would be polite and realistic to have the grace to accept that your opinion is just that, your opinion … at that point in time … given the evidence at hand.

    A LOT can go wrong in those 30 seconds. No doubt the entrepreneur will be nervous to meet you for the first time … there’s likely a lot of noise in the area … there may well be 75 waiting in line … anxious is just one emotion we feel.

    Before you know it lines are fluffed, the well practiced sequence gets magically reversed for no apparent reason, the listener’s face erupts in confusion at just the wrong time and the ship sinks. We’ve all been there. It makes us better at pitching and keeps us sharp as long as we’re willing to learn from it but it has absolutely no reflection on whether our business is a solid one or not. Execution is everything as we all know and execution is a long way from that 30 second conversation.

    What that doesn’t mean is that the business is f***ed. Far from it. You have nowhere near enough data points to be able to make that conclusion and that should be reflected by your response.

    “I’m not sure I quite get what you’re looking to do. Your pitch hasn’t resonated with me for some reason. I’m left feeling confused for some reason. That may be you or me. Not sure at this point. You could work on your pitch more or you could just ignore what I say and keep going. Best of luck and nice to meet you.”

    It’s different in Vinod’s case as long as he’s being brutally honest after spending a decent length of time taking in the whole picture. There’s no place for brutally honest if it’s cutting and final at the first pitch because of the reasons above but there definitely is after having done serious due diligence and/or having worked with the company over a length of time. The picture is clear, in colour and the judgement can be delivered guillotine and all. No qualms with that and it’s definitely the right thing to do. Feedback is the source.

    For me, what this boils down to is that the startup world would would be even better if there was far less arrogance in the air from ALL PARTIES. Having worked for many years on the other side (corporate hell) it’s one of the aspects that I think could really do with a makeover.

    Wouldn’t it be cool if everyone walked around with the attitude that they don’t know jack-shit and anything’s possible? Both sides of the table fall foul of this. I’m not just hitting on you Mike, it’s us too. There’s a lot of bullshit flying around. I get covered in it most days. Nice.

    Preconceptions should be ignored and the humble facade that many put on when they’re doing conference keynotes to make an easy bond with their audience but somehow automagically change into a seen-it-done-it-all-asshole in a private one-to-one should be gone.

    Innovation comes from places we least expect it. That’s the whole point. Leave arrogance at home and everyone wins.

    • Michael Arrington says:

      You’re the guy everyone’s trying to avoid at the party.

      • Jeffrey W says:

        He’s right Mike. Anyone who declares with certainty that an idea is bad after a brief pitch is arrogant as hell.

        It’s very easy to be wrong even with full detail, so in 30 seconds you’re doing little more than reading tea leaves.

        And to be brutally honest, Vinod’s track record of investments is not particularly impressive.

  48. Excellent post that’s causing some self reflection now – I’m too polite.

    One follow up Q – Who’s been your best interviewer when you’ve been the interviewee? I’d love to see the outcome, be it an article, video, transcript, etc. Link?

  49. Thanks, great post. I will specially seek out these people for my funding because I love utter honesty and absolute no nonsense. I cannot stand fake-ism, life is too short.

    But if they or anybody else purposely degrade me in the process I will be less interested to continue. Someone who has lost his empathy because he’s in a role is hardly worth pursuing.

  50. A few thoughts based on my experience in business …

    … the people that can’t handle a polite but straight and honest answer are usually only interested in their short term gain out of their relationship with you, which means they won’t become your friend no matter what – not a big loss if they turn your “enemy” as you described above (by polite I mean a factual answer on why you are not interested, no drama, no rudeness no swearing)

    … many people confuse brutal honesty with ego based behavior – as in putting someone else (or their idea) down to make oneself ‘feel’ better/bigger/superior. This has no place in profesional communication and indeed creates enemies where you don’t need them

    … I am born an raised in Germany where brutal honesty is pretty much the standard way of interaction. There everyday people as well as friends tell you much more directly what they think. When I moved to North America I had to a) learn to become more ‘polite’ (= less direct/honest) to avoid constantly offending people – my wife used to call me a Klingon – and b) learn how to read people’s politeness for what is is (often BS). Since I was used to take almost everything for face value, this was one of the most difficult things to learn in my cultural transition. While I like the pleasantries of politeness in everyday situations (bakery, restaurant etc) it makes things sometimes unnecessarily difficult when it comes to professional effectiveness. You learn faster and improve quicker when you can cut through the BS in understanding where you are at with an idea, service, product, pricing etc

    … The most important thing is the separation between say an idea or a situation and the person I am interacting with. My observation is that people fail to separate their interest say in an idea or pitch from their opinion / like / dislike of the person. Instead they immediately label and pigeonhole the person (“…this idea sucks – the guy must be an idiot…”) and act accordingly by rejecting the individual instead of professionally responding to the concept while separately responding to the individual (you can like and even enjoy a relationship with a person even though all their ideas suck).
    In this culture people’s egos are much more attached to their ideas, concepts, work etc and professional criticism is misunderstood all too easily as a personal rejection or even attack.

    This is why it is so critical to always make two statements when interacting, one about the content (i.e. idea, pitch, product etc.) and a separate one about the individual. It is possible and with practice becomes easy to respond negatively to a concept but positively to the individual (“…I really don’ think your idea is going to work in this market because …. …. but you are a funny / clever / interesting guy and I like the way you think…”)

    That of course is not to say that in some cases both statements should be negative if you want to be brutally honest and role it the Klingon, ahem, German way 😉

    • Sorry for my ESL-ness the last paragraph should read…

      That of course is not to say that in some cases both statements shouldn’t be negative if you want to master the art of brutal honesty in true Klingon fashion.

  51. Yanik Silver says:

    I run several high-end peer-to-peer groups and in many ways one of the reasons these successful entrepreneurs continue with it is because there are no “YES” men or women there. Nobody there has a stake in their business or feels bad about calling them out about “being stupid”. (Not many people in their own direct sphere are willing to do this). The fact that each person there has the mutual respect of everyone else certainly helps since everyone part of the group has a certain amount of success.

    But there have also been times when we’ve been “brutally honest” but absolutely wrong because we are ‘experts’ in so many topics. To me, the only opinion that counts is the marketplace. And if you can get something out there using one of the crowdfunding platforms (i.e. kickstarter or indiegogo, etc) then you’d know if your ‘big idea’ really has a pulse or not. I’ve seen too many entrepreneurs head down a path of grueling product creation to not have the engagement they wanted. Or simply doing a small test in your marketplace (if you already have customers) and measuring what happens. I remember one meeting where we discussed a new kind of continuity and everybody thought it would never work – but it ended up being measurably more effective than anything else tried before.

  52. ahmad says:

    Good luck on your new venture 🙂

  53. Vinod’s approach is to defer entrepreneurs to his junior guy David Weiden who can tell them in classic VC style it’s “not a fit for us”

    So this post is absolute BS.

    If I am brutally honest I think you, Mike, are kissing Vinod’s ass because he invested in your fund.

  54. Brutal honesty … you’re a jerk.

    But that is why we read your stuff.

    People like to watch a train wreck

  55. Alex Hammer says:

    Good insight. Arrington is doing something right if results speak for themselves.

  56. Hongbo Zhang says:

    Mike plays his writing like “KungFu”, Hit, Hit it hard, but also defend yourself well!

  57. sanditech says:

    “Amazing. Love to hear more. Do you have a card? I’ll contact you.”…
    I was wondering what would you say next time you meet someone who has useless idea

  58. Shadowlayer says:

    Well, sometimes I wish I could tell investors:

    “Hey! those companies you invested in sucked major ass”

    Of course it’s easy to being brutally honest when you are already rich

    Otherwise you are more or less fuc#3d and you join the league of wise guys that can never set a foot in a convention again

    There are no “honest guy of the year” awards you know

  59. Shadowlayer says:

    What I’m trying to say here mike is that I have yet to see an investor doing a mea culpa for the many abysmal ideas that they funded in the past

    And in many cases the highly successful startups they thought “sucked”

    Bit the worst part is that some of those trainwrecks were funded more than once

    If they full you twice, you are the idiot

  60. Robert Blythe says:

    Perhaps Mike, unlike the executives you normally wont let BS you on stage, you’ve been fooled by Khosla? His brutal honesty bit maybe only extends to being a jerk to startup founders. Ask him for some of his own honesty around the Martin’s Beach topic? Because while I’ve never met Vinod in the startup world, he seems to be the one responsible for closing off one of the bay areas best beaches. For a guy that seems to be your high water mark for honesty, he seems to have gone to awfully great lengths to hide his real estate dealings from the public.
    Maybe Vinod is full of it, and that’s the real reason that entrepreneurs consider him an a$$.
    Disclosure: I’ve never met the man but I have been to Martin’s beach before he locked the gates and I consider the move rather uncool.

  61. Tara Gowland says:

    “Smile fucked” – my new fave – brilliant!

  62. Jeff Johnson says:

    Keep doing. Go deep or dont bother. I have a phrase response i had to use all to often –

    Ask cogent pointed question
    get back utter shallow crap.
    respond with:

    “fuck you very much” … (deliver with a smile, nod, pause)

    repeat question.

    These days i am better off, the people i deal with are of a higher quality.

  63. Matthew Cassinelli says:

    I like this style of discussion. It’s very Socratic in nature. People always seem to lose focus of the question and get mixed with emotional responses and defending themselves instead of actually answering.

    Socrates often questioned his peers this way and was forced to drink hemlock. I see a mirror to Arrington’s exit from TechCrunch 🙂

  64. I always was interested in this subject and still am, thankyou for putting up.

  65. Thanks for giving me a blog to read again.

  66. This is so great, I’m starting to be pity this. Facebook here you come!

  67. Ricky Wong says:

    ‘Carol Bartz gets so frustrated with my attempts to penetrate through the haze of bullshit that she yells “so fuck off!”’

    I thought Carol Bartz handled it very well. She made a valid point that even after Jobs come back to Apple, it took them few years to get an iPod out.

    If your point is that you feel Yahoo is missing a certain ‘unique personality’ with its products (and by extension its brand) then why not just ask her that? Ask if Yahoo were a person, what makes him/her standout in a party?

  68. Spot on. I definitely always prefer getting honest negative feedback to dishonest flattery. In fact, I take criticism much better then I take compliments. Criticism is productive and arming, while compliments are disarming and counter productive.

  69. mark says:

    dishonest flattery hurts both parties. I vote for honest negative feedback as long as it isn’t in the prose of an attack. if you don’t care about the person than that is a different situation

  70. You’re using my photograph of Vinod without attribution. I assume you picked it up from Vinod’s Wikipedia page where it has a CC-BY license which requires attribution. It’s the same license you use on your Flickr stream, so I assume you’re familiar with it.

    • Michael Arrington says:

      sorry about that, i should have taken more time researching the ownership of the image. I’ve removed it from the post.

      • Interesting response. I’m curious, why didn’t you just attribute it and be done? After all, I pointed out that the use was without attribution, but didn’t make any particular demand.

        • Michael Arrington says:

          Attribute it where? I have no idea where I even found the photo in the first place. Seemed easier to just remove it since you seem to be the owner and aren’t happy. If you want to send me a link to the photo I’ll add a link and an apology. Then, hopefully, we can move on with our lives. Ok?

        • Michael Arrington says:

          ah, just clicked through your site to your blog and I see the post. I apologize for using your image without your permission and without attribution. I should have spent way more time researching where the image came from. Unless you have some further complaint now that the image has been removed, I think this exchange is over.

  71. Shankar says:

    I came here to paste this link and I see Duncan Davidson has clearly stated the point.

    Right attribution should be given.

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