The Single Most Difficult Challenge Seed-Stage Founders Face

Startup founders will face an onslaught of challenges in the early stages, ranging from product design to customer sales to raising capital. But the most difficult to overcome? Figuring out when to take advice and when to simply ignore it.

I’m going to give it to you straight: there is no right answer. But how you respond to this challenge will define the success or failure of your startup.

This reminds me of another time in my life when I was working to create something new and was terrified of messing it up: having a new baby. Two years ago, my wife and I nervously sought out advice from many people. Grandparents were not afraid to share lessons from their experience raising us, though some of their advice was decades out-of-date (e.g. “babies should sleep on their tummies” vs. today “babies should never sleep on their tummies”). We were told “not to worry” by friends with teenage children who had completely forgotten what it was like to have a newborn. We faced a sea of wisdom — solicited or not — and figuring out what to internalize and what to ignore was quite the challenge.

The experience of being a founder awash in advice isn’t much different. When it comes to your startup, you’ll likely hear from a myriad of people with different levels of experience and knowledge, and their advice can be gold or a complete red herring.

There will be experts who built their businesses long ago who will share tidbits that are worthless in light of today’s technology. There will be investors who think their way is the only way to success. And you’ll even hear from other founders who will tell you to relax — but only because they’re on the “other side” and can no longer empathize with the anxiety of putting it all on the line.

You’ll need to cut through the noise to get to the good stuff. Here are my tips:

  • Write it down. Don’t let good advice pass you by because you failed to take note. When looking back over what you’ve written down, you might discover something new or certain elements that click for you months down the road.
  • Always consider the context. Many of the people you pitch will consider your idea only through the lens of their own past experience. Apply discounts to their advice based on its context. Mark Twain said “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes”. You may be able to figure out how to take advice from the past or a different context and “make it rhyme” for your own situation.
  • Listen for golden nuggets. Even if an investor offers you overall feedback you won’t necessarily take, they might reveal a unique growth hack or direct you to a great platform for hiring engineers.
  • Incorporate some advice into small experiments. Rather than shifting your entire business with every new piece of advice, consider if you can create tightly-scoped experiments to suss out the relevance and viability of each suggestion from a wisdom-giver. In this way, you can ensure you are making and learning from more mistakes more quickly (remember: Oops is your biggest tool.).

In the end, the most important thing for founders to know is this: the people you want to listen to above all else are your customers. That is my golden nugget for you; it’s up to you whether to take it or leave it.

Are you a founder of a seed-stage startup in the smart hardware or machine learning sectors? Let’s talk! Leave a comment or get in touch with Ubiquity Ventures.

Ubiquity Ventures — led by Sunil Nagaraj — is a seed-stage venture capital firm focusing on early-stage investments in software beyond the screen, primarily smart hardware and machine intelligence applications. More details at http://www.ubiquity.vc