Why Most Startup Advice is Wrong

Not all of it, but a good chunk of it sure is. And it’s not that the people providing the advice are doing so with a malicious intent, it’s just often given with ignorance. It doesn’t take long in the startup community to realize that there are completely contradictory opinions on how to do certain things – often between two people who have each had enormously successful exits! Some people rave over the value of obtaining VC funding because of the connections and capital runway extensions it provides, while others vehemently support bootstrapping. Incubators such as YCombinator will rarely accept a solo-founding entrepreneur but Mark Suster has documented his advocation for solo-founding. Sometimes the advice even comes from the same source. I’m a huge fan of Jason Fried, but in his book Rework he gives the following two pieces of advice at different points:

If you’re inspired on Friday, swear off the weekend and dive into the project. When you’re high on inspiration, you can get two weeks of work down in twenty-four hours. Inspiration is a time machine in that way. [1. Section titled “Inspiration is perishable”]

So let your latest grand ideas cool off for a while first. By all means, have as many great ideas as you can. Get excited about them. Just don’t act in the heat of the moment. Write them down and park them for a few days. Then, evaluate their actual priority with a calm mind. [2. Section titled “Don’t confuse enthusiasm with priority]

How does a nascent entrepreneur know what advice to follow? The answer lies in probably one of the only universal truths about startups: You have to think for, and trust, your own ability to reason.

If one entrepreneur found absolutely incredible success by running a deep-pocketed VC-backed SaaS web application, they may tell you that the path to victory is to hire the absolute best engineers on the planet and to invest heavily with an eye on user-acquisition and retention. But how would that advice apply to a bootstrapped, advertising-revenue driven content service such as a new blog? The point is not that one shouldn’t listen to the advice of veteran entrepreneurs, but to keep one’s eyes open when doing so and to never blindly follow a path because a reverent entrepreneur says so.

Many people are looking for that perfect linear equation that gives them the step-by-step checklist to their entrepreneurial windfall (be that an acquisition, IPO or profitable company), but the problem is that that linear equation is nonexistent. Well, that may not be perfectly accurate, it may exist, but nobody knows what it is for your startup. What makes startup entrepreneurship so challenging and exciting is that there’s rarely a clear-cut path from here to there.

Your best bet when accumulating knowledge and tactics is to try and frame the recommendation on the experiences of the source providing the information and to analyze it in terms of where your startup currently is. One of the best ways to do this is to categorize your startup in order to be able to compare it to others. I’ve found the following four categorization techniques exceptionally helpful with analyzing:

  1. The Startup Genome Report – This fascinating report is a must read for any hardcore entrepreneur. Among other things, they help break up startups into four distinct types while providing examples for each and recommendations on strategies.
  2. The Lean Startup – Eric Ries uses a term called “Drivers of Growth” that categorizes a startup based on how it will expand.
  3. Business Model Canvas – While this won’t give you a specific categorization like the two examples above, it will provide you with a 30,000 foot view that, when compared with another startup, will be able to give you the ability to identify stark similarities and differences with little effort.
  4. Revenue Model – As I stated in my example above, how a company drives revenue is crucially important to what areas of your startup require the majority of focus. A monthly subscription model is going to operate significantly different than a transactional-based revenue model.

It’s a great idea to accumulate and analyze the experiences of others, but strive to understand why that advice was given so it will help you put it in perspective.

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