Taking Startup Advice

Are you a young twenty-something fresh out of college (or dropping out of college)? Do you consider yourself a hustler? Ever feel like no one gets you and you could never work for someone else? Then you’re probably thinking of starting a startup (oh how I loathe that word). If so, I’ve got advice for you and if you’re like every other idiot founder out there you’re probably going to ignore it so you can leave now. Because you’re a special snowflake that has it all figured out. For the rest of you who are serious about business keep reading.

Here’s the point in a nutshell for those of you who just don’t have time and need a summary: take the advice of others and don’t blaze your own trail. The stories of striking it rich and those “go big or go home” stories are really just folklore. Those stories suffer from a survivorship bias. For every pep talk article you read about renegade, self-made millionaire founders there are a dozen more failures you’re not hearing about. You can learn a lot from those who failed before you. One common thread that runs through a lot of the failure stories are young founders who did things “their way”.

Take advice from your parents

When your parents tell you that your idea to start a company with no prior experience is crazy, maybe listen to why they think that. They might have a good point or two. I’m not telling you not to go for it, just take in that advice. Some of it is going to be useful and some you’ll ignore. Don’t be that person that learns the hard way what your family warned you about.

Your employees have great advice

Your employees probably have a better idea of how things are going with your business than you do. You may know the numbers, the long term and short term plans, and have “vision” but the people who work for you know how morale is overall way better than you do no matter how hard you try to be the cool boss. An anonymous suggestion box is always a good idea in an office. If it gets used a lot then morale is high and most of the ideas will be ignored (which is fine) except for a few nuggets of wisdom. If it stops getting used for a while or you rarely get suggestions then morale is likely low.

As long as your employees are talking to each other and you that’s a good sign. Do the people who work for you know what goal they’re pursuing, does it align with the company goals, and do all of your employees see it the same way? No? Maybe? Get their opinions. Don’t let them run the company but get some insights.

Listen to people who’ve been there before

This one should be obvious. You need a network of fellow entrepreneurs (preferably ones who’ve failed before) so they can spot issues with your company before you do or that you might know you have but are in denial about. A person with breadth of experience is better than a person with depth of experience. Usually you find that the guys who have only worked for themselves have a great depth of experience in doing one thing and one thing well while the guys who have had a variety of experiences (preferably in a wide spectrum of roles from low level employee to executive positions) are the ones who have insights that are far more valuable than those founders who have only worked in a narrow capacity.

Listen to people older than you

When you’re in your twenties you’re as stupid and cocksure as you can be. Don’t be that young prick who cargo cults ideas, idolizes the Silicon Valley way, and only decides things based on hard data and your partner. Listen to your elders. Listen to the guys who are older and that seem like they don’t get it. Trust me, they get it, they’ve been there, they’re over it, and they want to show you how to do things right and help you avoid doing things the hard way. It’s a lot like listening to your parents. They’ve gotten to where they are now by having to make the tough choices and have the benefit of hindsight to help give some great advice.

Listen to your instinct

Now I’m just contradicting myself, right? Not really. We never talk about absolutes when talking advice. For every person or group of people you talk to you’ll need to filter out the good, relevant advice from whatever doesn’t apply to you. How do you know the difference? Well, this is the one part where you need to trust your instincts and learn from your own mistakes. Not all advice is created equal and you’ll need to evaluate how well a person understands your company, your situation, and figure out how to filter their advice.

Don’t forget to give orders

A company is not a democracy. You may have a cool startup where everyone is best buds and you consider them your family but I’ve seen first hand how these “families” turn into disgruntled people you just work with. Things happen, layoffs happen, firings happen, and you’re not always going to be everyone’s best friend. That’s why you still need to keep some semblance of a dictatorship. Companies are not democracies!

Get feedback from your employees. That’s great. Ask for votes on some things. Give everyone the illusion that they have some control over the direction of the company but in the end be sure to give orders when you feel strongly about something. If you rarely, if ever, feel strongly about a decision then something is wrong. People respect strong leaders and will follow them. The people in your company who have great ideas worth listening to will naturally rise to the top. They’ll present those ideas clearly and effectively and you can choose to take them or you can tell them no. In general, however, taking a vote on features too often leads to a situation where there are too many cooks in the kitchen and the result is a shit stew of random ideas.

Predict future behavior

One last thing. Past behavior is the best indicator of future behavior. So if your CEO is prone to creating one-off, fire-and-forget, hit-and-run companies and then decides he wants to partner with you to build a “real” company that they “really believe in”, be careful. At the first sign of trouble that same person will revert to their old ways and have no problem stripping your company for parts to avoid taking a hit financially. All the advice in the world doesn’t mean squat when you have a majority stakeholder who can upend the entire company on their own.

So to summarize:

  1. Stay vigilant
  2. Read what I wrote above
  3. Don’t go down with the ship
  4. Oh, and take that good advice being thrown your way

Business, Startups

« How much should a developer make?

Comments