Here is How to Make Sense of Conflicting Startup Advice

Posted on Aug 30, 2014 | 0 comments


Everybody has a blog these days and there is much advice to be had. Many startups now go through accelerators and have mentors passing through each day with advice – usually it’s conflicting. WTF? There are bootcamps, startup classes, video interviews – the sources are now endless. What is a founder to do?

There are some smart if not somewhat cerebral bloggers I read who say that you shouldn’t take any startup advice at all because it’s too generalized to be useful to your situation. While I have some sympathy with their intent I must point out that their opinions on this are – ironically – startup advice. And not a point-of-view I particularly believe in.

So what IS one to do?

1. Triangulate
I like to use the shorthand “triangulate” to symbolize asking multiple people for their opinions to get a better perspective on the route you should take. Of course triangulation is a mathematics term that is used in sailing and other activities to help you better navigate when you don’t have your bearings. By having the measurement of some known points you can better navigate to unknown points through inference.

I triangulate in nearly every important decision I make. I tend to ask opinions on nearly every topic that I’m interested in. When I meet other VCs I’m constantly asking how they decide which investments to make, when to pass, when to do follow-on rounds, when to sell a company vs. when to go long, etc. Because I’ve asked more than 100 VCs similar questions I start to notice patterns in thinking. Some of these patterns may apply to me some may not. Some may be repeating long held conventional wisdom that is not necessarily still relevant while others might have views that sound like total heresy.

When I have well established patterns of thought the heretical views are often the most helpful because they cause me to challenge my own beliefs. People like Vinod Khosla, Keith Rabois, Brian Singerman, Marc Andreessen and others have all made head-scratching private comments to me that sounded so foreign to what I thought other people were doing in VC that they caused me to challenge and ultimately change some of my own views.

So far from not taking advice from other people – I want more advice, more data points, more opinions.

2. Draw from Frameworks
The most helpful type of advice in my mind are frameworks for how to solve a problem. This is generally how I try to organize my own views and how I try to give advice.

For example:

1. On market segmentationI often recite my “Elephants, Deer & Rabbits” framework
2. On sales I often talk about “Why Buy Anything, Why Buy Now, Why Buy Me” as a tool to think about a sales process
3. On marketing I talk about “Arming & Aiming
4. On teams I have a framework for tech teams “CTO vs. VP Eng” or  on sales I have “Journeymen, Mavericks & Superstars
5. On investment strategies I have “Deflationary Economics
6. On recruiting there is “Attitude over Aptitude
7. RetentionDon’t Roll out the Red Carpet on the Way out the Door
8. Improving startup productivity? “Level Up
9. How to network better? “50 Coffee Meetings
10. Startup psychology / confidence? “We’re All Naked in the Mirror
11. Fund raising? “Raise at the Top End of Normal

And on and on.

Each is a framework for thinking about a problem. None is guaranteed to be the proscriptive answer for your problem. But would you rather start thinking about your situation with NO advice or with somebody else’s framework who has walked in your shoes?

I’m all for more opinions, not less. Over time you start to realize whose voice you trust more than others. You start to test out whose opinions mapped best to your own situation and whether following their advice would have been useful.

3. Think Critically about Your Situation
So if you take in advice, compare it to others and start to think critically about how it may or may not apply to your situation then you begin to “triangulate” an opinion of what to do. You won’t always be right but it’s important to decide and then continually think about whether your decision was correct.

I had coffee with a friend on Friday. He came to me months ago asking about a “strategic round” of capital for his startup at a high price.  I told him that “Strategic Money is an Oxymoron” and that he shouldn’t take it. I told him that often having strategics lead rounds creates more problems and that it sets the tone for how you build your company. I told him that a high price now wasn’t always the best solution.

He not only didn’t agree with me but at the time I remember him being a little bit mad at me and questioning my motives. At coffee last week he told me in this case it turned out I was right. And that doesn’t really matter. My two take-aways were: 1) he at least had a framework for considering the situation and some reasons why I disagreed with his decision and 2) hopefully the next time I offer advice it will at least measure a little bit stronger than others whispering in his ear – whether he takes my advice or not.

4. In the End Go with Your Gut
In End Trust Your Own Judgment

In the end there is no recipe for a startup or for business. I caution people all the time from overly following my advice. I am VERY careful in board meetings and in startup pitches to tell entrepreneurs, “I feel very strongly about my opinion on this topic. I’m pretty sure I’m right based on my own experiences as a startup founder for reasons A, B, C. But I can’t say for sure what will apply to your business. You’ll have to make the hard judgment call. My job is just to be your sparring partner.

Summary
Saying not to take others advice is itself terrible advice. Take more advice. Mix people’s views into a cup. Stir them around. Think about the motives or experiences of those offering advice. Think about whom you trust based on past advice. Think about your own situation and overlay it against the frameworks that others offer.

Triangulate. But in the end follow your own gut. That’s why you’re a founder.