It’s easy to prescribe the harsh medicine and tell them to their face, but I have a colleague who is a great engineer and not some person with just a bad idea and no talent. He made a nice-looking MVP very easily, but I don’t think it solves much of a problem, nor are there tons of people who would use this. I know people are very protective of their ideas, and I don’t want to hurt his feelings. Has anyone had this unfortunate experience before? How do you break the news and do it in a constructive way where you’re not just telling the person that you think their idea is rubbish?
Tell him to do a market analysis he'll come around right afterwards
For every idea that one thinks is bogus, there are 100s of people that will think that it is great. There are thousands of bad startups (according to me) that get funded. To be constructive, I'd offer advise about what is working about the idea and then pose 'would be' questions to make him think about the perceived deficiencies.
This is complicated. I've been at many companies, I've sat down w/ multiple people and told them their idea didn't have legs. They went out, raised money, and promptly fell flat on their face. Over and over again. Here's the thing: you may be wrong. You may be one of the voices of discouragement they have to ignore in order to succeed. I think first off, you have to be humble about it. If you really want to be persuasive, gather some real evidence, find a white paper, make an appeal to some other authority to make your case about why you believe their time is better spent elsewhere. If you care about the colleague, do some real research. You're at your best when you're helping somebody gather information (which may qualify or disqualify a product direction), not when you're just proclaiming an opinion that you think the product is crap. Perhaps suggest a different direction that research indicates is more promising. I think framing these discussions around "what's the best idea in a relevant space" rather than "this idea is crap" leaves people w/ a better taste in their mouth.
I would walk your colleague through the criteria for attracting investment, partners, customers, and employees: e.g., the elements of a pitch deck, with some lean startup thrown in. Instead of making conclusions (e.g., "rubbish", "bad idea"), ask him questions that allow him to draw them (or not) for himself. If you stick to facts and industry standards, you don't have to get into the unproductive territory of "harsh medicine" and hurt feelings.
He has an MVP, have him test it, and not just the functionality but the revenue stream as well (eg. How much would you pay for this? Really? Can I sign you up now?). One persons niche is another's major market. Nothing like real market feedback to correct his (or your) perceptions.
If he is as smart as you say then this is a "teachable moment" but probably best done by asking questions than by making statements. By asking him questions, he has the opportunity to come to the conclusion that you may have already drawn. For example, "This looks really cool. What problem were you trying to solve that you didn't see any other product solving? How did you come up with your solution and why is better than what's out there already? Who is your target customer? Have you shown your MVP to any of these customers? Have you done user tests to get their feedback? " If he says "no", which is pretty typical, then see if he would be willing to do user tests. (There is a really excellent product that we use called "lookback.io" which will allow you to record user tests or usertesting.com if it's a commercial product and you need to easily find users to test.) The point is, try to get him to shift focus from the product to the customer. You don't have to be the bearer of bad news. Also, he (and you) will probably learn something during those tests. He may be onto something but his implementation may not be focused correctly. Best of luck!
I think the best course of action is to tell them to their face. You don't have to be (and should actively strive not to be) 'harsh'. But you need to give them the reasons that you don't believe the idea will fly. You will be saving them more hurt from falling flat if you give them false hope and they go out and find out from harsher critics. Additionally you may be saving them money and time that could be used to better purposes.
The most important aspect of giving criticism is giving it out of respect and concern for the person you're helping.Giving difficult feedback in a respectful way is the kindest thing you can do. If you show respect and care for the person, the difficult conversation can be fruitful. Also, be as specific with your feedback as possible. Empty critiques like "This won't work", or "There's not much of a market for this." are not helpful. Asking leading questions can be a good way to break through as well. "Who do you see as your market? Why do you believe they will need this product? Have you tested that premise with user interviews?" $100 spent on a google survey can often be worth more than thousands of $ spent on a useless MVP.
I don't say the idea is bad. I go over the basic points as an investor and walk through each component e.g. market size, problem solved, business model, financials, team, competitive advantage and team. I think it does a disservice to a friend or anyone else to outright say that the idea is a lousy idea. Just witness how many people passed on Amazon, Facebook, Uber, AirBnb and a host of others. It may also be a bad idea today but as some things change, the idea may become more relevant. I would rather suggest ways to make it better or more palatable. The more things you raise the higher the probability is that your colleague will get the point that the idea has severe issues.
That said, if it is so clear that the idea is really bad because you know there is competition that will win or because the social mores will not accept the idea or something similar, you just say: " I don't believe the idea will fly given a, b, c, and d."
It rarely works to tell someone their idea is bad. Besides, how do you know? But you might know if the market for it is bad.
First, I suggest you ask them whether they are interested in hearing input. Then, ask whether they want polite, supportive input, or sincere, critical, evaluative, potentially helpful input that may sound harsh. If they don't welcome the second option, disengage. You will be wasting your time.
If they do, better to ask them questions that help them see issues that they can research that need scrutiny: What need does it meet? How intense is the demand? What is the market size? What competition exists? What evidence do you have that people want it? How do you know the price is realistic? Will people pay that much? How do they know? You get the idea.
Let him come up with the objections himself and develop answers. Remind them that picking the right project to work on is the most important decision. Have they done that? Have they considered other projects, or just gone with the first thing that comes to mind?
Most new products and companies fail first because the market don't exhibit intense existing demand. So that is initially the most important issue to illuminate.