Has tech forgotten how to listen?

Several months ago, my co-founder Sabrina and I were pitching our company Pollie to an accelerator. Our lead interviewer was a fairly well-known individual in the tech community. Within the first few moments of discussion they told us that they had just read an article about endometriosis, a hormone-related condition for which our current tool helped people find specialists.

At first we were thrilled. Explaining the massive problem that is polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, and amenorrhea in terms of prevalence and available healthcare resources is a difficult thing to do when the external party has had no personal experience or previous understanding of one of these conditions.

But it then became obvious that this situation was barreling into one of our least favorite traps: speaking with someone who thinks they are an expert in an area after reading a single article, and having blinders on to anyone who tells them otherwise.

Trendspotting is idolized in tech. But can it go too far?

The person who had read the article had developed the opinion that a model that enabled quick prescription-based consultations was the best path for treating endometriosis, a disorder that never goes away and frequently does not respond to medication at all.

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They did not understand why we were pivoting away from being a transactional marketplace in favor of developing a digital programmatic tool that enabled us to own all aspects of the patient journey. While they did not have any digital health experience themselves, they repeatedly referred to successful e-pharmacy and on-demand consult players and questioned why we were not adopting this model.

Now, I do not have endometriosis. But I do have PCOS, another hormone-related chronic issue that is similarly difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to properly manage. I have lived with this condition for the past decade of my life, and I deeply understand many of the systemic issues within our healthcare system that makes finding treatment for conditions like PCOS and endometriosis so difficult. So on a personal level, this was a frustrating moment.

On a business level it was also frustrating. Our decision to tackle the problem of female hormone imbalances with a programmatic tool was a thoughtful process that leveraged learnings from our hundreds of beta users as well as input from dozens of women’s health specialists. What we heard for months was a unanimous plea: when it comes to chronic hormone issues, patients (and their practitioners) are in need of a solution that brings together conventional and holistic treatment strategies with the overarching goal of making a fragmented patient journey more cohesive.

And to achieve this, a transactional tool does not cut it.

Despite explaining this during our interview, pushback ensued. The lead interviewer remained lasered in on questioning why we were not pursuing their preferred business model of quick prescriptions for hormone issues like PCOS, eating up precious interview time and claiming at one point that the “customer’s opinion does not matter.”

In short, this interviewer was not the best listener. And the conversation suffered as a result.

We (perhaps obviously) were not accepted into this particular accelerator, but this article is by no means intended to be about a single pitch. This anecdote is a mere symptom of a much larger issue at play: we idolize trendspotting in tech, and this is hindering our ability to listen.

Leveraging metaphors and trends can be helpful, but it’s not enough for a quality investment discussion.

As a former consultant and VC analyst, not to mention a government major (I know, I know), I love trends. I care about how things work on a high level, and in most cases, that is enough for me to find satisfaction. With the exception of obsessively hunting down my favorite discontinued running shoes on eBay and fawning over the latest women’s health research, I really am not that detail oriented. Wince.

That’s all to say that I non-ironically appreciate sweeping generalizations. They certainly come in handy, particularly when you are deep in a space or need to understand something quickly.

But there is a limit when it comes to the functionality of trend reliance. Having now sat on both sides of the investor table, I understand this viscerally.

There are two types of trend idolizers we’ve come across in the past year:

  1. The know-it-alls: This is what we experienced in the aforementioned pitch anecdote. There is a tendency to apply trends from other markets onto companies of all types and stages, and with good reason: as an investor, this is undoubtedly a more efficient way to find companies whose models already align with your worldview. And it works, if you are looking to add portfolio companies that fit your predesignated mold. But if taken too far, staying true to one’s market metaphors can quickly result in an inflexible way of viewing the world and the future. Surround yourself with what you know, and you will stay what you know.
  2. The bandwagoners: It’s 2021, and many investors are maniacally trying to add a women’s health company to their portfolios. It is painfully evident when we enter a conversation with a fund who wants to add a check-the-box femtech company for diversity reasons, or because they have read enough articles about femtech being the next hot thing. We have been shocked by the proportion of VCs who immediately compared us to other women’s health companies that are non-competitive to what we are doing just because we both happen to serve female populations. Until an investor has taken the time to truly understand the depth of a market (and for a space as vast as women’s health, that should take quite a bit of time), this dynamic is difficult to avoid.

While these are common VC personas we’ve met along Pollie’s journey, let it be noted that we have met with many investors who do not fall into either of the above buckets. Enter the two types of proactive conversationalists:

  1. The prepared minds: Conversations develop an entirely different tone if a firm has been developing meaningful specific theses within femtech or if they have firsthand experience with a complex chronic condition like hormone, autoimmune, or digestive disorders. This is only natural. Founders live and breathe in their markets, and the closer another party is to that level of immersion, the more a conversation will flow to the difficult and important topics that a founder should already be thinking about. Ego can still creep in here, of course, but at least from a place of greater relevance.
  2. The keen listeners: Even more importantly than possessing deep knowledge about a space, discussions follow a productive path if an investor enters a conversation willing to learn. Some of our best discussions have been with male investors who have never heard of PCOS prior to opening up our Zoom line. The commonality with all conversations like this? These investors are exceptional listeners who ask productive questions along the way. They conduct conversation in a style intended to broaden their understanding of our vision and positioning rather than pigeon hole our company into a preconceived notion of what they think we should be. They may offer up parallel markets or companies to better understand how we are going about things, but they do not put their comparisons on a pedestal. They do not idolize the trends they believe in. In other words, they are humble.

While quality investor discussions of course exist, they are unfortunately not a given. Which brings us to the conclusion: how can tech, most pertinently venture, re-learn how to listen?

If tech wants to improve its listening skills, it needs a reminder of what it means to be humble.

Prior to starting Pollie, I worked at a venture firm that included humility as one of its core values. While VC was not the most natural fit for me — at this point in life, anyway — this really did set this fund apart. When people ask about my time spent there, I immediately speak to the integrity and genuineness of the team, which nearly always results in a jaw drop or two.

I valued this firm’s devotion to humility not only because this value lends itself to trust, growth, and authentic human connection — but because tactfully, it allowed for listening.

I am a firm believer that humility is a prerequisite for real listening. We may think we can listen with an inflated ego, but in reality the two do not go together. And fostering humility is difficult when tech so blatantly reveres trendspotting, outlandish contrarian opinions, and the people who tout them. It is only human for one to knight their perception as fact if thousands of Twitter followers have been applauding their two-sentence analyses for years.

And even for those of us who don’t have a significant Twitter or newsletter following (*raises hand*), the way Silicon Valley subconsciously defines success insinuates that the way to “make it” in venture or startup life is through spewing hot takes and holding true to one’s principles no matter the cost.

Principles are important, but they become problematic when we become hesitant to pressure test them. Unless one consistently self-questions whether their opinions and principles remain true and relevant for a given situation, what ultimately develops is narrow-mindedness. And such rigidity and blinders, by default, fosters ego and inhibits growth.

From an investment standpoint, this shows up most poignantly when a fund is meeting a company that plays in a new-to-them space. When it comes to assessing a market that you are unfamiliar with, lacking humility to check oneself is a one-way ticket to an unproductive conversation in which the two parties are conversing on two different planes entirely.

If humility and listening skills are lacking on the VC end of the table, in most situations an investor’s echo chamber of preexisting thoughts will trump any valuable learnings they could have learned from the company. Many times, a founder does know their own market best, and humility enables investors to make the important judgment call of when it is time to sit back and learn.

Of course, the inverse of this is true as well: entrepreneurs must also be humble. Founders often have blind spots about their own market, business model, or product, and acknowledging said blind spots is imperative. This is perhaps easier said for someone like myself, a first-time female founder, than for those who have proven themselves previously. But no matter how many wins one has had, humility continues to be a powerful prerequisite for development and connection.

So please, startupland, ventureville, and big tech. Let’s start seeking humility and listening skills and take a step back from glorifying trendspotters who haphazardly throw around market metaphors. If we all did that, particularly those influential individuals who possess a top-down impact, we’ll surely find more quality connections and amplified growth along the way.

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Pollie co-founder. Ask me about women’s health, running, and Jung (yes, I’m one of those).