How to Take Advice that Won’t Torpedo Your Startup

Advice is cheap to give, but expensive to take. It costs “experts” nothing to tell you what to do with your startup, but you pay the price if you do it and they’re wrong.

The best founders see this truth and seek advice regardless.

In a world where advice is dangerous and abundant, how do founders choose who to listen to? When do they take advice, and how?

If you have a problem with your startup, should you talk to the investor who’s never started a company but funded the most successful startups in the world? Or the founder who has only built one successful startup?

If you're seeking weight loss advice, would you go to a fat physical trainer whose clients have lost tons of weight, or your most physically fit friend who was once obese and has since dropped hundreds of pounds?

Many people advise to choose the person who was successful in weight loss themselves. But, the answer, surprisingly, is it depends.

VCs can see a lot of things, but only the surface.
Founders can only see one thing, but they see all of it.

So before you seek out and take advice from both VCs and founders, keep these 10 principles in mind:

#1 The person you go to for advice is thinking about you and your problem a lot less than you are.

When we launched  the third version of our first product, a corporate social network, I remember feeling depressed. The iterations weren’t working, no one was coming to the product and we seemed directionless. I decided to go out to dinner with a friend who was also working on a startup, except hers was a bit further along and had a lot more traction. Despite her best intentions and a delicious bowl of pho, every fiber inside me grew incredibly frustrated the more she tried to help with advice. Not only had we already thought of her suggestions, we had already implemented them and they didn’t work. After dinner, we didn’t see each other again for another three months. During that time, I ruminated on our problems day and night.  When I saw her again, I realized the last time she’d given any thought to our problems was the moment the waiter took away the empty bowl of pho.

#2 Advice is spoken from the perspective of the giver, and it affects your life much more than theirs.

The most common illustration is when VCs give advice about fundraising. VCs are in a great position to give advice on trends that are happening for startups. Types of startups they are seeing, valuation, amount raised and how fast the raise is going. Depending on if they are either in the round, or trying to get into the round, they will give advice from their perspective and intentions. For example, if they are not an investor and trying to get into your company, they may encourage you to fundraise to take money from them. For the founder, if they were not intending to raise more money, that dollar dilutes them, but not the new investor. So, they must think hard about how strategic or value-add this investor is.

#3 You are the one that has to implement the advice. And it is the action that produces the outcome, not the advice.

A founder friend of mine was building his company on a famous media  platform, the founder of that famous media platform gave advice to not go the complex route, but try something crude and simple. After rejecting it for a while my founder friend told him, “well if I’m going to take anyone’s advice on this, it should probably be the founder of the famous media platform, given he created it.” To which the founder of that platform laughed and said, “that’s the great thing about giving advice! It costs nothing for me to give it to you, but if you take it and it’s bad, it’s your fault!”. And of course if the outcome is good, the advisor gets credit for imparting good advice.

#4 Know that experts may not have been successful themselves, but they seem like they know what to do.

A great example of this are business books. Once we grew to about 1000 employees, I became responsible for creating a Key Talent Program for our employees to find out who our key talent was, how we identify, and how we should reward. I found a great book that not only aligned with our talent philosophy, but also laid out a framework as most experts do1. But once I tried to apply the framework to my own organization I ran into a lot of problems. It wasn’t until I spoke to someone who created a Key Talent Program for their organization, that I was able to unlock applications that were more practical and suitable for our Key Talent Program. 

#5 Decide on the specific issue, problem, and goal you need advice on.

Asking about general advice on success leads to general advice. The advisor could be optimizing for the least amount of stress in their lives, while you are optimizing around better performance for your startup. I see this happen all the time with financial advice. Most people ask “What should I do with my money?”, assuming that the person giving the answer is going to give a hot tip for making their money grow as much as possible. But without knowing the time horizon, goals, and risk tolerance, it’s very hard to advise what to do with a person’s money. If the person you’re asking does not know your time horizon, goals and risk tolerance then perhaps you need to tell them these things or get a different financial advisor. Note: This is not financial advice 😁.

#6 Decide what perspective you need or want for this problem or issue.

Does this issue need pattern recognition to answer? Usually with strategy or trends it’s best to go to VCs who are constantly looking at the market and trends. But if you are looking more for how to or emotional support, it’s best to go to another founder. 

For example, if you are pitching as a female founder and you want to know what the best female founders do in their pitch, you should talk to someone who has seen a lot of female founders pitch. I would go to a VC and ask them those questions. If you are a female founder and you want to know how they set up their fundraise, get introductions, or close their round, you should talk to other female founders who have successfully fundraised.

#7 Decide if it is a one-way door decision or a two-way door decision.  2

One-way door decisions tend to be decisions that are irreversible. Examples include getting married, taking a job, or selling your company. With these decisions you should spend time deliberating. Collect a lot of advice up front from both experts and successful people for different aspects of this decision.

When we considered selling our company, we had to choose a banker to represent the sale of our company. Several top tier bankers pitched us, including one that had worked with us in the past.  But one that was not as well known for the gaming industry pitched us. When we were done, I whispered to my co-founder, “Holy cow this guy knows *everything*”.  This guy knew all the gossip intimately, including those who lost out on the largest bids and were hungry to buy. Lesson learned: don’t get caught up on the fancy names, but people who have done it before for one-way door decisions that require a lot of “how to”.

Two-way door decisions are reversible and the cost of making the wrong decision is low. With these decisions, the better thing to do is to try it out. You can collect advice, implement and collect again. The more irreversible a decision the longer it will take to deliberate and more thorough your advice gathering should be. 

#8 Tell the advisor why you are asking.

The other day I had a founder ask me if someone was still CEO of a company. When I asked “why”, I found out it was because the founder wanted to know what an Executive Chairperson did and how big of a time commitment it was. If you gave me a million dollars to guess why the founder was asking this, I never would have guessed correctly. Completely different from where we started. If you give context, you can get a better answer.

#9 Piece the advice together, don’t average it.

I’ve seen many startup founders torpedo their startups by averaging advice from the experts into a Frankenstein execution. I see this happen the most with pitches. This is because a pitch is easy to change. I can tell when a founder has averaged the advice because each iteration is different depending on who they spoke with last. The pitch becomes unfocused or nonsensical. I’ve told founders that if you get conflicting advice on a pitch, that means it’s “your choice”. In fact it is always your choice when it comes to taking advice.

#10 Know thyself.

The tortoise in this race does not get distracted. It knows its strategy and strengths. It has a vision and stays focused.  And ultimately the tortoise reaches the finish line.

You likely already know the answer, it’s somewhere hidden in you. You need to listen hard to what you want. And, whether or not you already know how to get it, you might often find that the knowledge you seek is inside your own mind. Don’t let fancy titles or fear hold power over you. As a founder, you know so much more than you think. You have all the power in you to succeed.

The best advisors don’t tell you what to do but help you unlock the answers inside of you. Once you arrive at the answer for you, the better you know how to best execute for yourself. 

The common advice is beware of VCs who have not been successful founders, and are great at getting a following and giving advice. VCs and experts can be useful for a very specific purpose 😬.

I recognize the irony of an article about advice-giving on startup advice. So even with this article, take it with a grain of salt as it comes from my bias and perspective, without a specific problem in mind, just a trend I’ve noticed with founders. I too have failed at giving, seeking and taking advice.

It’s all a part of becoming better. 

🙏 Big thanks to the Wordloops community that has given feedback, read drafts and given me a place to write and think. ✍️ If you want to develop a habit of becoming a better writer Join Wordloops and after 7-day free trial, coupon code for 25% off first month: foundermusings!