Start-ups are drowning in a sea of advice

By Tim Grimsditch on February 14th, 2012

The day we started Six3, the advice began. The floodgates opened and the advice flooded in. Advice came from experts, peers, outsiders, scenesters, newbies, wannabes and the occasional blagger. It came in the form of meetings, casual conversations, blog posts and the odd laser-sharp tweet (my current favourite is by Michael Jackson of Mangrove: “Build a painkiller, not a vitamin”).

As the deluge of advice increases, you have to filter some out, just to manage the volume. And gradually your cynicism tells you to block it all out and follow your own path. You’ve started a business because you wanted to be in control. Do the advice-givers really understand your situation?

It is easy to become disillusioned. Two weeks ago I attended a reputable start-up gathering and watched an incomprehensible presentation about giving great presentations. Two days later I read an article called “15 Things Successful CEOs Want You To Know”. It included advice from someone who had been a CEO for 21 days. Three weeks of hard earned experience resulted in this gem: ”Follow your gut. It may be wrong, but you won’t regret it if you fail.” So the advice is to ignore advice?

But, just as you start to lose faith, a simple conversation changes your thinking permanently. Last week we attended the Seedcamp event in London, which involves an intense series of mentoring sessions. We were keen to talk to one of the mentors, Alexis Dormandy, chief executive of LoveThis and ex-chief marketing officer of Orange.

We thought we would hear some high level thoughts on marketing and positioning our business. Instead, we got a 20-minute workshop on one key metric of our business (viral co-efficient, I won’t bore you with the detail). That conversation crystalised months of thinking and thousands of data points to a simple observation – we would live or die by our ability to improve that number. Priceless advice.

Advice As Currency

Like it or not, the exchange of ideas and opinions is the currency of start-up culture. The open-source software movement is the most obvious manifestation of that culture, but the same values are embedded in how businesses interact. A Silicon Valley entrepreneur once told me – without a hint of sarcasm – that he had raised VC funding not for the $5m of capital, but for the mentorship and relationships that his investors brought to the game.

An extreme example, perhaps, but it seems that a successful and vibrant tech scene is entirely dependent on the flow of ideas, connections, and of course advice.

So how does the entrepreneur parse out the good from the bad? Surely if the person giving advice has never started and run their own tech business, they have little to offer the aspiring startup leader? Andrew J Scott’s recent Kernel article flagged up the many areas where VCs find it hard empathise with the pressures of entrepreneurs – though I suspect there’s an interesting debate to be had exploring the opposite phenomenon, too.

Do advisors who have never run a business have useful advice for start-ups? Or are they just handing on second-hand observations, drumming up business for themselves? Sure, there will be examples of bad, ill-informed advice, but as often as not, the difference in experience is what makes the advice valuable. Not every great coach has been a player.

So perhaps you should look at how the advice is given. Surely advice should be given good naturedly, in an effort to help? When Six3 was still a glimmer of PowerPoint I had my first meeting with a VC (she’ll remain nameless, but I’ve narrowed the field). I suspect she had agreed to the meeting as an obligation to a mutual friend.

What followed was a full spectrum teardown of our plan. Weaknesses were meticulously identified and ruthlessly exposed with probing questions. Feelings were not spared. An hour later I felt pretty bruised, but realised I had a lot of work to do. Seven months later, that meeting stands as one of the pivotal moments for the business.

Then again, perhaps the best advice givers are experts in their fields. When we completed the first prototype of our product, we invited some trusted friends to give us feedback. One of our advisors was, it is fair to say, technically illiterate. She had previously claimed that Six3’s invitation process was broken.

But it turned out that she had entered a landline telephone number into a field marked “Invite by email”, and was surprised that the invitation had not been delivered. Despite all that, she asked us several questions during a session with her that did lead us to change a key feature of the product.

Advice as a question

So, after months of relentless advice, we continue to oscillate between letting too much in and blocking too much out.

I suspect as the business develops, as we need to master new topics, the torrent of advice will only increase. But we have worked out two things. The first is that the best advice comes in the form of questions. It is rarely a directive, but usually a question designed to challenge our thinking.

The second thing is that, without the advice, we would not have achieved half as much as we have.