Indianapolis Needs More Critics

I saw a handful of negative comments toward Formstack pop up on Twitter last Friday from a critic. I was a bit startled at first, but welcomed the dialogue and was glad we had the opportunity to respond publicly. Even though I ultimately think most of what he wanted was impractical, we came away learning something, and there’s a possibility that we’ll be able to apply that towards improving our service down the road.

There are few things I want more for Indianapolis than for us to fulfill our dream of becoming a city known for its web-based software companies. Foremost, we need a solid cache of thriving companies to fit that bill, and we’re well on our way to accomplishing that. But in addition to the cheerleaders, champions and evangelists, we need a healthy supply of vocal critics.

Cheerleading comes natural to most of us, especially when we want companies to succeed. Being a critic is a lot harder — we don’t want to turn potential customers away from a company, and we don’t want to offend owners and employees that we have relationships with. But we’re not going to grow if we’re all cheerleaders.

Criticism helps us build better businesses.

No company is without its faults, but in many cases owners and employees are way too close to the business to clearly see glaring issues. It’s often that the only way these issues will ever come to light is through seeing public criticism. At the very least, public criticism gives companies an opportunity to respond and debunk criticisms that may have otherwise been silently turning away customers anyway. For example, Facebook changed their terms of use because of widespread criticisms about privacy issues, and Twitter has many times been able to calm outrage about repeated downtime by publicly responding with details about their architecture and plans for improvement.

Criticism creates more interesting dialogue.

Saccharine posts that do nothing but praise the virtues of a company hardly ever fully engage readers and spread virally. They’re good to see from time-to-time, but the more people we have engaged in dialogue, the more customers we reach.

This is hardly scientific, but for giggles I culled a list of the most commented articles on the 37signals blog in the past year. In order, they are: Why the Drudge Report is one of the best designed sites on the web, Every Mac I’ve owned has failed, Get Satisfaction, Or Else…, Happy Birthday - Basecamp Turns Five!, and The next generation bends over. Even though the overwhelming majority of posts from 37signals are positive (yes, it’s true — count them yourself), three critical ones made it into the top five. It’s also interesting to note that one of the five was positive, but about something that most people are critical about. My point is just to show that readers tend to be more engaged in dialogue that involves criticism, even (especially?) if they don’t always agree.

Criticism prepares us for a broader audience.

If we’re not ready to hear from critics in our backyard, especially from friends, we won’t be ready at all if someone with a big audience tears us a new one. If we’re unprepared for dealing with broader criticism, it’ll be harder for our companies to flourish outside of Indianapolis, and doesn’t paint our city in a good light to outsiders.

The truth is that critics are already here, we just need to bring them to the forefront. There are scores of Indianapolis companies who are using online forms, an email marketing platform, blogging software, a content management system and a virtualized data center … but aren’t using Indianapolis companies for any of those things. I really take no issue with that (especially since I’m guilty of this to a big degree), but do take issue with those who silently vote with their wallets and refer others elsewhere without making their concerns known.

We have a lot of great software companies in Indianapolis, but each company has its problems that turn customers away — hard to use, too expensive, bad customer support, buggy software, etc. It seems polite, even helpful, to keep quiet, but in the end it helps us improve our companies by voicing criticism and bringing issues to the forefront for those who can make changes that matter.

[Updated references to Formstack to prevent confusion about the name change]

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