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Great, Lousy Advice for Entrepreneurs

CJ Cornell

The Wisdom of the Gurus Gone Wrong

Browse Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or any entrepreneurship blog, and within minutes you’ll find at least 20 gems of entrepreneurial wisdom quoted from the mega-successful moguls. This wisdom is guaranteed to jumpstart your venture, and inspire you to entrepreneurial greatness.

These “secrets” or “rules” for success sound so powerful that they’re immortalized in motivational posters and animated gifs. They get repeated by mentors, investors and other gurus as unquestioned, timeless wisdom.

Usually this entrepreneurial wisdom is about starting a company, or about the key qualities it takes to be a great entrepreneur: Timeless gems of wisdom, uttered by bona fide successes.

It’s all great advice, with one exception: If you’re a struggling entrepreneur working in the trenches, this wisdom doesn’t apply to you. It’s bad advice.

It’s like listening to one of those AM radio hosts, talking about managing your money: diversifying your portfolio; paying off your credit cards and loans; buying gold, bonds and mutual funds. All good advice. Sound, wise, and completely irrelevant if you’re just graduating college, and looking for a job just to pay the rent.

Not only is the advice irrelevant, it can be downright destructive. It’s as predictable, as it is wrong — for you.

So let’s take a look at 7 of the common nuggets of wisdom and see how they apply to the average startup entrepreneur:

1. Only Take Smart Money

This is a phrase that seems to have originated with investors who compete with each other for the best deals (“Facebook please let us invest — our money is so much smarter than the other guys!”).

But for the typical struggling entrepreneur, saying “only take smart money” is like telling the guy dying of thirst in the desert to “only drink filtered water.” No. Drink any water you can get your hands on.

Sure — if you have choices, then choose smart money. And if you have lots of choices for funding, then you might as well choose money that is smart, beautiful, witty and charming. The thing is, most entrepreneurs struggle just to get a meeting with a serious investor, let alone a get single term sheet.

So unless it’s money from a Mexican drug cartel, take it, and let the other guy hold out for smart money.

2. Hire only “A Players”

Sure. Sure. It makes so much sense to say “we only hire the best.” Yes, hire as many of the top “A Players” in your industry and build a world class team. It’s a slogan that is both self serving and delusional for many reasons:

  1. Past performance is actually a very unreliable indicator of future success. People who were “A Players” in their last company, might not be such a star in your startup. Just ask the companies that hired Marissa Mayer or John Sculley.
  2. “A Players” are expensive. But if money is no object, then go right ahead and hire them. Wait. Is money no object?
  3. “A Players” are often unavailable — because they are likely starting their own companies.
  4. Not everyone looks like an “A Player” until they are given the right opportunity.

There are countless cases where entrepreneurs reach out and hired “A Players” from large companies or elsewhere — only to have it backfire. “A Players” can turn out to be “D Players”, if put in the wrong situation, or with the wrong timing.

Players (employees) with almost NO experience may thrive in a situation and become “A players.” Facebook’s original startup team was certainly not made of “A Players,” by any definition, and neither was Microsoft’s first team. But in each case they all ended up being industry stars.

The real wisdom is: Most of the time we don’t know who the “A Players” are. Credentials, titles, and even track records have little bearing on future success — particularly when applied to a startup. Employees thrive and become stars when put in the right situation at the right time.

Great leadership isn’t about buying expensive diamonds from Tiffany’s. Great leadership is about finding diamonds-in-the-rough, and helping them shine.

3. Titles Don’t Matter

The hell they don’t. This piece of advice is usually uttered by someone who already has a title: a CEO, Chairman or VP. This advice is just as relevant as Bill Gates or Mark Cuban saying “don’t worry about money”

For most startups, and particularly for their first employees, titles are of huge importance. Symbolically they are motivating, and provide an incentive in lieu of tangible compensation. Titles give people a professional identity, and in many cases indicate their role within the company.

But startup titles are also important to the outside world too. Titles help people at established companies understand what the startup employee does, and what they’re responsible for (unless it’s a startup that insists on having quirky job titles). Titles signal how much authority a person has to get something done, or their proximity to a decision maker.

Next time someone you know says “titles don’t matter” — ask them to give up their title or trade it with yours.

4. Learn to Say No

At first this sounds empowering; a way of taking control; and a way of showing people that your time is valuable. But really, Saying “no” is the top skillset of the average government clerk or bureaucrat, and not that of an entrepreneur. Saying “no” cuts off all action, and all possibilities.

What if everyone took that advice? Entrepreneurs go through most of their startup years looking for that one person to say “yes.” When seen through this lens, it’s the people who say “yes” that really make things happen.

Saying “no” is not power. Being able to say “yes” is power — it shows you have the ability to greenlight something — and to devote time and resources to it. Saying “yes” sets things in motion. Saying “no”stops everything in its path.

People who get good at saying “no” eventually turn off the spigot of opportunities coming their way. They become the dead-end street that no one wants to turn to. Eventually opportunities will just drive on past their street.

So, say “yes” more often. Just don’t say “yes” to every single thing coming your way. Learn to prioritize.

Also, say Yes to things that are outside your top priorities. It may sound unfocused and distracting, but saying “yes” expands your network, and helps others in your network. Otherwise, you end up being that selfish jerk who is only out for their own interests.

5. Stop caring about what other people think

How cool is that?! To go around not giving a damn what other people think. Whew.

Unfortunately, for most of us, what “other people” think is indeed important, because it can affect your success.

“Other People” often have the power to open doors for you, connect you to critical knowledge, resources and people. “Other People” might invest in your company; they have the ability to otherwise help you fulfill your goals. You should care what they think.

Of course — the key is to recognize whose opinion really matters, and not to obsess over opinions you can’t change.

6. Follow your Passion

Now, who can you argue with this wisdom? But really it’s too general — like “be happy” or “work hard.”

Passion is a quirky emotion when you think about it. We’re passionate about a lot of things in life, at different times in life. We get passionate about brand-new things. We get passionate about challenges. But passion can be fleeting.

How many of us were head-over-heals passionate for a romantic partner when you were younger? But now that you are older, perhaps having found your spouse, you’re so grateful that you didn’t pursue that earlier passion.

Passion often blinds us and convinces us to do the wrong thing — impulsively. And passion can turn into unhealthy obsession.

Yes, this “Follow your passion/pursue your dreams” advice does indeed come from those who followed their own passions, successfully. But we never seem to hear from the gazillions of failures who also followed their passion, only to discover it was a dead end, or who discovered that they missed out on their real passion.

Often entrepreneurship reveals a passion you didn’t know you had.

Yes, it’s hard to tell because it looks like “work”. Entrepreneurship is about rolling up your sleeves and doing the work. Often the entrepreneurial passion comes from accomplishment, from taking a successful risk, or by proving that you were smarter, faster or better.

And that leads us to the most common piece of entrepreneurial wisdom occupying the most real estate on those motivational posters:

7. Never Give Up!

Who could disagree with this final piece of inspiring, motivating nugget of wisdom.

Never Give Up! Does this mean “die trying?”

Never Give Up — seems to preclude the possibility that you might be wrong. Entrepreneurs should give up: IF they learn new information, corrected information, or if they discover they’re on the wrong track. Give Up — doesn’t necessarily mean “abandon your efforts,” and it doesn’t necessarily mean defeat or failure.

For instance, if you’ve been a pioneer working on a superior, breakthrough product, destined to be the industry standard — but you’re Beta-max and the world eventually decides to adopt VHS. How long do you stay on your current path before you give up?

Giving up means intelligently avoiding a truly losing battle, where the options and likelihood of success have really dwindled. The hard part is knowing the difference between a bad idea that’s just not working and a good idea that just hasn’t gone all the way yet.

Sometimes you don’t know if you are giving up on the wrong idea to make room for the right idea — the one that you really don’t want to give-up on.

A successful entrepreneur is indeed persistent — but a successful entrepreneur knows the difference between persistence and futility.

Timeless Wisdom

Timeless wisdom is slightly different once you are at the top of the food chain, than when you are starting out or struggling.

It’s still sage advice — but often it’s impractical and even damaging for the working entrepreneur: Just like the driving advice from the Indy-500 champion that has to be filtered for the teenager driving for the first time.

But in the long run, it is good advice. So for entrepreneurial success, remember that the smart money’s on hiring good people, saying “yes,” being passionate, and never giving up.

Most of the time.

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For more on “Wisdom”, and other issues of modern entrepreneurship, read The Age of Metapreneurship by CJ Cornell

Author — THE AGE OF METAPRENEURSHIP. Visiting Professor of Entrepreneurship. Speaker, Advisor etc. — Startups. Funding

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on July 27, 2017.



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CJ Cornell

CJ Cornell

Professor of #Entrepreneurship & Digital Media. Serial/Parallel Entrepreneur, Author, Speaker, Mentor, Angel Investor, #VC. Crowdfunding & #Startups Evangelist