May 22nd, 2019 | By: Wil Schroter
There's a ton of risk in taking startup advice from "advisors".
It's not that the advisors themselves are bad people — they tend to be very well-intentioned folks. It's that most advice tends to be dispensed out of context, with very little digging on behalf of the advisor, and delivered in a way to assume what they have suggested is the gospel.
It's time to stop simply taking startup advice, and instead start calibrating whether the advice we're getting is even relevant to begin with. Because more often than not, the advice we're getting from our trusted advisors is just flat out wrong.
And what’s worse? We don’t even think to question it.
The likelihood of finding advice that is absolutely aligned with our situation is, well, pretty unlikely. Unless the person giving advice was previously doing our job, at our company, with our product, and somewhat recently, it stands to reason that the advice we're about to get is out of context.
And that's a dangerous place to be.
For example, let's say I'm your advisor and I suggest you should spend the bulk of your capital on Facebook marketing. I might explain that it's how I grew my business quickly, and therefore you should do the same. By default, I'm 100% right about how it worked for my business. But that doesn't necessarily mean it applies to yours.
Here are all the ways this falls apart quickly:
At first glance, you may think my advice is great. But it isn't until you start unpacking all the subtle nuances in a context that separated my business and moment in time from yours. Now all of a sudden my advice seems pretty off the mark.
And frankly, it usually is.
For every piece of advice, we have to constantly calibrate the source of the advice with our own present situation and decide if any of the advice we’re getting should even be considered.
No advice should be considered absolute.
There's something incredibly empowering as an advisor to say "You must do this! I hath decreed it!" — then watch your humble Founder servant do your bidding. But once again, that's just the sign of a shitty advisor.
A good advisor will lead with a few consistent caveats:
It's not the advisor's job to direct a Founder like an employee. A good advisor, one with a bit of rightful humility, will recognize that everyone's path is a bit different and that it’s their job to simply empower the Founder with more options to choose from.
The moment an advisor feels compelled to force their will upon you, or gets offended that you don't simply take orders accordingly, it's a sign that you're dealing with a bad advisor.
The only way to give good advice is to ask lots of questions.
A good advisor is like a doctor trying to diagnose as many potential symptoms as possible (re: asking good questions) before arriving at a prognosis. Most advisors, unfortunately, don't do this, out of either laziness, lack of sincere interest, or pure ego — and sometimes all of the above!
If once again you've called me in as your advisor and explained your business to me, and within 5 minutes I'm already telling you how you should run the company — you should run for the hills. If I were your doctor, and you came to me with a cough, and within 5 minutes I told you that you've got terminal cancer, you shouldn't seek therapy, you should seek a better doctor!
It's absolutely fair and responsible to suggest to an advisor that there are probably some additional questions they may want to ask, or volunteer more context whenever you're seeking advice. If they don't have any interest in digging in, it's a sure sign that they aren't ready to give complete, targeted advice.
As a side note, investors are notoriously bad about this.
They have a nasty habit of looking at a business in an industry they’re totally unfamiliar with and dispensing absolute outcomes as if they were Nostradamus. If they aren't asking good questions, they aren't delivering good advice — no matter how big their checkbook is!
Our job as Founders isn't to seek advice that we can simply apply unfiltered. That's irresponsible. Our job is to seek as many data points as possible and then unpack those data points so that we can compare them.
We need to question every bit of advice and we also need to question the source. We need to be sure that whom we're seeking advice from is exactly the right fit for the problem we’re trying to solve, and weight that advice accordingly.
The onus is on us to constantly ask "How qualified is this advice?" We need to overlook whether the person dispensing it has amazing credentials and ask ourselves whether they seem to have done a solid investigation on our business. If not, we need to factor that into the quality and reliability of the advice.
The only way to truly take great advice is to question all of our advice thoroughly. It's not our job to take orders from advisors, it's our job to learn from them and determine our own marching orders.
That's why, you know, we're the Founders.
Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes Bizplan, Clarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.