Small Businesses and Startups: Worst. Advice. Ever.

A few weeks ago I wrote about New Year ‘s resolutions for small businesses, but the other day I realized I had left one out. This one is not an action item, nor an intellectual exercise. It is at once very simple, but also incredibly difficult, especially when under pressure to get a new business off the ground to improve performance in an existing one. It is this: learn to differentiate between good advice and bad. And once you have mastered the skill of identifying bad advice, develop a second skill: the ability to discount and reject it.

Everyone who has ever launched a business has been subjected to the clamor that arises from well intentioned investors, family, friends, and casual cocktail-party-type acquaintances. Each of them has a pearl of wisdom, a relevant anecdote, or a driving reason why you should do this or should not do that. Each of them is absolutely certain that, if you follow their sage advice, your business will rocket to the stars, Google will acquire it for $1.7 billion, and your success will be forever assured. While some of their advice may actually be of interest, you will assuredly reject the majority of it as coming from someone who doesn’t understand your business, your market, and your customers.

We have all been on the receiving end of this advice, so in this article I am going to share with you some of the worst business advice ever given. Here then, are 5 pieces of bad advice I have been given, and my reasons for rejecting each:

1. Your Idea Won’t WorkEveryone has an opinion, and it is incredible how often you wil be told that your idea for a new business simply won’t work. People seem to love sharing this feedback, perhaps because it helps them to feel smarter or more powerful. In startups you need to trust your own opinion, and you need to back it up with research. Do your homework, provide your own skepticism, question your own biases, but trust yourself and the homework you do to answer that question for yourself.

2. Faster Is Always BetterSpeed to market is critical for many startups, and many of us tout our ability to iterate quickly, our flexibility in managing our business, and our potential to pivot when the market demands it. But speed is not always of the essence, and business owners need to understand that often it is best to take the time to ponder a decision, sleep on a proposal, or throughly debate an issue. Everything has its place, speed included, but faster is definitely not always better.

3. If you want it done right, then do it yourselfThe most valuable commodity that an entrepreneur has is time. Time to think, time to act, time to execute. Managing your time is critical to the success of your business and one of the best ways to do this is to delegate. Hire talented people, train them well, then launch them into the world by delegating to them work which your personal capacity constraints simply does not allow you to perform. To grow your business, you will inevitably have to grow your team and that inescapable fact means that you will have to trust others to do the work. The best advice I have seen on this topic was in a post Ross wrote last year: don’t be afraid to delegate, but make sure that you get your own hands dirty before handing off that task.

4. I Can Teach You Everything. One trap that many entrepreneurs fall into is the mentor-snare. We meet someone who seems wise, experienced, and thoughtful. Someone who exudes confidence and tells us that they can teach us everything we need to know. While there is great value in having trusted mentors and teachers, be wary that you don’t become enmeshed in the ideas and advice offered by someone whose experience may not be appropriate, whose wisdom may run thin, and whose confidence could be misplaced. Trust yourself, trust your instincts, and trust your hard work to answer the question of whether another person’s advice is worthy of acting upon. My advice? Learn from lots of people, but take care that you don’t become overly dependent on just one.

5. Play it safe. By its very nature entrepreneurism is risky and I believe the risk should be embraced, not avoided. The trick it to do everything you can to mitigate the risk and to improve your odds of success. Do your homework, hire the best talent you can find, keep expenses as low as possible, and keep it simple. The lean startup movement has taught us a great deal about how to limit our risk while bringing a product to market, and the unstated message is to never play it safe.

Photo: Gregory Taylor