How To Avoid Bad Advice That Can Kill Your Small Business Or Startup


In a recent post, Ev Williams (co-founder of Twitter, Blogger and Medium), suggested that all startup advice is  wrong (presumably, including his own post on this subject). Ev pointed out that what works for one entrepreneur/company doesn’t necessarily work for others:

Companies are not built in a lab. We are unable to run Monte Carlo simulations. And there are way too many variables and too much randomness for anyone to claim that if you add ingredient X or do A then B then C it will work.

Despite his belief that all startup advice is wrong, Ev suggested that you should read startup advice anyway, because you’ll discover new ideas and find inspiration:

Reading about success doesn’t make you successful, but it does tend to make you want to be successful. That’s important. We benefit from positive models that show us what’s possible and make us want to think bigger, work harder, and keep trying—especially when the going gets tough.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about this issue. I mentor other entrepreneurs informally and also through TechStars (Chicago) and Founder Institute. Sometimes, when giving feedback to entrepreneurs, I sense a great deal of frustration – often because most entrepreneurs receive feedback from dozens of different people, often offering conflicting advice.

There is no shortage of startup advice. A quick search on Quora, for example, reveals lots of good questions and answers on the topic. A search on Google shows there are over 54 million results containing the terms startup and advice (a smaller number, about 287,000, containing the phrase “startup advice”).

It’s refreshing for young entrepreneurs to receive advice, especially from successful people they admire. But how do you filter out the noise, focus on good advice, and ignore advice that can kill your business?

Dharmesh Shah, Founder and CTO at HubSpot and Blogger at wrote in a recent post on this topic:

Never automatically discount a message simply because you discount the messenger. And never automatically accept a message simply because you admire or respect the messenger.

Dharmesh is right – we should evaluate the quality of the advice, not the person offering the advice. But that doesn’t resolve the dilemma most young entrepreneurs face – how do you reconcile conflicting advice from people they admire.

Here are four questions that can help you separate good advice from bad advice:

1. Does the advice include actionable steps? Many people are quick to advise, but few provide actionable steps to help you execute. When given the opportunity, ask the person offering advice for more details – this will test whether they truly understand what they are talking about (based on experience) or merely read it in an article somewhere.

When I offer advice in the crowdSPRING Blog, such as in my recent article on How Your Small Business or Startup Can Hire A Good Lawyer, I always try to include actionable steps and examples.

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2. Why is the person offering you advice? We assume that many people offer advice because they are motivated by altruism towards us. But this isn’t true when the advice is common knowledge, such as advice offered in a blog post or article (the advice isn’t specifically for you – it’s general advice for many people). Often, general advice is useful. For example, my article 10 Tips for Startups and Small Businesses on Naming Your Company is general advice. Still, there’s (I believe) good insight in that article that will benefit many entrepreneurs.

Even when the advice is offered specifically to you in a conversation, you still should question whether the person is offering advice to help you or merely saying things that make them look smart (this often happens at startup pitching sessions).

3. How costly will the advice be to test? Talk is cheap, and that’s why you receive a lot of advice. Is there a way you can minimally test the advice you receive? For example, I recently wrote about ways that business owners can apply lean startup principles to marketing and test ideas in small batches. If you can quickly and inexpensively test the advice you receive without risking harm or disruption to your business, you can develop a good practical way to evaluate the advice you receive.

4. How can you triangulate contradictory advice? Sometimes, the best way to deal with the noise and contradictions is to simply share the contradictory advice with both people and invite feedback. For example, if one person tells you that you should create a mobile app only and the other says you should focus on web only (and avoid mobile initially), write an email to both people saying how much you value their advice, but invite some feedback on how to reconcile the conflict. Often, you’ll get some further great insight that will help you decide how to proceed.

image credit: Mario Tome

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