I've been doing a tour of the summer accelerator programs and a question I get a lot is about the feedback the teams get from the investors and mentors they meet with. They ask me how much should they react to the feedback they are getting advising them to do things differently, pivot, change the product, change the strategy, etc.
I call this constant advising/mentoring of early stage startups "mentor/investor whiplash" and I think it is a big problem. Not just with the accelerator programs but across the early stage/seed startup landscape.
You cannot meet with a potential investor (me included) or mentor/advisor without getting a lot of feedback about your business. If you take many of those meetings a week, then you are going to get pushed and pulled in lots of different directions and it will cause confusion, wasted time and energy, and even a loss of confidence in what you set out to do.
You cannot let that happen to you. You are the domain expert on your business. You have spent way more time and energy thinking about your business than someone who takes a 30 minute meeting with you, having never thought about it for one iota, and then gives you a ton of advice that you are doing everything wrong. You have to learn to hear that feedback but not react to it.
Here is what I recommend:
1) Create a spreadsheet and list each meeting and the feedback you got in it. List who gave it to you and what they said. If you can categorize the feedback easily, do that. A column for each category of feedback might be good. Over time you should look at the totality of the feedback and see if there are things that a large percentage of people are giving you. If that is the case, you may want to pay more attention to that.
2) Apply the "investor discount" to feedback you get from investors. Advisors/mentors who have no agenda are a purer form of advice. Investors have their own agenda. They want to invest in "bigger ideas" and "larger outcomes". When they tell you that your idea is too small, they may be talking to themselves, not you. Do not make their problems your problems. This is your business, not theirs.
3) Listen to customers, users, and the market. Advisors, mentors, and investors are not the market for your product. Get your product out into the market and get feedback from real users and customers who you will serve as you grow your business. If they like what you are doing and investors do not, do more of what you are doing. The investors will come around when you are scaling into your market.
With those three rules in the frontal lobe of your brain, take as many meetings as you can get. Solicit feedback. Listen to it. Write it down. But do not act on it immediately. It is advice not direction. You are the boss of your company. Do what you think makes the most sense. And get your product in front of users and customers as early as possible and listen to them even more. Because the market will tell you what to do if you listen carefully enough. And Mr Market is the best advisor you can have.
Honestly, an individuals opinion is the only thing that really matters.Getting input from a variety of perspectives based on a broad base of experience is essential.At the end of the day, what each of us thinks about our businesses is the only truth till the market proves us right or wrong. .
I think a whole blog post from Fred about getting feedback + AVC community comments would be very interesting. Getting feedback from different sources is not trivial. How do you ask for feedback from companies/people that are outside your business loop?I can briefly share a good experience we recently had but it would be nice to have a complilation of different approaches from others. My company hosted an MIT G-Lab team and it worked very well because they studied different target markets and also conducted interviews to around ~7 people. One interview started a longer term relationship. I think this worked because they were helping students from an famous university but that is difficult to reproduce.
Feedback is the data; its up to the founder to find the insight.Fred is very right that you should gather lots of feedback / data; better insights come from a broader base.
That’s a good way to think of it but with my clients and I do a fair bit of mentoring/advising, I get closer to the situation.I work one on one and not in these speed mentoring types of environments so my reality may be different.I believe that the right answer is tied to the execution and that it comes over time and that the ‘data’ as you call it, evolves. I consider it closer to an ongoing bond with a vested interest in seeing things through.
An outstanding post!I think the key is, when hearing solutions, is to ask “what problem does this solution solve”? By categorizing that, you begin to see the customer need differently. I think investors can help with that, even if their interest is in scaling.I think this is a good skill for any manager or entrepreneur to learn.
More than a whiplash, I call this drive-by advice. If you hear 10 mins of pitch time, and you give 2 mins back off-the-cuff advice, then it is full of blind spots. It should be regarded just as input.The smart entrepreneur should know what advice to take, and which to discount. Any serious mentor who believes they can help should ask for a longer meeting where you can have more meaningful conversations.I would advocate using these encounters with mentors to identify the right match and working closely with them, and keeping the rest as input that informs you.Also, the Accelerators are partly to blame. They are loading themselves with dozens of mentors/advisors as if the more the merrier. That confuses the entrepreneur. Mentors should be more cleverly matched. It’s part like a dating game, and part like really understanding how the experience of the mentor can benefit you.
I agree – picking the right people to solicit specific advice from is a huge part of the secret.If you do your homework before meeting with a given mentor/advisor/investor, you should know what their experience/domain knowledge is and you should try to steer your questions and their feedback towards how that applies specifically to your business.
“you should know what their experience/domain knowledge is”I think all of this is true and I can’t speak for “investor” mentors but I have to say that many of the principles of business (like mechanical principles) apply across many businesses and different situations that someone might not explicitly know about and may have never touched (or touched only a bit).For example I just had a plumber at the house and was discussing with him the issue of doing work for residential vs. commercial (because he will be going out on his own after completion of apprenticeship). And while I’m not a plumber and I’m not an electrician I’ve dealt with enough workmen over the years in enough situations (and bullshitted with them to find out how they tick) to know that except for the drawback of extending credit in general commercial work is better paying than residential work because businesses spend money much differently than individuals do (OPM concept). I’ve seen that apply across businesses that are very diverse (I had an outplacement company client many years ago as another example that only dealt with companies not individuals) and besides it simply makes common sense anyway that that would be the case.) My point is simply that it can be dangerous to assume that because someone doesn’t know one person’s particular business they don’t have other knowledge that could be applicable to the situation. Fork: Backing up this point I used to wax cars, mow lawns, shovel snow and do commercial and legal photography so I know how people behave when confronted with an estimate or a bill for something. (Waxing cars is where I discovered that you could charge $x to wax a small Porsche but the Cadillac owner (they were huge back then) wouldn’t pay you even 1.2x for 2x of the work. )
Good point.I think that’s the difference between domain knowledge and life knowledge (ie. general life experience)…for the first, it’s important to know who you are talking to…for the later, I think you can get quality learnings from *everyone* you meet in one way or another (of course then the trick is to properly apply the abstraction to your specifics).
The best mentors and advisors don’t give advice, they add perspective based on experience.Advice is for pundits talking over reality. Good for a one liner and greeting cards.
Yup, they ask questions too and let the entrepreneur figure it out. Adding context is also very important. With more experience comes a deeper perspective.
Exactly right. The best “feedback” is usually in the form of a thoughtful question.
Instead of giving them specific ideas, offer them a process and construct to come up with their own.
Yes, they can learn to think differently about something. When I was younger, I would always learn something from my managers by the way they would approach or solve a particular issue in ways I didn’t think of myself.
.Brilliant comment, you must be older than 23, Arnold.Almost anything that starts with a slogan is crap.This is the problem that Pres Obama is having with Obamacare and his newly discovered focus on the economy — it is all just slogans and no real substance.JLM.
very much agreed. I think of it is as process vs product. Offering the benefit of experience and perspective is possible for someone who has developed both. Of course, every situation is different and the recipient will still have to fit (or not) what they’re hearing to their current situation. Advice on product is vastly harder, especially if the person who is offering the advice has no track record of actually creating product. And even for product, I think that offering a framework for how to think about creating product is more useful than specific product advice.
After four years of consulting and a career of building teams, I eventually started this ‘Office Hours’ format as a side thing to keep myself very honest.Basically 2-4 hours a month, always on Skype. You learn in 30 seconds that pontification is BS.Across now 8 clients doing different things, you are not an expert on anything other than your own perspective on frameworks of business and marketing. That’s what you share as a partnership, not advice from an expert.
Do you have a blog post on that? Particularly “as a side thing to keep myself very honest.” and “You learn in 30 seconds that pontification is BS.”Or if not explain more about this if you have time.
Sorry…this will have to wait for another time…when there is more time.
Arnold – I like this – on this basis an entrepreneur wants to be askingNot – “how should we?”But – “how should we find out how we should?”The additional abstraction layer makes it clear you don’t want knowledge (because its limiting), but means to acquire knowledge (because it enables)
That’s how I try to operate.
When we are ready for the US market I am going to enjoy calling on you so much ! 😉
“Good for a one liner and greeting cards.”Agree. But yet one of the popular commenters on AVC.com is Fake Grimlock because of short pithy all encompassing cover every situation 1 or 2 sentence thoughts. (Not to mention that people in general love to throw about famous quotes of various dead and living people.)Like me but….I think it took me about 15 minutes of discussion with my ex wife describing “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” as a concept with regards how she should handle a competitor. The details and nuance and application mattered even if you had seen the movie and knew the phrase.If you don’t know the nuance you don’t know how to change if the situation curves a bit. Like getting lost in Manhattan and not knowing the general street layout.
The truth is always grey.In abstract, if I have to choose between thinking that is invariably accentuated by an exclamation point over a semi-colon, I”ll probably choose the later.That being said, the odds of me reading any non fiction book over 200 pages in most instances is nil. I’d say, spend more time and say it shorter.
“any non fiction book over 200 pages in most instances is nil”I’ve all but stopped reading any non-fiction books. I used to buy many and enjoy greatly searching for the perfect book.I’ve stopped because with books I get exactly one perspective and with the internet I can get many perspectives and decide myself based on the mix of information.Having LTE on the ipad mini I can take that to the beach and have all the info at my fingertips from various sources and fork to search for any concept that I don’t fully understand or want to know more about. No more schlepping books.
Right. The most valuable thing you can offer is an insightful perspective on the problem. There are too many considerations for a flip solution and that is therefore properly the entrepreneur’s job.
That’s what I consider my job description Pete.
Agree 100%!I stopped giving advice 5 years ago and only give experiences. I figure smart entrepreneurs can apply the story to their own situation, of which they know 100% of the context instead of my 0.5%.If I don’t have any experiences to provide, I’m not the right mentor and the coffee becomes takeout 🙂
Drive by advice is such a good phrase. It’s exactly what it is. It’s not just investors it’s everywhere. When you mention your idea or your product to people who aren’t your potential customers, they always initially list objections.I think the problem (that I can thnk of. I have no experience whatsoever in this arena) with investors is that it’s really hard to be objective on their feedback, as your looking to bring some on board.
I might give you money, so you have to listen to me talk.
>>Also, the Accelerators are partly to blame.This opens the commodity startup debate. A cheaper better mousetrap can be a commodity (and the founders may be a little inexperienced) and so “good stock advice” though superficial is helpfulBut when you look at a disruption the next step is often very different to the current state of the market – this means the existing market may not even know that they want what you can offer. Think telephone, motorised hackney carriage. When the British Postal Service considered the telephone they noted that they employed runners to convey messages and so had no need of the vulgarity. By extension “experts” who know a market are not !This suggests to me that the “end” or vision must be defined by the founders, but mentors who know how to execute can be helpful. But should a mentor be telling you what to execute – I don’t think so.
do you think the startup process is becoming a commodity?
Certainly, principles of it can be commoditized, but how they are interjected into your startup might be different, and accentuating certain ones over others depending on your business, and business model make all the difference.
Definitely – The very concept of 500 Startups and the various incubators suggests “process driven” output.I do think there are aspects of any startup that can be improved (my own included) by attention to a range of disciplines – I am however equally sure that some do not so conveniently fit the cookie cutter mold and do not benefit so much from one-size fits all efforts.Almost by definition anything lacking differentiation is a commodity and when there is a pitch engine, a funding engine a networking engine and a lean hypothesis testing engine etc etc the process is replicable.Naturally the problem that arises is how to process the inherently heterogenous nature of disruptive startups. Perhaps this is why VC should declare a thesis and not a religion
back-seat drivers are such a pain in the neck. if they don’t want to go where i’m going they should get in another car.
Like most things in life with people – it is a dating game.Friendship, mentorship, business partners
“The smart entrepreneur should know what advice to take, and which to discount.”Pretty hard for a young person to do that though. It’s partly something that you learn over time when you have an idea how things pan out based on previous encounters.
I agree. Context matters, and experience gives you that context. I was being hopeful that the “smart” ones can figure this out (e.g. Mark Zuckerberg or Drew Houston type), or trust someone more senior to tip them in the right direction, like a VC suggesting that a young CEO get a coach (e.g. of Matt Blumberg & Fred that I mentioned earlier).
Personally, i pay less attention to advices, and more to the questions i am asked. Because from them i can learn much more – am i getting through, are my points clear, etc… Advice is someone offering you his solution to what he think is the problem. A question is someone shining (maybe) a light on hidden problems.
This should be required reading for the first day at any accelerator. We’ve seen this first hand and through friends and contacts… It is amazing that people can come up with 20 minutes of ‘expert advice’ after hearing about your product or startup for 10 minutes.However – (being in Chattanooga) I’ve often described the our startup as being insulated from the external hype and startup-mania, yet simultaneously isolated from great advice, networks, and friction that happens in other cities.So, we are rarely have the whiplash effect – but we’re often looking conversations with operators or mentors that can be incredibly useful to put a new angle or giving a sanity check for your company/ decisions.
What you find in smaller communities is that there is a “obligation” feeling. The local community that desires a startup community turns out and goes into overtime to help-that sometimes is a double edged sword. For those that don’t know Chattanooga, it’s a physically lovely place.
Thanks Jeff. I can definitely attest to the ‘obligation’, but I do think it has been easily a net-positive for us.In terms of natural beauty – Chattanooga is stunning. I’ve been here about 2.5 years and I still find it unbelievably beautiful daily.
Great post and advice as usual – I’ve suffered from/fallen for this a few times myself in the past as it’s an easy trap/mistake to slip into.For me it always comes back to the core ‘why’ of what you are trying to do…if you don’t have a real understanding of your company beliefs it is easy to lose your path and get distracted.However, when you are *very* clear on your core company beliefs and mission, then it becomes pretty easy to hear advice and instinctively know if it’s on point or not (it either rings true to the core beliefs/mission or it doesn’t).Beyond that, I agree that the weight applied to advice should be something like #1 customer, #2 user, #3 potential user, #4 unbiased 3rd party, #5 biased 3rd party…and anything after #3 you have to take with a serious grain of salt (because they are clearly not your target).When listening to a mentor, advisor, investor or anyone else just make sure you know where in that list they actually fall before you get too hung up on just what they are saying…
I used to feel like I needed to meet with each and every company at an accelerator to support the community. Now I go to the opening pitch night and only work with companies for two reasons. First, I work with the ones that I feel I can add value to right away. Second, I work with ones that I am interested in because I liked the entrepreneur, or am interested in the sector they are attacking. A good mentor can learn a lot from entrepreneurs.
A good mentor asks questions more than gives answers.A good mentor should help you to better yourself or your process, not better your product.
That took me some time to learn. Asking questions becomes a great way to help-learn-and add value.
+1 As a mentor, this was exactly what I wanted to say. Startups don’t need to be told what to do, they need to have their assumptions challenged so they can strengthen their hypothesis.
Great post. I completely agree with what you are saying about letting the customers/market dictate your decisions. We are constantly having people tell us we need to improve our products packaging, make it more “flashy” etc. But our customers say otherwise. They LOVE our packaging and branding. And like you said, I just listen and don’t react.
One of my biggest jobs is synthesizing lots of different advice and input — from my team, from customers, from investors, from partners.But I would be cautious about validating feedback based simply on the number of times you hear it. If Apple had been a startup, every VC would have said “there is no way the iPhone will succeed without a physical keyboard.”As a Blackberry maniac for years, I’ll bet I would have said it.
All input is not equal. So true.The old story that they built the new Apple stores as a prototype in a warehouse and played with it for a year till everyone thought it was perfect. A week before ‘go’ one of the designers went to Jobs and said, it’s all wrong, it’s too product centric. He pulled the plug and started over.
Great story. 🙂
It’s up to the entrepreneur to balance their foolishness with the wisdom of others.
I learnt the lessons in this post the hard way and am glad I went through all that pain because it makes me appreciate GENUINELY INFORMED ADVICE and FIGHT even more fiercely for my vision-execution as the domain expert.In a conversation with a good friend I observed that, unlike consultants and advisors, entrepreneurs MAKE THE DECISIONS and DELIVER TO MARKET.The ideal situation is where the founder has a phenomenal coach who understands what they need to DO to get to pole position (see Ivan Lendl who transformed Andy Murray into a Wimbledon winner).In the absence of a phenomenal coach, the founder still needs to put in the work.
I definitely fell victim to mentor whiplash, even though I went through “ceo speed dating” with my eyes wide open to the dangers.My experience is that #1 should be changed to this, “Over time you should look at the totality of the feedback and see if there are things that a large percentage of people are giving you. If that is the case, you may want to make extra effort to ignore that particular advice.”As I learned from Arnold, people don’t know what they like. They like what they know. I think advice tends to try to push you towards something the advice-giver already knows. Be very mindful of that.Someone should write an article asking 20 top entrepreneurs the most important advice they ignored in the beginning.
Every single one ignored: “this will never work because……”.Every single one.
Yeah but it’s kinda up to the person being told that to explain to doubter why this time “it’s different” or “that doesn’t apply here”. I wonder how many people do put in the effort to do that?For example something that is easy and enjoyable to you (restoring an old house) may be difficult and not enjoyable for me. So before you had done this had we talked you would have to point out to me why what I saw as “hard” was actually “fun” for you.Just like to me shopping for a car and haggling is fun and other people want no part of it.
Very very true. Years ago, I worked at a company that made Enterprise VPN software (almost before there was even a name for it).However, since (we thought) a single-node VPN didnt make any sense whatsoever, the system wouldn’t actually run unless another peer node was installed.What had been missed is that 90% of potential customers would have been much happier installing the product as a standalone firewall (which it could easily do) and as they got more comfortable, then adding in VPN nodes as necessary.However, the “totality of the market feedback” eventually (and way too late) overcame the principled stubborn-ness that led to pushback which essentially said “The customer just doesn’t know what they want (yet)….”
“Someone should write an article asking 20 top entrepreneurs the most important advice they ignored in the beginning.”But you’d have to compare that to cases where the advice was correct (if you could).This is a bit like the (I think) “Wozniak tried to get the guys at HP to buy into his PC idea but they didn’t want to do it”  (Also a version of this with the xerox copier iirc and IBM or something like that). So the big corporation looks like a real buffoon.But while they could be clueless, we don’t have any idea at all of the 10,000 other ideas they rejected that never became Apple computer do we? The ones that they were right about. No records or stories of that in popular culture.It’s easy to work in reverse and think the wrong thing happened. But unfortunately we only have part of the picture. And of course Wozniak was selling the idea. Who knows what he said or how he explained what he did or what they thought of him or any of that. Details matter.
I like it. How do you separate qualitative advice from quantitative customer feedback? Make it almost-quantitative.
Here’s a nice little collection of advice that was ignored, with good resulthttp://readwrite.com/2010/0…My favorite is, “Children just aren’t interested in Witches and Wizards anymore.” – Anonymous publishing executive to J.K. Rowling, 1996.
.Haha, priceless.Well played.JLM.
Awesome. Have you followed this story at all? Kind of tangential to your comment, editors will still reject JK Rowling in 2013: http://voices.yahoo.com/jk-…
I had seen bits and pieces here and there. Thanks for the link!
“My favorite is, “Children just aren’t interested in Witches and Wizards anymore.” – Anonymous publishing executive to J.K. Rowling, 1996.”That’s similar in a way to the spanx lady story (Sara Blakely) about how she was turned down over and over by the factory owners (or something like that) until one gave her the chance.That’s where tenacity comes in…and more.Because you see you can’t just be tenacious.You have to be able to know enough to explain why you think your idea will work when someone who knows more than you do says it won’t. If you can’t do that, if you can’t sell your idea and counter the objections then you deserve to fail because the gatekeeper is only one obstacle you will have to clear.Now of course if your parents have always been telling you how wonderful you are you will have a hard time doing that and probably will stand to get frustrated much to easily.
A long time ago (before Harry Potter) I pitched a movie “Fineus Magee and the Great Doctor Karno” to a major producer’s director of development. The story was about a young boy who met a wizard and trained as his apprentice). He listened then explained to me that it was impossible to make a good movie about magic. I vehemently disagreed. But he had the money. Years later, after Harry Potter, I met the producer and reminded him of his employee’s insistence that such a movie was impossible. His reply “Yeah – he was an idiot. I fired him.” The moral of the story – there are no infallible experts in matters of popular taste.
I think there may be a positive correlation between bigness of idea and stupidity of comments (at least during an adoption phase) for good reason.If you think of an Elon Musk, Peter Thiel type challenge it may have the following characteristics….(It may help to consider an example eg – we are changing the way the world manages energy based on meter data)- A technology that is very domain specific (only a few understand)- Primarily B2B through select channels (rarified feedback – the *experts* a VC knows and trusts are hopeless)- Requires network co-ordination / co-operation between industriesThe result is a big vision in danger of dilution by numerous vested interests.In these circumstances I think you have to “make it work” and then get feedback. This is not the same as not testing hypothesis – it means that to test hypothesis a series of proofs of concept or bridges are required for early adopters / investors and other parties to get their head round what you are offering – While building bridges to further imaginary bridges that lead to an ultimate goal feedback is simply nonsense.For us when global titan companies (or their specialist departments) started “getting it” suddenly our feedback got much better – because the investor needs to know that what you have is attractive to someone whose preferences they simply cannot imagine. As a result they cannot “feel the pain” and by extension assume it is imaginary.
.I am a huge student of Dwight Eisenhower thinking him to be one of the greatest Presidents exactly because he did not engage in any big drama stuff on the surface.He balanced 8 budgets, kept us out of war, built the American nuclear arsenal, started the IH system and sounded the alarm as it related to the military-industrial complex.Got us out of Korea and did not let us get involved in Berlin, Quemoy, Matsu, U2, etc wars. And, yet his core competency was war.I have read everything as to how he made the decision to land on D-Day though he had gotten a bad weather report and advice going both ways.He took his own counsel and then decided to go. He went and visited the paratroopers on the runways because he had been advised that half of them would be dead by the next evening.He carried a Press Release acknowledging that the landings had failed, it was his fault and he was withdrawing the invasion force — in his pocket.He achieved tactical surprise with the largest invading force in the history of the world across only 22 miles of water.That SOB knew how to TAKE advice.Half of the advice equation is knowing how to take advice.JLM.
JLM – Great summary – but let me first correct you on a smaller point and then add to the great insights you have shared.The narrowest point of the channel is the Dover Straits at 22miles (where they swim it) – The Normandy landings were nearer 90 miles and thus even more impressive and exposed hence weather sensitive. (see map)I was with the German father of my Best Man earlier this month. We had dinner and he told me how he had seen British and American paratroops falling into the water with no-one to care for their deaths. (He as a child lived near Norden on the German Ost-Friesland Islands).With tears in his eyes he told me that the European peace premium was countlessly expensive, and this is why he so hates the petty politicking that threatens to tear Europe apart once more.I think he understands (as Eisenhower knew) how to keep an eye on the prize, but sometimes that the cost of a bridgehead might make no sense to those who could not see what could be secured thereby. – That is I think exactly the point of this post by Fred.
.Fair play to you. You are correct on all points.I was really focusing on the charade to get the Germans to think that Patton was leading the invasion against Calais — a feint — with the American Third Army which did not get committed to the fray until the Allies were hopelessly bogged down in the bocage country.The Patton (who started his military training at VMI before transferring to the VMI of the North often called West Point) charade and deception was a great piece of theater for which the final reviews were quite good.Another triumph by Eisenhower.JLM.
>> for which the final reviews were quite good.Great piece of understatment
Eisenhower was also a master at balancing interests. How would you like to be in the middle of Roosevelt, Churchill and De Gaulle, along with the corresponding generals that wanted credit? Also, Marshall doesn’t get the kudos he deserves for running interference. Compare Eisenhower’s conduct of the European theatre to MacArthur’s in Asia. Very different. Different types of battle as well, but very different in tenor of command.
> Got us out of Korea and did not let us getinvolved in Berlin, Quemoy, Matsu, U2, etc warsAnd Viet Nam. It took JFK, LBJ, Nixon, andFord to fall totally in love with “saving” VietNam — really to cover their asses so that noone could claim that they “lost Viet Nam”.So, to cover their asses, they inflated the USeconomy, thus causing the S&L crisis, killed50,000+ US soldiers, burned oil enough toempower OPEC, killed however many million VietNamese, overthrew Sihanouk, put in Lon Noll,who couldn’t stand, thus, enabled Pol Pot, oneof the worst in all of history, andaccomplished essentially nothing at allpositive. All we ever had to do was eitherdecline to go or just leave. In all of musicthe easiest note to play is the rest where donothing at all, yet some people have difficultywith it.Ike said we should stay out of a land war inAsia, and he was absolutely correct. But, thatmessage was too tough for JFK, LBJ, Nixon, andFord — and really too many US voters.And by a short extension, we should stay out ofa land war in South Asia, hint, hint,Afghanistan.Ike did have Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles,and George F. Keenan, all of whom from all Ican tell, saw absurd foreign adventures justeverywhere and wanted to throw US blood andtreasure at all of them.Keenan’s “long telegram” was big worrying about’democracy’. So, let’s see how that goes: TheUS, Canada, England, and Australia are alldemocracies, and we haven’t had to fight withany of them since about 1812. So, we conclude:If we take a country — try China, Korea, VietNam, Iran, Iraq, …, Afghanistan — and turnit into a democracy, then we won’t have tofight wars there, and they will love us, right?And the millions of people we kill on the way,well, they won’t be voting anyway, will they?I haven’t noticed England, Canada, Australia,Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Holland,Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Italy,Israel, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, SouthAfrica, Turkey, Hungary, Japan, Taiwan, SouthKorea, India, Thailand, etc. eager to rush offto US-like foreign adventures. The US is notcoming off as the wise policeman of the worldbut the dumbest guy on the planet, throwing hismoney away, bleeding himself white, and ruininghis country.That Ike picked Nixon was a bad move: Sure, by1960, Ike had kept Nixon from doing much harm,but by then Nixon was so well ‘connected’ inthe GOP that he could pursue total nonsense inViet Nam and still get elected twice althoughfinally run out of office.Heck, now I have a nice Brother printer made in– right, Viet Nam. The Brother is much nicerthan my HP 4p that gave up for no good reason.Viet Nam could have had peace from the time theJapanese left to the present all just from themagic of the US doing exactly nothing, e.g.,not supporting the return of the French.We didn’t like Ho Chi Minh and his ‘communism’and sucking up to Moscow and Peking, butactually he was no meaningful threat to USinterests. We couldn’t have lost any worsethan we did — being run out of Saigon withpeople hanging off the skids of helicopters –and what’s happened since is nothing at all badfor US interests. We had no business fightingthere.Ike was a closed mouth kind of guy: His’Crusade in Europe’ made it look too easy andhad a tough time getting down to crucialdetails. E.g., what really happened in theFalaise Pocket that kept Patton fromsurrounding the Germans? Why did Bradley makeso little use of big Navy guns at Omaha Beach?Why did we mess up so much at Anzio andSalerno? Just why the heck did we go intoItaly anyway? For the Chianti? No, Pattonwould have wanted the best Barolo!Yes, after Ike, we took for granted that nearlyanyone could be a good president, quit tryinghard to select presidents, accepted all kindsof stuff from the bottom of the barrel, andpaid a very high price.Incompetence in high places is a very uglything.
if my investor comes at me with 2 i then wonder why s/he invested
this is an issue for all early stage/first time founders/anyone seeking feedback…a quantifiable spreadsheet is a great way to track it, but another strong way to work through this is having a cofounderi often act as the face of the company, taking meetings in person and then come back to my cofounder Dan with the feedback. together we work through it and he’s able to sift through it without the rosy lens of an in-person meeting
one more note to mentors/advisors/people giving feedback – learn how to give good feedback and don’t be dogmatic in your discussion — especially you investors. this is a place where guys like Fred and Brad excel. they know from experience that they don’t know everything about your company and they just act as a sounding board…ironically, it’s often the younger/inexperienced investors who think they know everything and will try to advise as such
One of the many reasons that young VCs are dangerous http://www.avc.com/a_vc/201…
well said. a sign of wisdom is when the mentor/advisor asks questions rather than dispenses advice.
We recently started a firm, and have only one person under the age of 40.
That’s great. A second opinion as it were
yup… a second opinion from someone who knows the original charted course (which is another great way of avoiding whiplash)
That’s good advice!Seriously though you are right. This is why I believe in teams. I know there are others that don’t.There is nothing better than coming back from a rosy meeting and having a partner say. Damn that is the stupidest thing I ever heard.
i tell this to my team too…very easy for 2-3 people to get in a room, get going on an idea and get all excited without thinking through all of the implications behind it…always good to gut check
The one thing in my life that I am thankful for in this regard is that my cofounder is very similar and vey different from meIt makes it a lot easier to work things through.
.The Internet makes more information available on more things and in more ways than ever before. Much of that information is crap — untruthful on purpose, inaccurate, poorly reasoned, wrong.The percentage of accurate and truthful information is at an all time low.Advice falls into that same category as it is coming channeled and packaged and promoted in much the same manner with the Internet as a conduit.There is more bad advice out there than ever before. I have received some of it. I fear I have given some of it.I spoke about this the other day here: http://themusingsofthebigre…Wisdom is in the scarcest supply ever in my lifetime.JLM.
I fear I have given some of itWe all have
.What matters almost equally is how and why one gives it.I will never give advice — even to my children — unless when I ask “Would you like some advice?” they say YES.We all give way too much advice.BTW, Fred, I think you need to be doing……………..XYZ.JLM.
This was one of your best posts.Admitting that one can give out bad advice is so important, because some people will take whatever you say as Gospel.I think this is especially true with younger people. Jim beat me to the punch line because whenever I give advice I start off by saying this is worth what you paid for it. Ask Charlie.I think your point 2 is priceless.
I think people have to be careful of questioning themselves even if a percentage of the time they are wrong. That’s one of the great things about not having a boss you don’t have to worry about being right or wrong on any individual thing you just have to win the game on a gross basis.
Exactly. There is a lot more bad and inaccurate advice than good advice. I throw out 80% of stuff I read before deciding what to curate in.A good headline isn’t good advice. Some writers have gotten really good at the art of headlines to draw you to click.
This is exactly what I experienced in one of the startups I worked b4. We had the Management talking to folks with adnetwork experience on one day and coming with a plan for adnetworks, next day the discussion would be with folks experience working with publishers so on and so forth. It was really tough for us to pivot our business model every alternate day. Eventually the business went nowhere and had to shutdown
Fred, this is incredibly timely for me. Thank you.I’ve been feeling this frustration lately because there seems to be a mindset among many investors that the type of business I’m building (a network/connected affinity marketplace) will fail due to the “chicken and egg” problem. Despite the fact that literally every potential seller we contact signs up immediately, and we’ve amassed 10k users in just a few months.With basically no marketing budget.Sometimes, pattern matching does a disservice, not only to entrepreneurs but to investors themselves. There are a few out there who I’m pretty sure are going to kick themselves hard in a year or three for passing on my seed round because building a marketplace is “hard”.Thank you for the encouragement to remember that I’m the expert here. I need to push harder on that fact.
.There are some data points which trump advice — customers and dead bodies.JLM.
Indeed. “Man who says cannot be done should not interrupt man who is doing”
dead bodies are very useful feedback.
Diplomacy is required to deflect “advise” without seeming to reject it.Sometimes a tactic becomes valid later on.
This post is spot on. And it’s helpful to know I am not alone in this, always unsure of how to keep track of and/or process this unsolicited input. I do hold a belief that good ideas are hiding in the noise, and that tracking and reviewing the input (per the recommended spreadsheet) is wise.
Free advice should sometimes be taken at face value.
It’s up to the entrepreneur to recognize which “mentor” should become advisors with skin in the game. Then it’s more serious.
That’s generally what happens, at least in the best programs. Lots of ‘mentoring’ (whiplash) to start, but one of the goals is to find the fit with the 3-5 key people the startup wants to keep working with.
But it’s the accelerators that are setting up these “free” advice encounters. In my opinion, the value of the accelerator is not to have 67 mentors, but rather to propose a match of 3-5 and let the entrepreneur decide if they can get more engaged with them.The rest is input.
No argument from me. Not all advice is created equal, is what I think you’re saying…or what Fred was saying.
67 is extreme. The reason why our accelerator (Velocity Indiana) has a large number of mentors initially is because it is important for the 3-5 longer-term mentors to be relationships that naturally develop and are mutually a good fit for both parties. It’s the difference between speed dating to find a few good potential partners and an arranged marriage. Just my opinion.
Free is always a bad price.
Really? I thought it was a “marketers favorite word”?(I forget where I heard that)Clearly you like free wine tastings?
Not to this marketer.Payment comes in all sorts of currencies as you know.
It is. It’s one of those magic words. Except when it isn’t.When dealing with scare resources for example I would rather have things be “pay for what you want”. That way you aren’t competing with all the people who want to take advantage of free. (I’ve used the example of resort rental sailboats vs. “free” sailboats. With the free they are hard to get. With the “paid” they sit there and you can get one anytime.)Another example cruise ships have free food except for certain restaurants, the better ones, where you have to pay to get in.
Hmm, scarcity…that’s the ticket. Thanks.
Sometimes. People do have good will 🙂
Agree. I’ve given many people over the years free advice and I take it very seriously.
It’s worth every penny you paid for it.
the culture of free kills quality on the web.
I can see that
Fred agree with everything except “take as many meetings as you can get.” Meeting with tons of angels and investors generally does NOT drive the business. Building and shipping product, getting it in the hands of users, getting sales or not, talking to customers, that drives the business. And it doesn’t increase your domain expertise for the most part. I think the key is ask yourself why you are taking this meeting? For what reason? There will be angels who have relevant experience, great to hear their perspective. But other than that, why take the meeting, once you have capital? Even on the capital side, I would try and really qualify my meetings. There’s only so much time in the day and pushing out a great product trumps everything else 10x.
Great point Al
Fred you should also write a post on Board whiplash – after the first big funding round with 3 VCs and inevitably 1 or more has six trillion suggestions – same advice I gave earlier applies, focus on the product, it’s your company do it, and don’t react/chase down every single suggestion unless you like them!
This post would apply in most respectsI finally got around to reading Jobs and the scene in it where Steve Jobs shows the board the 1984 commercial is classic”Should we get a new ad agency?”
That was great. Same thing –> I read the Bill Parcells book I think after the second Super Bowl win and he tells the story of how his first year as HC he was getting tons of advice from everyone, and listening to everyone. And after he lost in the playoffs that year, hanging with his high school coach in the airplane back from the loss, he realized that no matter who he listened to, it was on HIM. If they failed, it was on HIM. If they succeeded it was on HIM. So from that day forward he vowed he was going to do it his way, as he was going to get the blame (or credit as it were) anyway. It’s pretty inspiring, at least for a Giants fan :-).
it seems that founders should have active reactions to investor/mentor advice – play with he ideas verbally >> brainstorm right there on the spot.a) its fun, #2 it helps us become more flexable — without nessisarily agreeing to do something more with the advice.deer in the headlights from either participant in this exchange should be a yellow flag.i cant stand it when someone gives me advice but then fails to engage in any meaningful conversation about it.
“i cant stand it when someone gives me advice nut then fails to engage in any meaningful conversation about it.”Jesus, ain’t that the truth.
oh yes, absolutely
I’ve been looking for the vocabulary to describe the situation Fred illustrates. A couple years back I was advice addict, and was whiplashed often: my life was a sum of what others felt was best for me.I forgot my own voice.So I became agnostic, turned down an advisory offer, quit my cushy manager role at a Big 4 accounting firm, and traveled to Asia for 6 months. Promised myself I’d stop saying NO to things I felt should be YES. Started a business in Boston. Began my location-independent lifestyle. Traveled to Latin America in 4 months. Against advice of advisors. Some of them were right, others not. I’ve become the other extreme where I rarely listen to advice, almost like a maverick. Might be bad for me, better to balance, but I will never go back to blindly following others’ advice given their perceived wisdom.
So I’m starting a company with a good friend engineering person of mine. I’m the person facing person.First thing I realized – talk to potential customers first for advice. At the end of the meeting, figure out the ask (to be a customer, to find other customers*, ect) Other people’s opinions in regard*Something I am realizing people you think could be customers may not be good customers for you for various reasons. Doesn’t mean they aren’t good contacts.Second thing – frame investor/advice feedback with what customers tell you in mindThird thing. Investor types know a lot of people – it might be better not to ask for money and ask for contacts instead. It is their (not your) prerogative to make investments – yours is to get customers. They can figure out whether to chase you without you begging. Yours, however, is getting customers. Asking for potential customers frees them up to think about the money issue separetely while making them feel helpful.(Note: My thoughts on this is primarily related to the fact that I am doing something b2b with what I expect is a longer sales cycle and a problematic demo process since my partner and I are looking to do merchandising site improvements without the end user, a customer buying things, knowing. My needs are different than your needs. YMMV, particularly if you are doing something that is consumer facing. And if you know anyone in ecommerce, I’m taking meetings to hear their thoughts on digital merchandising and their needs)
This is golden advice. I really struggled with this in my startup.I wish I had gone the spreadsheet route, to create a dispassionate veil around the firehose of advice which accrues to any serious networker.A suggestion: make it a form you pin to your phone, such as an Excel web app or Google form — so you can pull it in on the fly, real-time. You can enter it, forget it, and revisit when you’re ready.Investors can be helpful in ‘how to package for investors’ but that’s mostly it (important exceptions noted OH, HAI FRED.) They’re in the business of mostly “No thank you” unless they are a Yes, and not really motivated to help you that much. It’s not about you, and it’s not to say they’re jerks, it’s just not a priority for them.Consider entrepreneurs who’ve succeeded or failed at what you’re doing, for tactics and contacts. Also “odd connectors” — who see a lot of market activity but don’t have a vested interest in a specific outcome — for market context, competitive info and contacts..Personally, right now, when I talk to startup founders I’m particularly motivated by sharing the really awful mistakes I made, in hope they won’t repeat them. The seriously wince-worthy ones. (There are many!)Not sure if that’s helpful, or more about me making myself feel better.I do always try to use words like “consider this”, or “here’s another idea or angle”. I always say — you know your company, I don’t, so just put this in your basket of consideration.At the end I always ask, “Was this helpful?” though. They always say yes. I’m not sure if they’re telling the truth. :-)Because, really, what the hell do I know? It’s all opinion until and unless it works in the market.
@76621bc3ece3ac8b54dd0843104310f3:disqus I really love you. You have a gift for openness on top of clear thought.
urg, the linking isn’t working
Just tellin it like I see it. Hugs and kisses, @cynthiaschames:disqus
I know you probably are not ready to do this but I would absolutely love an MBA Mondays (or whatever Fred calls it) on your journey.I have said before, I love case studies, and I think the most interesting ones are where things just didn’t work out.These are the ones you never hear.
Lessons from a failed founder — I actually did a fireside chat w Eric Reis in Dec on it. He said I was the only person of like a thousand who applied to speak who was bold (stupid?) enough to open the kimono. Alas….
Gosh. “Failed founder” just sounds way to harsh. I’ll look for the video. It takes a ton of self confidence and inner strength to talk about things that didn’t work out.
Lean therapy. Box of Kleenex included. 🙂
You went on a journey. It didn’t go where you wanted it to go. You are at Microsoft a place where I made my worst career move ever when I turned them down to join an 8 person team that was Excel in 1989 because I didn’t want to do sales after the M&T program (and they offered to double my options)So hopefully it was like falling off a bike. You have some scrapes and bruises, but you will recover.
great comment. you are only a first time entrepreneur once!
Well written. Pretty spot on in my opinion
We all have a mechanism for this that we use daily for online reviews.Just do what you do on Yelp/Airbnb/Amazon – understand the motives of the reviewers and look for trends in the feedback. One cranky review is probably just that but 10 mentioning the same thing should probably merit attention.
Listen to Customers!
I hope you’ll chime in on this Gadgeteer:.I don’t know Fred about some of your comments. I’m finding that everyone everywhere has become an *advisor*. It appears no one actually *does anything*. When I talk with all the “independent contractors” for whatever services they say they are offering. The only thing they do is advise or coach. They don’t *do* anything. I always ask about what results they provide. But they don’t seem to know what I’m talking about..I provide results. It’s not that difficult..I wonder if all this “accelerator program” stuff is doing any good. The country still has ~60% non-participants. When the bottle (QE) is taken away we’re gonna’ be in big trouble. We wouldn’t need to explain so much to the accelerator people if they had started out learning at an already stable business. I just recently talked with a VC firm about what’s going on to help Detroit. I got no information of any value. They brushed me off by pointing to webpage links..Also, how many people should startup leaders talk to before they will just become confused by all the conflicting advice?.I just don’t see any *real* changes for the better in this country. Maybe I’m missing them. Feel free to attack me if needed. But I want some examples of real results. Does anyone have any?
> I just don’t see any *real* changes forthe better in this country. Maybe I’mmissing them. Feel free to attack me ifneeded. But I want some examples of realresults. Does anyone have any?Sure, we have many “*real* changes for thebetter” and “real results”.(1) Biomedical Research. We can sequenceDNA, and the price has fallen like a rock.From the DNA sequences, we can simulatehow the sequences make proteins and howthey fold — tough problem but there isprogress. So, for biological function,proteins, and DNA, we are seeing how tomove from any one of these three to anyother one. Such work is elucidating infine detail the mechanisms of biology,both normal and abnormal. With thosedetails we have one heck of an opportunityto disrupt the normal (e.g., killdangerous bacteria) and kill the abnormal(e.g., cancer).(2) GPS is a terrific resource in both warand peace.(3) Moore’s Law. That law is still movingahead. Intel is now down to what, 22nanometer line width? That’s ballpark 220atomic diameters. Now can buy an 8 coreprocessor, with 64 bit addressing,operating with a 4.0 GHz or so clock forless than $200. That’s big progress overjust the past 10 years. High quality ECCmain memory now goes for $9/GB — once Ipriced a 9 GB IBM disk drive at $1200 orso, and didn’t buy. Last I saw at Amazon,could buy a 3 TB hard disk for $135. Justsaw the announcement by Sony and anothercompany that they are going for 200 GB orso on one DVD; that’s 50 times more thanthe 4 GB in my current DVD burner.(4) The Internet. It’s rocking the world.(5) Fracking. It looks like fracking canwork over a surprisingly large fraction ofall the US from California to NY. Withfracking, the US can get some oil andnatural gas to push back some againstOPEC.(6) Auto Parts. Many of the mostimportant auto parts now last much longerthan they used to — tires, ball joints,engines, transmissions, and more.But, as you make clear,> The country still has ~60%non-participants.not all is a garden of roses in the US.But, largely we’ve done it to ourselves.We had it all and then messed up, bigtime, over and over.There’s an old saying, “A fool and hismoney are soon parted.”, and the US wasrich and threw away a lot of its money,market position, technology, companies,etc.There’s an old story about wealth in theUS, “Rags to rags in three generations.”,or in generation 1 there is a poor guy whois tired of being poor, works hard, andgets rich. In generation 2, his soncontinues the family business and is rich.But his son, in generation 3, no longer isso motivated or disciplined, blows themoney, and dies in rags. That story seemsto apply to the US as a country: We werepoor, got rich, lost motivation anddiscipline, messed up big time, and noware close to rags again.One cause is, the people at the top aredoing quite well, and many of them are nolonger motivated to lead in having the USdo well. So, we lose the value andpotential of their leadership. Suchpeople at the top might be in academics,politics, business, etc. So, they are’satificed’, i.e., have enough and want tolean back and take it easy. Of course,even if this is true, it is likely notnew.Another cause is, it’s tougher to be aHenry Ford or Andrew Carnegie because oflots of government regulations along theway. There is now a very long list ofgroups making a good living as do-goodersselling fear who would go bonkers at mostof what Ford and Carnegie did. Indeed,for nearly anything X at all new, thereare people who just right away take theopportunity to rush out and scream that Xwill make the sky fall, start trying topass laws against X, and screaming “sendyour money now”.Then there are people sometimes making agood living selling the idea that theworld is a nasty place and you need BigNanny State Government to provide you withsecurity and all essentials, just vote forour ticket of people to provide for you.And these people find a way to get a cut.Here’s an example: Good families dobetter parenting and have less in violentcrime, teen pregnancies, drug abuse, etc.And such families often have nice houses.So, take a bad family and get them a nicehouse. Then, presto, we will have anothergood family, right?Rushing right along and not over thinkingthis, now, let’s force the banks to makebad mortgage loans and have Fannie andFreddie buy up and guarantee the junkpaper and, indeed, a lot more junk paper,enough junk paper to blow another highlyleveraged asset bubble. Another? Surelyyou remember 1929? Such bubbles tend topop. It’s fair to argue that when thebubble in 1929 popped, we got WWII andkilled 50 million people, maybe 100million, I won’t argue over tiny details.So, our bubble blowing shot our economy inthe gut. We expected something else?It’s not just the inside of the US that’the great ones’ want to stay busy workingto ‘improve things’. Instead, they areeager to ‘save the world’. So, they areeager to bring what they regard as USstyle ‘democracy’, constitutionalgovernment, free elections, a nation oflaws and not men, capitalism, freedom ofreligion, full ‘unisex’ gender equality,McDonald’s and Pizza Hut on each majorcity street, etc. to the world. Yup, inViet Nam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. So, weblow our blood and treasure, help toempower OPEC, drain our own country ofinvestment capital, run up big nationaldebts, kill lots of people in the foreigncountries, and claim we are saving theworld for our great democracy.And we push ‘one world in peace andprosperity, unified with free, fair, andopen trade’ and ship our jobs to Asia,etc.Yes, I can believe that the nuns in theCatholic schools taught Melinda Gates theimportance of charity, but they didn’tconvince me that the main purpose of theUS should be to give itself away.What is happening in the US is that itremains one of the best places to getrich, and some people are doing just that.It’s like the US America is sinking sternfirst but the few rich people are at thebow which is actually rising out of thewater.One of the things we have to do is to cutthe Big DC nonsense: It’s throwing awayour seed corn, messing up nearlyeverything it touches (NSF and NIH areexceptions), and ruining our country. So,cut it back, way back, way, WAY back. Howfar? There was a recent ranking that therichest part of the US is Silicon Valley;second was the hedge fund area of SW CT;third — may I have the envelope please(drum roll). Yes, here it is: Within 100miles of the Washington Monument. HavingDC down somewhere closer to Scranton, St.Louis, Chicago, or Detroit would be a bighelp for the rest of the country.One of the first things is, cut the absurdforeign adventures. As in, “Just say ‘No’to going over there.”. Yes, it’s a messover there. We can go over there, blowour blood and treasure, kill a lot ofpeople, come home, and leave it a messover there. Got two messes, one reallycheap, do nothing, and one reallyexpensive. So, pick the cheap one.I can hear it now, “But, but, but, USnational security!”. Our nationalsecurity is important. But for the majorthreats, mostly what we need isinformation, intelligence, and it’scomparatively cheap. Then if there is areal threat, get the GPS coordinates, pusha button, and take it out. In Viet Nam,Iraq, and Afghanistan, there have been noreal threats; instead, there were a fewguys with box cutters. We’ve got to quitthrowing our country away on nonsense.So, what about W and Obama? Both canclaim to have thrown lots of US blood andtreasure at foreign ‘dangers’. So, theirasses are covered from criticism of “softon terrorism’. And personally they arevery comfortable financially while theyhave been bleeding the US white — tocover their asses against absurd charges.We’ve gotta stop that stuff. W spentballpark NPV $3 T covering his ass in Iraqand more elsewhere. Maybe if we had justbought him the NY Yankees he would havebeen just as happy.The ass covering is continuing: W and nowObama have wanted to trash the FourthAmendment so that even when they don’tpreempt the Boston bomber they can saythat they devoted enough resources. Toheck with the NSA phone data: TheRussians told us the guy was a dangerouswacko. Apparently we can trash all theConstitution and bankrupt ourselves forthe NSA and still not catch some wackowith a backpack and a pressure cooker.It’s simple guys: All the NSA data andtrashing the Fourth Amendment didn’t comeeven close to stopping the Boston bomber.So, since all the cost in money, privacy,the Fourth Amendment, and threats to ourdemocracy were essentially impotent,incompetent, and useless, just cut backthe NSA and save the money and theConstitution. Simple. The US will bemore and more poor until it can readilysee such a choice and, then, actually makethe decision to save the blood, treasure,Constitution, etc.Back to “A fool and his money are soonparted.”. Well the US needs to quit actinglike fools. To start, throw the fools outof DC.
Wow! OK, so I was just meaning that the economy isn’t getting any better. The markets are up but it doesn’t seem like its supported by growth..Anyway… You pointed out some nice *betters* (thanks). You also pointed out some *worsers*.
Fred – You are a true Bayesian
thank you. the highest compliment!
Fred, great post. I’m currently mentoring in 4 accelerators in NYC (TechStars, Dreamit, ERA, First Growth) & see lot of this happening.I make a point of stressing to entrepreneurs that they will get as many opinions as the mount of people they talk to, so always get at least 3-4 points of view & make your own judgment.Couple of nuances I’d suggest on your 3 points, and then will air a big concern I have about the current landscape I see -Re 1- There is a risk in following majority opinion. This applies well to incremental ideas, but the truly great ones that break the mold don’t fall into the mold of current thinking & many times most people won’t appreciate the innovation (even great investors & mentors), so entrepreneur conviction has to override – more on that point below.Re 2 – This also applies to investor think which often trails current trends and has a time lag, while great markets that will be created by entrepreneurs will not always be clearly visible in the present (here the truly great VCs make the value added to their LPs).Re 3 – In extreme cases of innovation this even implies to customers, who may not actually know what they want until they are presented with it(!)All of these points I make are terribly dangerous for one key reason – they imply the entrepreneur really knows the market very well.I am growing increasingly concerned by the amount of young entrepreneurs I see that are starting businesses in areas they have no personal or professional experience and have no passion about, because they think it’s a good business idea to make money from (not all, there are some amazing entrepreneurs I work with!).Then, they are wrapped up in theory, and cannot bring forward the force of conviction and the real insight to sift through all the feedback and noise.And they must fall into the common denominator, and majority think.
young entrepreneurs are a double edge sword. they don’t know enough to talk themselves out of doing something nutty. and they don’t know enough to know what’s right and wrong. we work with a bunch, but also are happy to back the grizzled entrepreneur who has seen it all and done it all before
I can believe that at times some of theadvice can be good.My experience says: (1) Nearly all theadvice just duplicates what the foundingteam easily thought of long before andnearly always rejected and with goodreasons. (2) Too much of the advice thatgets followed is really awful and can killthe company. (3) In some specialcircumstances, generally quite narrow andspecific, where fairly obviously thefounding team has little or no knowledgeor experience, some of the advice can beterrific. For (3) consider some poorlyknown but potentially valuable specializeddata sources for, e.g., marketing, somelegal advice on tricky points, advicebased on deep understanding of regulatoryissues, maybe some ‘Rolodex’ references.Generally can just ‘smell’ the differencebetween (1) and (3).E.g., in my startup, at some point I mightneed to do some deals with CDNs. I don’tknow anything about CDNs except Akamai isa big one but wrote a file downloadmanager that was a big security threatthat in one use to get a PDF on amotherboard at an Asus Web site infectedmy computer and forced me to rebuild allmy software installations where Iencountered terrible problems with SQLServer and NTBACKUP, worked through them,but lost a lot of time. So, if someone isa real expert on CDNs, then I will beready to listen.Once I was in a startup, since verysuccessful (right, FedEx). Just before Ijoined, I was a computer systemadministrator and lecturer in computerscience at Georgetown, and we had ameeting in a Georgetown library conferenceroom with some of the other founders andsome outside people with advice. That’swhen I saw the advice start.The advice was just awful. The meetingwas to discuss a real problem in thecompany, how to schedule the fleet, wasgoing nowhere, and the advice was hurting.Finally I just lost patience, spoke up,and said I would design, write, deliver,and use a computer program to solve theproblem. I did, and the program was quitesuccessful for the company (founder F.Smith said my work “Solved the mostimportant problem facing the start ofFederal Express”).Note: Update, yes, I was promised stockin my offer letter, and later Smith toldme I was in line for $0.5 million in stock(which would be worth 100 to 1000 timesthat now). But with the stock very late,I went for a Ph.D. and never got thestock, and some recent legal advice wasthat all things considered FedEx didn’towe me the stock. Ah, if my startup issuccessful, I’ll have more money thanSmith anyway!Later in the company, we got some advicefrom some members of the Board. Theadvice was that our operational plans forutilizing the fleet were doomed tofailure, didn’t have a chance, and thatadvice was based on some old experienceelsewhere in aviation for something atleast superficially relevant. But commonsense said that our plans were okay andthat the old experience was not veryrelevant.A VP and I took out some time after dinnerone evening and used my computer program,and the results convinced the skeptics onthe Board. The computer output showed ouroperational plans, a schedule down to thelast minute for the whole fleet, and,partly from the care of the calculationsand the clarity and precision of theoutput, indirectly showed that the planswere solid. In that way the outputindirectly but successfully addressed theconcerns of the Board.The Board’s concerns were a case of (2),and they hurt. We needed the program Iwrote, but we wasted too much time andeffort on those silly concerns of theBoard.Net, the founding team knew what the heckthey were doing, as in Ross Perot’s old”finger tip feel”, and the Board didn’t.The founding team was thinking about thework all day, seven days a week; the BoardMembers were nearly all just flying inoccasionally; and with that difference inlevel of effort the Board Members did nothave enough in special smarts, knowledge,or experience to compete.Maybe in the end the Board’s main concernswere just their image for how well theywere handling their fiduciaryresponsibilities, and maybe the main roleof the computer software was that itprovided output for the Board Members touse to cover their asses. That is, if thecompany flopped, the Board Members didn’twant to get ‘blamed’ and wanted a readyexcuse for what they did, e.g., thecomputer output.WHAT a waste of time, money, and effort,based on CYA considerations.So, here’s some such politics: If thefounding team usually just declines toattend meetings where there is lots of offhand, self-serving CYA, etc. advice frommentors, advisors, investors, etc., thenif the company encounters problems it willbe more difficult for the team to beblamed for rejecting that ‘wonderful’advice they were given!Or, the team sees two options, A and B.For each option there is plenty of highlyregarded, ‘blue ribbon’, supportiveadvice. Then no matter what the teamdoes, and no matter if the startup issuccessful or not, some of the advice canclaim to have been right. In particular,if the startup fails, then can blame theteam for some advice that was given thatthey rejected. This is a lot ofdestructive political nonsense.So, I’d say, if there is some advice, thenlet’s have a carefully written paper wherethe advice is made crystal clear and veryspecific and backed with rock solidevidence. I prefer mathematical theoremsand proofs at the level of precision ofvon Neumann, P. Halmos, W. Rudin, J.Neveu, or Bourbaki. Otherwise, except forcase (3), let’s just call the advice a wayto waste time and effort and lose sleepand confidence and raise frustrationstirring tea leaves.Here’s some advice: Of course W. Rudinhas a nice proof of the completeness inthe L^2 norm of complex valued functionson measurable spaces. Astounding result– amazing that any such thing could betrue. The results we want to give ourusers are values of square integrablerandom variables. So, with Rudin’stheorem, those random variables form aHilbert space. Astounding. So, we wantto approximate those random variables bysome more square integrable randomvariables by exploiting, in part, thecompleteness result. Just what is itabout this theorem that is less thancompelling for our work? Are there waysin our context to buttress Rudin’s theoremto make our work more compelling? Adviceanyone? Or even if soon after we go liveour work is effective in some narrowfields, how can we have confidence thatour work has the power to be “somethingbig”? Or, how can we see the future withsome confidence?Here’s some more advice: We have a nice,dirt simple key-value session state storeworking very well (“Look, Ma, don’t need aCisco box to provide session affinity!”).The timings indicate that on a 3.0 GHzprocessor it should have performanceenough to handle session state for sending1000 Web pages a second. Okay, what areour good options for making that sessionstate store not a single point of failure?Advice anyone?The session state store is single threaded(“Look, Ma, no locking!”), and the onlybuffering is from the TCP/IP stack with adefault FIFO queue length of 100. Whatmore should we consider in such bufferingin such a ‘distributed’ system? Adviceanyone?Initially we will want a simple way to runsome simple ads one banner ad at 720 x 90pixels and a few of the ads at 300 x 250pixels. What are some easy ways to getthe ads to run? How does thebilling/payment process work? Adviceanyone?
But Fred, Let’s not forget that mentors and coaches can be a wonderful thing, if the match happens well. I just reviewed Matt Blumberg’s book Startup CEO, and in it he says you introduced him to a coach in 2001 because he had to “do a better job in a few areas”, and that coach turned out to be “his most valuable assets and advisers, even giving him credit as one of a few reasons Return Path is still in business!”http://startupmanagement.or…
I allowed our team to fall victim to this whiplash and we have never fully recovered. Within the first 5 days of the accelerator last June we were told our idea wasn’t going to fly by 2 mentors. For a few weeks we struggled with our direction, lost confidence and ultimately pivoted (probably not for the better).For the last year we have been trying to make this “pivot” pay off but in reality we never really found our footing. It is tough changing directions mid-accelerator but the mentors are not to blame; there are many other factors contributing to our struggles. It was my responsibility to make sure we thoughtfully considered the feedback and applied it in a constructive manner.Our issues go well beyond this topic but the initial exposure to critical mentors was an experience of great impact. To a founder, the alumni from our cohort has said “I wish we could be starting the accelerator today given what we now know.” The advice I pass along is for founders to team up with a few mentors that provide actionable steps to validate or invalidate a particular model or idea, mentors that support the passion and drive to succeed even if they aren’t big fans of the idea and those that offer training and coaching on lean methods for getting to 1.In the end, I realize this is about building a business, not apps. From now on, I will lean on mentors who know how to build a business and find joy in helping others build theirs.
Great post and timely to boot. I too would question the value of having too many meetings too close together. I used to do that. I felt momentum in the feedback/tuning cycle was a good thing. What happened is I was missing the ability to go back up a few thousand feet or discern the pattern. I’m speaking more to engaging with my market than investors and a spreadsheet list that probably was too linear. In any event, a combination of long walks and shopping therapy ultimately did the job. The breakthrough came this past Saturday morning. Seriously. And it ruined my plans for a weekend of more shopping therapy.
It makes sense that Whiplash is an Accelerator injury. Thanks for the diagnosis. I have just recovered from a bad case of it.It would be good to get a symptoms list going for earlier diagnosis. Anyone care to add symptoms they have seen or experienced?
The is a really good post. “Advice fatigue” is a big problem.Here’s something I came up with in the movie business that I realized is much more broadly applicable.Whenever you go into a meeting and get a raft of advice put each piece into one of 3 buckets.i) that is absolutely brilliant – why didn’t I think of that? I can’t wait to go back and implement it. (this is maybe 1% of all advice if you are very lucky)ii) that is the dumbest thing I have ever heard – this person just doesn’t get it. I am going to forget about it instantly (this is perhaps 5%)iii) well yes – I could do it that way. It doesn’t seem to be that different and I could certainly implement it without major cost (94% ie the overwhelming majority.)Here’s the problem. i) and ii) are very straightforward – implement or ignore. But iii) is an extremely insidious category of advice. Why? Because if in an effort to please you change your product/strategy/whatever whilst any one of such changes may seem insignificant, by a mysterious alchemical process as you implement more and more of these individually apparently insignificant changes you lose something important. In a screenplay one might say that the story loses its ‘voice.’ And guess what, when you present your changed version back to the person with all the little changes they proposed – they don’t like it. The original was better! They don’t know why, all the changes were things they thought would be improvements! But something is now broken. The integrity of the offering has been compromised.So in meetings, my advice is – keep your ears open for the 1% of gems and just ignore everything else because all of it is either stupid or dangerous. And attempting to satisfy will only make matters worse.
This is a really big issue and a great post.
On the side of the entrepreneur getting this advice, it’s important not to “blindly agree” and say yes to all feedback — advisors are looking for you to evaluate their advice against your vision and inside knowledge. Both parties get more value if you’re willing to constructively say “no”.
“You are the domain expert on your business.”But probably not the domain expert on business most likely. Ideas are only part of the equation. If you think you just graduated business school and that makes you a business expert you might want to wait a few years.Advisors/mentors who have no agenda are a purer form of advice. Investors have their own agenda. They want to invest in “bigger ideas” and “larger outcomes”Exactly.PG is known for this I believe:http://www.paulgraham.com/a…In general people tend have an axe to grind more than they don’t.I was watching one of those real estate shows (think it was Selling NY) and someone wasted the time of a friend who was a salesman on the show trying to find a new apartment in NYC. After much work the agent (character on the reality show) found out that the person was getting transferred to another city for a new job. They found out when the friend said “I know you are going to be happy for me! I got a job in another city so I don’t need the place here anymore! Isn’t that great!”. (My summary not exactly dialog iim.)How clueless can you be?How would you like to spend your time helping someone only to find out that all that time you spent will result in nothing? Guess what? I wouldn’t be happy and I would find it particularly disturbing if someone I had spent weeks helping thought that I should be happy “for them”. That’s what you have parents for. Or a dog or pet. Business is business. People are in business to make money. (Exclude anyone who has either made money or has enough money that they can act selfless.)
Great post and especially beware of those pple/investors who exhibit a great deal of hubris from the get-go, those who almost seem to be preening with cynical commentary.On the other hand, there are pros like your partner, Albert Wenger, with whom I actually met with a few years ago about another project, who gave advice in a thoughtful and human albeit efficient way. In other words, he cut to the chase straight to the major challenge at hand which had to do with game development (and accurate BTW).His ego was left somewhere else and felt it was a productive meeting – was so impressed with his style and substance.
he’s really good at getting to the tough part quickly
Thank you! Startups are paying more attention to the art of startup-ism than building a company. Sometimes you have to just stop twisting in the wind,l take a stand, place your bets and let the dice role.
I think there’s a follow up post you could do on how to give advise to startups.Having gone through this a few times as a startup, I try to only advise startups on the areas they brought me in for (usually marketing and business model) but downplay my advise on things I know I’m not an expert (design).I don’t throw every idea at them or argue with them about everything. I see this a lot with advisors brought in from big companies. They’re used to challenging things in big companies, but fail to appreciate that most of what they’re seeing with a startup will change anyway.I try and focus on encouragement and being positive rather than just being negative.I try and give directional advice, early on in a startups life and save my “line in the sand” arguments for the areas where I’m an expert AND I really think it’s important to get something right (like customer transparency around their business model).I don’t know if my approach is right but I feel like I’m there to guide them not stress them out more. They get plenty of that on their own.
The best advice triggers an aha! moment. You know it when you hear it. It instantly reasonates.(Was gonna fix this but i like reasonates better lol)And often, its not a set of instructions, but rather encouragement to look at the problem from a different angle.As is oft quoted…”if we have data then lets see the data, if all we have are opinions lets go with mine.”
“Advisors/mentors who have no agenda are a purer form of advice. Investors have their own agenda. They want to invest in “bigger ideas” and “larger outcomes”.
I like Ash Maurya’s process. Lay out your business model, then ask “What’s the riskiest part of my plan?” This helps you get focused feedback.
Having had a ton of experience with this (via my role in Techstars), I posted some additional thoughts that focus on the positive side of this, which include what I think is the fundamental “teaching lesson” around this in the accelerator context.http://www.feld.com/wp/arch…Hopefully it’s additive to Fred’s post.
“Advisors, mentors, and investors are not the market for your product.” — my biggest problem with the accelerators is that their focus has been on getting companies funded and take the approach that mentors and investors are indeed the market.
“mentors and investors are indeed the market”…the single largest contributor to most derailments of an otherwise promising opportunity.Not that mentors or investors aren’t important…but that acquiring them supercedes the mission.
Great point. This should be a more overt disclosure of an accelerator program – if it is the case. In some cases, an accelerator is 100% OK with a company that is not going to be fundable – and focus primarily on building great entrepreneurs.
When we created the FounderFuel Accelerator we though long and hard about this issue.We created a “mentor day” at the beginning of the program that allows founders to spend an hour with each of 8 different “mentor groups”. Rather than have a Q&A type session, the founders are recommended to “curate a conversation” BETWEEN the mentors about their business. The mentors challenge each other about the pros and cons of the business, with the conversation being guided by the founders.(this is equivalent to Fred’s “totality of feedback”)The result is two-fold: 1) The founders come away with 8 (often very different) “consensus opinions” on their business – resulting in less whiplash. 2) The founders get to hear mentors debate with each other – which helps immensely in selecting those mentors that they may want to have more involved on an ongoing basis.This process has also proven to be immensely valuable for mentors too – they get to hear how other mentors think about business opportunities. This is great learning for the mentors but also leads to many inter-mentor business relationships in the future e.g. I have found number of senior management for many of my startups (i’m a VC) from the people I have mentored alongside.
Word. I meet with entrepreneurs often and while many have domain expertise, they lack the conviction to lead me or anyone down a path. That path – based on their POV being right and good and navigable – has to lead somewhere. If they can’t lead me, how are they going to lead their first ten customers, their first ten hires, and so on until an entire market realigns to their POV. If you don’t believe in your own POV, no one else will either
Great advice. I often hand out advice to startups and then tell them to ignore it and follow their own path. Unless the advice is good. But figuring out when I’m handing good advice vs. bad is difficult and hairy.I often catch myself asking “is this advice going to help the startup?” It often helps me clarify why I’m giving the advice in the first place.
We’re doing a raise exclusively from customers – 100% strategic. It’s amazing how different the questions are and thoughts about outcomes. Success is still everybody’s expectation and goal. Such a stark contrast to my first ever Series A raise and our first board meeting…which was all about what do we do to raise an up round in Series B.
Another excellent post on a topic with which I’ve become quite familiar these past couple years working at an accelerator. What got my attention were your recommendations for managing the disparate “drive-by” advice, in particular the use of a spreadsheet to structure some of the data to discover trends. This got me thinking, however, about the discipline that is required from founders/managers in order to be consistent with their data collection…not an easy thing to do.I see so many young, hungry entrepreneurs trying to do too much too fast, which often results in an emphasis on data quantity over quality. What advice would you give to startup founders, especially those without much real-world business experience, when it comes to establishing a culture of discipline/diligence? How much “structure” is too much when doing market research (or getting mentor/investor feedback) at the very early stages…to the point that it becomes a distraction? What is the proper balance of ‘metrics’ vs. ‘gut?’ Found an old post of yours about a similar topic relating to investors, but didn’t see anything geared to founders (pardon my ignorance if I’ve missed it). Perhaps you can address in a future post?
Point 2 definitely rings true, feedback from investors is often about what would make the company a better fit for their strategy which may not always suit the company. However you do need to fit with some investors to raise funds & investors do see their strategy as the best route to successful companies
One thing I’d add is to try to understand the rationale for a piece of advice.Many entrepreneurs are quick to discount or follow advice without truly understanding either the direction or the motivation being suggested. By understanding it, an entrepreneur can then figure out how it aligns with their own priorities or fits into their worldview or understanding of the markets and make their own minds up about the piece of advice.
It seems like a problem in the moment but the longer term benefits are worth it.We got hit hard by mentor whiplash in TechStars last year; looking back it was the best part of the program. Although we lost several weeks being whipped around so much we came out with a much clearer picture of what we are doing and why. It forced us to take a hard look at our assumptions and justify them, and it taught us how to process feedback properly.I now tell everyone who asks about TechStars that there are three huge benefits to the mentor whiplash in the first month of the program:1. Processing feedback: aside from the occasional useful nugget, feedback from mentors or anyone is colored by their personal experience and on its own usually isn’t worth much – even if that person has been extremely successful in their own field. But, if you talk to lots of people and many of them say something similar it’s a strong signal that you should think more about it. The only way to get that signal is to talk to lots of people.2. You get really, really good at concisely communicating about your business and quickly learn what parts of your message resonate with people.3. Meeting so many mentors all at once improves the chance that you’ll quickly connect with someone who can really add value over the months and years to come.
If the investor/advisor/mentor hasn’t helped your new venture get in front of customers or build your product/service, they might be irrelevant. Start measuring these two things accordingly.
Fred, I love your blog, but on this topic, you’ve missed the point. A key value of incubator/accelerators is to let entrepreneurs quickly and thoroughly research all potential to-to-market strategies. Very few non-accelerated teams I’ve met have looked at even three paths forward.The slew of mentors lets the teams explore a dozen ideas, using the brainpower of a dozen or more of experienced business people, from a wide breadth of backgrounds. That is a pool of thought no non-accelerated team can put together on their own, and certainly not on a daily basis for weeks on end.At Fledge, my program, the “fledglings” commonly complain about mentor whiplash in week 3. I take that as a sign of success. At that point, they now have more ideas and advice than they imagined possible, and can use the best of it to find focus for the next 3-4 weeks, validating what they then choose as the right path. And when that path proves invalid (3 out of 4 times), thanks to the mentors, they have Plan B, C, … Z already in mind, instead of going back to a blank sheet or worse, pressing onward with the wrong idea.
“You have to learn to hear that feedback but not react to it.” So true. Great post.
Good post Fred. A greater macro problem in the mentor/advisor role is the quality of advice being given. There are far too many accelerators/incubators run by individuals/groups who have zero experience in having created a business and the trials and tribulations that go with it. In addition, most have never raised a dime for any deal and have no clue what it takes to sell. It’s akin to the cab driver who 6 years ago stated he was flipping properties on the side. Or, simple wordpress developers who claim to be UI/UX experts.
This post came at the absolute perfect time for me. Thanks @fredwilson:disqus.
Mentor feedback should be significantly more focused on sharing of experience and guidance of the process. And if the mentor is a domain expert on the topic, then advice on the product/service is legit, but still has to be carefully considered.
Going through an accelerator, my cofounder and I definitely experienced mentor whiplash. And I totally agree that we really need to back up and digest as opposed to act act act. And that I think was one problem with the accelerator.It was mentor whiplash followed by accomplish as much as possible in three months. And I think we acted in some confusing ways, and now we are working on going back to a lot of what we had in the beginning due to customer feedback. 😛
@11b432e30c1149ad5057db42638391ba:disqus succinct, accurate, and clear.
Ha! How much is an upvote worth?
well played 😉
Sale today, Jim. My $0.02 for merely $0.01.
a bright and shiny pebble
Ha! Well played Andy, well played.
did you ever ponder on why there is no “cents” icon on a keyboard…dollar sign sure…but no cents….hmm….wonder if that’s a good startup idea…a new keyboard layout? 🙂