Great guidance from seasoned mentors can mean the difference between success and a slow death for your startup, but just as easily others’ words of wisdom can be confusing, contradictory or just plain wrong. You’re likely to get tons of tips from blog posts, potential investors, conference talks and friends. How can you process all the incoming advice, separating the relevant and correct from the inappropriate and empty?
As a founder, he explained, he had often felt bombarded with advice, so he developed specific strategies for managing it all, starting with keeping the wise words of Gmail creator and Y Combinator partner Paul Buchheit firmly in mind: “Limited life experiences + over-generalizations = advice.” Or, to put it another way, start out with a healthy awareness of the limits of advice. Then apply these three techniques.
Ask for Stories, Not Opinions
If you’ve ever presented a business or personal problem and felt overwhelmed with the assertive, rapid-fire advice you got in response, Young offered a handy trick to turn a conversation that threatens to become prescriptive and overbearing into a useful exchange. Simply set out this rule: "when someone sets out their problem, you can’t give them your opinion, you have to tell them a story from your own experience."
Voilà. This simple change uncovers the usually hidden backstory of the your advisors’ opinions are also allows you, as the listener, to benefit from their experience by drawing your own conclusions rather than feeling bullied of overwhelmed by their recommendations.
Add ‘Assuming Y’
Common startup advice, Young points out, is often flatly contradictory. One expert will tell you to raise as little money as possible, another will declare, when it comes to fundraising, you should go big or go home. One fellow entrepreneur will warn you gravely against hiring your friends; Another will enthusiastically endorse the practice. Half the blog posts you read will stress sticking to your guns and the other half will emphasize being willing to pivot.
Should you just throw up your hands and conclude that there no one knows what they’re talking about? No, but you should realize that there aren’t principles that are applicable across all situations. Most advice comes with unstated assumptions. To bring these into view, ask yourself who’s giving the advice? What’s their context? The goal is to transform ‘you should do X’ into the more valuable statement: ‘assuming Y, you should do X.’ Then you’re in a position to decide whether Y applies to your business and therefore whether you really should do X.
"When folks in Silicon Valley advise to raise as much money as possible, they may assume capital is more plentiful and investor attitudes are less risk-averse compared to the reality in Europe, where in fact it may often be better to conserve equity while proving your concept so you can later obtain a better valuation," Young offered as example.
Clichés Are More Complicated Than They First Appear
Entrepreneurship has generated its fair share of clichés. What should you do with the likes of ‘believe in yourself!’ and ‘focus!’? While it might be easy to dismiss these nuggets as essentially empty, Young insists that the further he went on his startup journey, the more nuanced his understanding of these sorts of clichés became.
Take the case of ‘Focus!’ Young says he’s actually gone through four levels of understanding of this simple instruction. His first understanding was to say no to distractions (i.e. the default answer is no). Then he came to understand focus to mean the need to narrow the scope of your business. Eventually this narrowing got more radical, encompassing the idea of a minimum viable business: one product, one market, one USP, one distribution channel and one revenue stream. Lately, focus, for Young, has meant identifying resisting the temptation to try and improve everyone at once and instead picking just one or two things to work on at any one time.
It may be tempting to just dismiss clichés, but there is depth to pat-sounding advice if you’re willing to keep thinking about it and watch your understanding evolve.
What’s your top tip for dealing with contradictory advice?
JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist. @EntryLevelRebel