Small Businesses and Startups: Worst. Advice. Ever. Mike | January 3rd, 2012

A few weeks ago I wrote about New Year ‘s resolutions for small businesses, but the other day I realized I had left one out. This one is not an action item, nor an intellectual exercise. It is at once very simple, but also incredibly difficult, especially when under pressure to get a new business off the ground to improve performance in an existing one. It is this: learn to differentiate between good advice and bad. And once you have mastered the skill of identifying bad advice, develop a second skill: the ability to discount and reject it.

Everyone who has ever launched a business has been subjected to the clamor that arises from well intentioned investors, family, friends, and casual cocktail-party-type acquaintances. Each of them has a pearl of wisdom, a relevant anecdote, or a driving reason why you should do this or should not do that. Each of them is absolutely certain that, if you follow their sage advice, your business will rocket to the stars, Google will acquire it for $1.7 billion, and your success will be forever assured. While some of their advice may actually be of interest, you will assuredly reject the majority of it as coming from someone who doesn’t understand your business, your market, and your customers.

We have all been on the receiving end of this advice, so in this article I am going to share with you some of the worst business advice ever given. Here then, are 5 pieces of bad advice I have been given, and my reasons for rejecting each:

1. Your Idea Won’t WorkEveryone has an opinion, and it is incredible how often you wil be told that your idea for a new business simply won’t work. People seem to love sharing this feedback, perhaps because it helps them to feel smarter or more powerful. In startups you need to trust your own opinion, and you need to back it up with research. Do your homework, provide your own skepticism, question your own biases, but trust yourself and the homework you do to answer that question for yourself.

2. Faster Is Always BetterSpeed to market is critical for many startups, and many of us tout our ability to iterate quickly, our flexibility in managing our business, and our potential to pivot when the market demands it. But speed is not always of the essence, and business owners need to understand that often it is best to take the time to ponder a decision, sleep on a proposal, or throughly debate an issue. Everything has its place, speed included, but faster is definitely not always better.

3. If you want it done right, then do it yourselfThe most valuable commodity that an entrepreneur has is time. Time to think, time to act, time to execute. Managing your time is critical to the success of your business and one of the best ways to do this is to delegate. Hire talented people, train them well, then launch them into the world by delegating to them work which your personal capacity constraints simply does not allow you to perform. To grow your business, you will inevitably have to grow your team and that inescapable fact means that you will have to trust others to do the work. The best advice I have seen on this topic was in a post Ross wrote last year: don’t be afraid to delegate, but make sure that you get your own hands dirty before handing off that task.

4. I Can Teach You Everything. One trap that many entrepreneurs fall into is the mentor-snare. We meet someone who seems wise, experienced, and thoughtful. Someone who exudes confidence and tells us that they can teach us everything we need to know. While there is great value in having trusted mentors and teachers, be wary that you don’t become enmeshed in the ideas and advice offered by someone whose experience may not be appropriate, whose wisdom may run thin, and whose confidence could be misplaced. Trust yourself, trust your instincts, and trust your hard work to answer the question of whether another person’s advice is worthy of acting upon. My advice? Learn from lots of people, but take care that you don’t become overly dependent on just one.

5. Play it safe. By its very nature entrepreneurism is risky and I believe the risk should be embraced, not avoided. The trick it to do everything you can to mitigate the risk and to improve your odds of success. Do your homework, hire the best talent you can find, keep expenses as low as possible, and keep it simple. The lean startup movement has taught us a great deal about how to limit our risk while bringing a product to market, and the unstated message is to never play it safe.

Photo: Gregory Taylor

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  • Advice — good or bad — is often free. And worth the price.

    There is one key advantage to listening: you learn about the advice giver. It is interesting to contemplate why they think the way they do. If the mentor in #4 is from the field you’re entering (rather than an outside coach), you can pick up valuable knowledge about your competitors. When you know the status quo, you have an edge.

    PS You picked an excellent photo 🙂

  • That is so true, Mike. People jump into conclusions before they even get to hear or see the whole picture. Believing in yourself and that one great idea is something that is important for startups. As you mentioned, if you have done your homework well and have trust in your idea, go for it. One thing I learned before I became a bestselling author and long before Inc Magazine voted my company as one of the fastest growing companies is that it is the biggest task to build a great team and the sooner you get that team the faster your business will grow. 

  • Anonymous

    @Daniel Milstein – thanks for reading and commenting. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish the good advice from the bad, but trusting in yourself and your ideas is a great place to start. Just be sure that your own biases don’t get in your way.

  • Anonymous

    @promod:disqus, This is a great point; learning about the other person through the advice they give can be incredibly valuable to you. One point is to develop your own network of trusted advisors and to value their feedback over others whom you might not know as well. 
    Also the photo selection process is a really fun part of doing these posts, so thanks for noticing!

  • Some of the best ideas never make it because someone told them it was a bad idea!

  • Tee

    Isn’t that the truth!

  • Christian Gray

    This seems like great advice, but how do I know? But seriously for a moment, good points and when working with start-ups we focus on playing to the founders strengths and filling the talent gaps as required. RE: speed to market, faster isn’t always better, but every time I hear some say we are growing too fast I think they might be managing too slow. In high (hyper) growth markets, speed can determine winners and losers. That doesn’t mean that should be applied to every business all the time.

  • Rohit Arora

    Business advice can be good or bad but it depends on an
    entrepreneur’s intellectual ability to decide on which is really a good advice.
    There is a pearl of wisdom in every acquaintances and socialites that an
    entrepreneur interacts with. To take the good ideas from them and reject the
    bad ones is what matters in order to do successful business.

  • Steven_Glicher

    never take business advice of someone who doesnt know much. Hiring a professional is always a good idea

  • Guest

    best thing I have heard so far.

  • mike_samson

    @JJ thanks for reading and happy New Year!

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