October 8, 2013

Dangerous Advice

This essay is inspired by this week’s Startup Edition topic, “Where do you get advice?

Startup advice is everywhere. Books, blogs, podcasts, comment threads, and face-to-face conversations inundate us. Everyone has an opinion, experience to share. That’s a great thing, but advice taken blindly can be dangerous.

Here are some truths I’ve internalized when seeking and giving advise.

  • Context matters. Your market, audience, and several other factors must be considered. Advice given to an early stage mobile consumer app is much different than a mature, SaaS business. This is of course an extreme example but even a slight lack of context can render advice useless or worse, damaging.
  • Context changes. Markets and people change. As technology evolves and new user behaviors form, so must startups. Zynga and many other early adopters of the Facebook platform, capitalized on the social network’s API and loose policies to create a massive audience through highly viral techniques. Quickly the gold rush faded as Facebook added restrictions and contracted its API capabilities. The context changed and Zynga’s growth engine was crippled overnight. Tactics and “best practices” that worked yesterday, may not be applicable today.
  • Disagreement is good. As Nir Eyal describes, when there’s consensus around a particular idea, the market becomes extremely competitive as everyone chases the same goal. Some of the most successful startups like Twitter, were non-consensus ideas. Early on, many doubted the value of 140 character SMS updates. Today it’s remarkable influence is unquestionable. Going against popular perception is your best strategy more often than not.
  • Advice rarely provides the answer. No advisor, blog, or book knows your business as well as you do. At best, advice can identify wrong answers, pointing you in the right direction. This is why the best advisors and mentors don’t necessarily tell you what to do. They ask the right questions. They influence your way of thinking. At best, advice is a metal detector, a tool to help entrepreneurs navigate but you still need to do the hard work to find the hidden treasure.

So advice isn’t very useful, right? Absolutely not. There’s much to be learned from experienced entrepreneurs and those that can offer a unique perspective. But be conscious of how you digest this advice. Poke holes in it. Adapt it to your context. Recognize it’s probably not the silver bullet you’re looking for.

And most importantly, remember:

It’s dangerous to blindly accept startup advice.

— Ryan Hoover (@rrhoover) July 23, 2013

Need advice? I have a ton of (questionable) advise on startups and product design on my blog. :) If you’d like to hop on a call, book time with me on Clarity.

Visit Startup Edition to read more essays on this topic from fellow entrepreneurs.

More Writing by Ryan