Startup founders are advice magnets. Friends, family, investors, self-proclaimed experts and pundits, users and customers all like to share their two cents worth.
Most founders I know do their best to balance this advice against their vision but it’s not easy.
A thread on LinkedIn brought this issue to light and people from across the advice spectrum weighted in. Those on the sidelines argued that diversity of perspective is important. Founder’s said that the quality of advice from those without ‘garage experience’ is highly variable at best and that they rely on themselves to filter out the noise.
I side with the latter argument as do many of my colleagues and mentees. Yet screening for advice amidst the noise remains a daily challenge. This is because founder’s don’t have all the answers all the time and insights can come from the strangest of sources. This paradox usually manifests through a fear of missing out (FOMO) or the ‘need to please’.
FOMO is a fine balance of curiosity and paranoia but often favours the latter.
The ‘need to please’ plays out where a perceived power imbalance exists. In the context of entrepreneurship, that perception comes from one party (investors) appearing to have more experience or capital than the other party (founders). And in order to access more experience and capital, using the thesis that more of both will accelerate growth, founders tend of over index the importance placed on advice from these people.
These two emotions are real and increase a founder’s advice surface area but that doesn’t help with screening for noise.
Avoiding advice doesn’t work
An alarm sounds in my mind when I hear founders say things like ‘we know our product best’ in the context of receiving advice.
It suggests they are overwhelmed with advice or have decided to stop listening because they think they know best.
In either case, the quality of their decision making and consequently their rate of learning is about to stall if it hasn’t already. And that’s not a good thing given a major superpower of entrepreneurs is their rate of learning.
I also know that perspective and fatigue also influence the extent to which founders are willing to receive and act on advice. The less perspective and the more tired a founder is, the lower their bandwidth is to process any kind of advice. The opposite is also true.
That said, I know that advice will always be a core ingredient to an entrepreneur’s rate of learning. And to deal with the rollercoaster which we all ride, I have come to rely on a framework to rapidly triage advice and arrive at the inputs that matter.
I use three questions to triage advice. I apply them to unrequited advice as much as the counsel I seek from friends, colleagues and mentors. The objective is to screen out the noise and over time this framework has become less process and more instinct.
And while I’m a lot quicker to call B/S on poor advice and more effective at putting the high-quality advice to work, I keep an open mind to advice wild cards. These are the one in ten comments or insights that might be worth listening to. I keep an open mind because history has taught me that relying on absolute beliefs can be dangerous.
1. Have they been in the trenches?
I have a strong bias for listening to operators, those people who have built businesses, been beaten up (figuratively) and have had the grit to keep going.
Nine times out of ten these people bring rich, empathic and action-oriented insight to the table.
People who offer advice without ever having tried to build a business won’t often get past this step. If these same people come with the label of ‘business’ or ‘innovation’ coach, it’s an immediate game over.
2. Why are they offering the advice?
Magic happens when incentives are aligned. People who pass the first test will often offer genuine insight and help because they can empathise with your situation. And more often than not, they would prefer to spare someone the pain they went through.
These people may also consider the act of offering advice as a relationship development opportunity. That’s a good thing because they may come back to you for help at some point in the future.
Consider the alternative. If someone’s incentive to engage is to make money (directly or indirectly), the advice is likely to be less useful.
3. Will it increase my rate of learning?
This is the most important question of this framework.
Think about the last piece of advice you received. If you followed through with it, would it help you learn more about your customers, your users, your team and culture, your market opportunity, your profitability or your sales processes?
And if the answer is YES, how quickly could you quickly make a course correction to realise the value of what you learned?
If the answer is ‘a matter of days’ given your competing priorities, then the advice is probably worth accepting.
Two last things …
While the right mentors will always be an essential ingredient to a founders success, the other great support structure is other founders. Create value-first relationships with founders who have been there before. I don’t mean indiscriminately friending people on Facebook or sending contextless invitations to connect on LinkedIn. I mean having the patience to invest in building deep relationships. The ones that result in support being a two-way street, whenever it’s needed.
The last point relates to thoughtful disagreement. It’s a principle I learned from Ray Dalio’s book called Principles – Life & Work. The underlying intent of his message is that being clear on your principles will help you succeed and become better at failing. His view on thoughtful disagreement focused on the idea of listening and being motivated by a genuine fear of missing important perspectives.
I use Ray’s advice to stay reminded of the value that advice can bring, be it a wildcard or guidance from people I trust or those more experienced in the craft.
At the end of the day, founders will keep being bombarded with advice. How you triage advice can make all the difference and I hope this approach helps you too.