STARTUP

The Best Advice You Are Not Taking

Before you dismiss "obvious" advice, try listening harder. Sometimes getting it right is a matter of degrees.
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Most of the business advice you'll receive as a start-up CEO seems obvious. In fact, it's rare that an investor or adviser makes a suggestion that you have never considered. More often than not, the suggestion is, in fact, probably already being implemented at some level.

Your company isn't scaling as quickly as planned, and a board member says you need to boost sales. "No kidding? Thanks for letting us know," you sarcastically think to yourself. Even the more concrete suggestions from experienced advisers or team members often seem either painfully obvious or just a regurgitation of things the company is already doing or has tried before. From your viewpoint, it can feel demeaning, because it suggests that your job is so easy that people think they can do it just by offering generic advice.

At times, it can seem like that TV commercial in which a bunch of businessmen in suits sit around a conference room making insanely obvious statements and the tag line is something like, "If business were this easy, you wouldn't need us."

No matter how obvious these suggestions may seem, take a minute to really consider the earnestness of your efforts. When it comes to operational issues, your start-up often succeeds or fails in accordance with the degree to which your company embraces these seemingly obvious ideas or suggestions. The advice may not seem earth shattering, but very often it is the successful companies that embrace that advice and put forward a serious effort in following it.

Take, for example, an exchange between you, the founder, and an investor. The investor is concerned about the quality of your customer development and advises you to get your hands dirty spending time with clients. That's completely obvious to you, and you respond that you've done so and will continue to do so.

Box checked and issue resolved, right? Not at all.

Yes, technically you are talking to customers, but are you doing enough of it? Because you are already talking to customers, it's very easy to shrug off the advice and move on. However, that advice typically reflects the investor's concern about the scale of your efforts. In this instance, the investor is trying to tell you that whatever amount of customer development you're doing, you need to do much more.

When I read Delivering Happiness, by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, I found the book both incredibly insightful and incredibly obvious. The book explains Zappos's formula for success--putting the customer first and offering delightful customer service. Most of what Hsieh writes about probably seems familiar to any business owner. What business doesn't want to put the customer first and offer delightful service? The difference between Zappos and most other companies is one of magnitude. Zappos manages to do so at a completely different level than almost everyone else.

As a CEO, you should never blindly follow the advice of anyone--be it a team member, a board member, or an adviser. After all, whatever the outcome, it ultimately belongs to you. But you do need to seek out the best advice you can get to figure out the right answer. Sometimes, the right answer comes from someone in a way that seems painfully obvious. But remember, just because it's obvious doesn't mean it's wrong.

From the November issue of Inc. magazine

ERIC PALEY | entrepreneur and managing partner of Founder Collective

Eric Paley is an entrepreneur and a managing partner of Founder Collective, a seed-stage venture capital fund. He is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.




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