All the Startup Advice You Read is Wrong

But you should read some anyway

There are two big problems with reading about what made other companies successful:

1. Correlation is not Causation

Google is one of the most successful companies ever. Google gives its employees the ability to spend 20% of their time on whatever they want. Therefore, 20% time is a great idea. Is it? Or was Google successful because they’re brilliant engineers who solved the right problem at the right time—killing it despite the lack of focus “20% time” causes? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else.

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.

What’s more, hindsight bias (the “knew it all along” effect), survivorship bias, and confirmation bias color every explanation anyone offers—whether they were there or not.

Side note: These problems apply whether the advice is first-hand (“Here’s what I did…”) or second hand (“Here’s how Google succeeded…”), though first-hand is generally better, because the vast majority of writing about what happened inside a company by someone who didn’t work there is not only biased, it’s highly likely to have the facts wrong.

2. Everything Depends

Even in a case where someone comes up with a truly great idea that improves the odds for many, many situations, it may be wrong for you. Your company is different. They all are. There are good ideas that apply to most companies, but I can’t think of any interesting ideas that apply to all companies.

How about the least-controversial and most common advice ever given: “Only hire A players.” Here’s when that doesn’t apply: When you can’t hire A players. The truth is, A players aren’t available to most companies. If these companies stuck to the hire-only-A-players rule, they’d never hire anyone. Sometimes you have to get by with B players. That sucks, but here’s the thing: It doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. There a many examples of those who have, despite not being the absolute best in their field. (Again, there are many variables.)

Why You Should Read Startup Advice Anyway

As long as you understand the above, it’s fine—and even good—to read other’s stories and advice. There are two things you get out of it:

1. Ideas

We all need inputs from the outside. People are inventing new ways of doing things all the time, and it’s great if they write about them (especially if they write on Medium :). These inputs will give you the occasional tactical solution for explaining your product, an attitude adjustment for fundraising, or whole new way of looking at planning. By picking and choosing the ideas that resonate and feel like they fit in your company, you benefit from the experiences of others.

You should always be trying lots of things and getting ideas from everywhere.

2. 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.

When I was young, I was looking for the keys to success. I would read business books and try to apply their secrets to success to my ventures. Needless to say, In Search of Excellence didn’t solve the problems of my tiny web development shop. But reading books about Bill Gates helped fuel my entrepreneurial fire.

So, when you’re reading stories from and about people who do work you admire, keep in mind—while there is wisdom to be gleaned, for sure—the value may be more in seeing a model for dedication, creativity, and hard work than applying any of their techniques.

So, keep reading (a tiny fraction of the time you spend doing). And start writing—no matter what your level of success—so others can get ideas and inspiration from you. Just remember this about the advice you read:

1) It’s likely wrong (in general).
2) It’s definitely wrong for someone (maybe you).