In the entrepreneurial world we live in, giving and receiving advice is an interesting conundrum. It can either paralyze you by pulling you in a million different directions or accelerate your company’s growth in ways you never thought of before. This post is my advice on navigating advice.
I have been giving a lot of advice lately. I like doing it because it makes me feel like I am connecting the lessons and experiences from my two technology startups (Strangeloop and IronPoint) to people that hopefully can shortcut their learning curves.
I have also experienced receiving advice from the entrepreneurs’ perspective. I have had a big hotshot startup guy siting in front of me and talking non-stop about what I am doing wrong or what I should be focusing on. There are also those rare moments when someone points out my blind spot and with one sentence or a question accelerates my company by leaps and bounds.
Lately at GrowLab, I started to think about advice from a new perspective: As a neutral third party observer. I listen to multiple people give our cohort companies advice and then observe how they filter and make use of this advice.
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This new perspective has raised some questions that I hadn’t really thought of before. As a technology startup founder (especially as a first-timer) what the hell do you say to that confident, experienced and successful person dishing their strong opinions about what you should or should not do with your business?
It becomes more difficult when that person leaves and another equally high profile person sits in the same seat and offers their advice as well, advice that is the exact opposite of what the first hotshot tells you.
As a first-timer you want to defer to these successful people; you want another meeting or their connections, you want them to invest in your company. In the accelerator model with multiple mentors coming in and out, you have an additional challenge. You want the accelerator to think highly of you and give recommendations to that seed funding that you so desperately need.
What do you do then?
Here is my advice on taking advice: Context is really important. You need to quickly filter any advice you get into one of three categories:
This is the gold standard of advice. This type of advice comes from someone who lives (or has lived) in your space, knows your buyer and your competitors. I have found that this advice tends to be the most specific, actionable and unfortunately the most negative.
It is negative because the grass is always greener on the other side and every business is a struggle. It is negative because this person has fought in the trenches and the advisor is likely jaded about the prospects of your small startup breaking into their world.
This is a fancy name for something that someone has done in a different business/industry that is directly transferable to your business. Things like HR or management related issues, finance, or sales (if the sales model is similar) are good examples.
In this category of advice you want to be careful that you are asking a lot of detailed questions about the context around the advice being given. For example, if someone is giving you advice about building or scaling your sales team, you need to understand what sales model they used, the deal size and the sales cycle to really see if the advice is relevant and applicable to your business.
This is the dangerous category of advice – one that many entrepreneurs mistaken for Domain Expertise or Transferable Expertise.
The most important weapon in you arsenal when you aren’t sure whether an advice is opinion or expertise is to ask a simple and powerful question: “Can you give me an example?” A person’s depth and wealth of knowledge on a certain topic becomes apparent when you dive deeper. If you remain unsure, sprinkle in some questions that you already know the answer to is a powerful way to see how much BS is emanating from your advisor’s mouth.
At the end of the day the best advice that I can give is “listener beware”. You are the person who knows the most about your business. Many well-intentioned advisors are happy to talk about their opinions for as long as you are willing to listen. Qualify and triangulate your advice from multiple sources quickly so that you aren’t led astray. Never forget that this is your company and you are going to need to live with the consequences of your decisions.
Jonathan Bixby is the executive director of GrowLab. Read his thoughts here or follow him on Twitter at @JonathanBixby.