What’s in Your Advice Drawer?

Many of us have a love-hate relationship with advice: We seek out advice, and we all love to give it. We certainly like to think we can reap the benefit of good advice, and indeed that others benefit from our shared wisdom.

The very best advice in the world makes no difference at all without action, and acting on advice is actually a great difficulty for many of us.

Most of us end up making one of three classic mistakes:

  • We tune out the advice and default to doing what we have always done.
  • We save the advice and don’t act on it — instead, we file it away in our advice drawer for the future.
  • We ambitiously and uncritically attempt to implement too much of what we’ve heard without any testing, and thus distract the focus of our organization.

Of course, we know good advice is very valuable if used wisely. Think of all the parental advice you didn’t follow and the resulting mistakes you might have avoided (although we do learn from the mistakes that do not kill us).

Imagine how much farther you’d have been along the curve if you’d had a framework early on to quickly evaluate which of your parents’ precious nuggets were the ones you needed to put into practice.

Entrepreneurs more often than others find themselves at a crossroads of sorts and can be inundated with input from all sides.

Simply collecting every bit of advice is not feasible. In the high-stakes startup environment, too much of a good thing can be detrimental to progress. It’s crucial to be able to identify which advice has the ability to catapult your business forward and which advice to ignore.

How to Spot Good Advice

For your business, there are really only two types of advice: Good and bad. Good advice should be digested, acted upon immediately, tested and then passed on to others.

Bad advice, on the other hand, may take many forms. It may simply be wrong, not fit your product timeline or industry, and could cost you dearly in time and money.

For pioneers in the tech field particularly, a lot of advice is no longer applicable or simply irrelevant to your product. It’s vital not to waste valuable time considering bad advice.

Here are some thoughts on how you can quickly identify the really golden advice amongst the varied nuggets of wisdom you receive.

No, I don’t mean how much the consulting fee was. The number one simple test I have for advice is: Did the person giving it to me pay a price for learning the lesson? If they or their company had a near death experience learning the lesson that they are sharing, I am much much more inclined to put weight on the strength of their advice. Similarly, if they have strived for years to perfect their abilities and have a proven track record, then they also have paid a sufficient price to make their advice likely valuable.

On the other hand, if they got the advice for free from another party and have not used it themselves to great effect, I am inclined to pass.

If you are of the mindset that “if it was not invented here, it’s not worth my time,” you could be missing a huge opportunity. Utilizing others’ knowledge and expertise can save you time, money, and wasted effort. Plus it can expose your organization to potential new opportunities.

Why reinvent the wheel every step of the way when there are people who can help you jump ahead? Instead, slow down and listen. In my experience, the founders who are able to really listen and try out new ideas and advice are the ones who get things done and succeed, because they really hear the meat of the advice they get and can therefore judge it better.

Put yourself in a position to listen first, then decide whether and how to use that insight.

Choose your sources wisely. Advisors should be people you trust whose opinions and experience you respect, and their ideas must make sense for your business. Staid advice from a risk averse and mature company exec may have little applicability to your high-risk, high-reward proposition. I’m sure the founder of Uber didn’t seek advice from IBM execs at any stage in his process. In the words of Jean-Luc Godard, “He who jumps into the void owes no explanation to those who stand and watch.” If someone hasn’t experienced the trailblazing work of building something new from the ground up, they probably aren’t in a position to give technical or business advice to you.

Founders might seek advice from trusted professionals with proven track records, but if that advice was gained perfecting an established product and business model, it doesn’t hold up for entirely new products or systems. What was successful in that context is different than what might work in a startup. Advice about the importance of an effective user interface may be useless to a company intent on changing the UI paradigm entirely. Likewise, B2B marketing advice obviously wouldn’t work on a direct-to-consumer business model. When you receive advice that solves a problem you don’t have, move on.

At few times in history has the pace of change been as dramatic as it is today. There are so many examples of activities that were successful just a few years ago which have become ineffective or obsolete in today’s tech environment. Email and newsletter marketing, while crucial to any marketing plan just a few years ago, is nearly irrelevant for many cutting-edge tech startups these days. There are plenty of successful and knowledgeable people in the world, but not a single one has been successful yet at what you are trying to accomplish. If you get feedback that seems outdated and doesn’t fit your current situation, don’t waste your time. Pursue only that guidance which is up-to-the-minute and makes sense for your business now.

Some advice has value across industries and in multiple contexts. Advice from a digital security professional could be beneficial to any entrepreneur eager to protect their intellectual property or proprietary information. The same goes for back office and administrative advice. Most startups are focused on perfecting their product, not on back-office efficiency. But feedback on effective hiring, security, and other areas vital to the support of a healthy business may well be worth exploring further and eventually implementing. The less time you spend working out back-office kinks, the more time you can spend on the fun stuff — the core drivers of your business.

If you aren’t sure if a particular piece of advice is relevant to your business model, it’s crucial to get more information. Some of our accelerator teams suffer from what we call “Mentor Whiplash” when they get what they believe is conflicting advice from different mentors. The only solution is to investigate the context and circumstances more fully to determine if the advice is useful. When you scratch the surface, what may have seemed like sage advice may no longer fit your circumstances. On the other hand, by digging deeper you could extract very useful information out of something you first dismissed. Even a failed proposition has the ability to yield very valuable insights when you get the details on what went wrong, how, and why. Knowing what not to do can be just as useful as positive advice. Sometimes you just don’t know until you ask.

Once you get an exciting piece of advice that you know is worth implementing, don’t sit on it. Test it out. Lots of ideas can be tested immediately using social media outlets, by making online changes, or by implementing simple A/B testing.

This is important. Things evolve quickly in technology and there’s no advantage to saving valuable advice. Act on it as soon as you can. Managing all the advice you receive shouldn’t be all that daunting if you remember to listen carefully, identify the context and ask questions if you need more information. Find what might work for you and act on it now. There are no prizes for collecting a huge advice drawer.

What do smart entrepreneurs keep in their advice drawers?


Bill Liao is Managing Director at RebelBio and General Partner at SOSV.

Originally published at sosv.com on January 29, 2016.

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