Answer by Patrick Mathieson, VC at Toba Capital, on Quora

Learning how to run their companies primarily by reading a bunch of blog posts and startup books and Quora threads, instead of spending the maximum amount of time possible learning directly from and about their customers.

I meet with a lot of first-time, younger founders who go out of their way to demonstrate that they've digested all of the important startup tomes of the last couple decades:

Now just to be clear: Reading is good. Listening to war stories and learning what not to do is good. The fact that past founders and investors have taken the time to educate the community is awesome. I'm not saying this is wasted effort at all.

HOWEVER, there are a few reasons why you might want to keep your startup literature reading to a minimum while you're just getting your company going:

  1. Most tactical startup advice (e.g. SaaStr) is primarily useful for scaling up a company. Even Jason admits that all SaaS companies get to $1M ARR differently, and he doesn't have much advice for the very early stages of company formation, product design, and customer development. If you're reading this stuff while you're still pre-revenue, you're learning concepts that won't be important for another 12-24 months, whereas your current challenge is to keep your company afloat tomorrow.
  2. Most strategic startup advice (e.g. Paul Graham's essays, much of the blog posts on Medium, advice from VCs, etc.) is highly conceptual and doesn't do much to help an individual startup CEO learn about how to best serve their niche customer segment.
  3. Literature about startups is always rooted in the past, and often the concepts/mechanisms that these previous companies utilized only worked because they were novel at the time. Example: one reason that Box grew so quickly was because it pioneered "enterprise freemium" at a time when this wasn't yet common. If you want to start a company in 2015 that utilizes enterprise freemium as a go-to-market strategy, you'd better have some other insights (either in your Product, or Distribution, or whatever) up your sleeve, because "following the Box playbook" is not a differentiator. I'm partial to the Peter Thiel quote on this topic: "All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem." The only way to build an enduring company is to come up with a new way to assert market dominance. You won't learn how to do that from reading blog posts--you have to figure it out yourself.
  4. Opportunity costs. You have one goal when you're just starting a company: To build and sell something for which a certain type of customer will be thrilled to pay you money. What gets you closer to that goal: 30 minutes spent reading a chapter in a startup book, or 30 minutes on the phone with a potential client? Also remember that you're building up habits ("muscle memory") as you go about each day ... let's say you had a 1 hour meeting scheduled that ends 30 minutes early. What do you do with the 30 minutes you just got back? Do you read a blog post or do you call a customer? Now compound that habit over 500 "unexpected half hours" that will pop up over the next 12 months. Do you want to have read 500 more blog posts, or have called 500 more prospects?

So, to summarize: Reading is great, and it's important for entrepreneurs to understand the hard-won insights from the general technology and business community. If you're not doing any reading at all, it's just as bad as doing too much.

That said: Understand that your entrepreneurial success or failure will have very little to do with your general business knowledge, and very much to do with how well you can solve problems for a very specific group of people (your customers). And learning how to do that can only come from primary--not secondary--research.

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Published on: Mar 17, 2015