Why You Should Stop Asking Smart People For Their Opinion
Too many decisions and too little data? Rather than asking smart people for their opinion on what to do — try asking this question instead.
I’m part of a large startup group on Facebook called London Startups. Every so often, a founder will post some designs and ask for people’s opinions on which to build. Inevitably, some people vote for option A and others for option B. Finally, someone chimes in with ‘just run a quick A/B test’.
I completely resonate with the near-constant need for advice as a founder. There are so many decisions to take in a startup that it’s totally overwhelming. To make things worse, there isn’t the traffic or resources to run split tests for everything. And that leaves you feeling completely alone.
Good advice is out there and it can help you learn faster. In some cases, it’s quicker to get good advice than to run a test. But the secret to finding good advice lies in how you look for it.
My old model of advice
I used to think about advice like this. You give someone a summary of the situation and then ask for their recommendation on what to do and why. Direct and to the point. But in practice, I’d keep running into the following problem.
If I asked 10 smart people for advice, I’d often end up with 10 recommendations that were polar opposites of each other. I felt just like that founder with votes for A, B and a recommendation to collect the data that just isn’t there. It can be frustrating — especially when what I’m really hoping for is a consensus to make my decision easier.
A new model for advice
As I’ve matured as an entrepreneur, I’ve realised that no-one else is better equipped to take decisions about my business than me. And to make better decisions, I need to better inform myself.
So rather than asking what people would do in my shoes, I lead with a different question.
Have you been through something similar before?
Ultimately, I want to dig deep into the specifics of other people’s experiences to learn from their successes and mistakes. Knowing the details is important because that’s where the real insights lie. It’s helped me understand why smart people can arrive at very different conclusions.
The question also separates the intelligent guesses from the voice of experience. Intelligent guesses can be really helpful, especially when they spark creative new ideas. But dissecting a real-world experience where the outcomes are known and being to able to ask things like ‘how happy are you with that outcome?’ and ‘if you did it again, what would you do differently?’ is extremely valuable.
Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that my friends in Silicon Valley are far more likely to ask these types of questions than people in other locations.
People who ignore history are doomed to repeat it
Having been around startups for a long time, I’ve seen that startups tend to make the same mistakes. Company building is counter-intuitive and naive approaches don’t work like you imagine they would.
As an investor, I see companies follow the same learning process in many areas, from sign-up forms to online marketing and from recruiting to sales. When you’re stuck in the weeds, everything can seem unique to your market or product or company. But, if you know where to look, you’ll find others that have faced and overcome similar and bigger challenges.
Tap into someone else’s experience
Once you understand that advice is really leveraging other people’s past experiences, you’ll find that it’s more readily available than you may realise. For example, that Facebook group I mentioned has 30,000 entrepreneurs that have collectively run thousands of experiments for you.
I don’t want to discourage collecting data. But before you spend resources running a test, consider finding someone that’s run a similar experiment before and see what can you learn first.
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About Dave Bailey:
I’m a Venture Partner for Downing Ventures in London, Mentor at Google Launchpad and a serial startup founder. Previously, I built and sold tech businesses in the UK, US and Brazil. I studied at Oxford University, Stanford Graduate School of Business and Singularity University. Find my contact details on Dave-Bailey.com.
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