All Advice Isn’t Good Advice (Including This Advice)

Plat of fortune cookies.
Plat of fortune cookies.
The startup world has plenty of wisdom. Do you have a way of filtering the good from the bad?

One of the best characteristics of the entrepreneurship community is people’s willingness to give advice. Experienced entrepreneurs willingly and eagerly spend dozens of hours each year mentoring young entrepreneurs. When asked why, most will give the same answer: they’re “paying it forward” in appreciation for the hours of advice and mentoring given to them early in their careers.

Unfortunately, mentorship is a double-edged sword because advice — even experienced and well-meaning advice — isn’t necessarily good advice. Let me share an example…

I met a young entrepreneur for coffee, and he pitched me an IoT concept he and a couple friends were working on. It was a vague idea. The team was hardly beyond the “me and my buddies want to be entrepreneurs so let’s figure out something to work on together” stage.

After explaining his idea, he said: “Someone else we were talking to suggested we partner with Cisco, IBM, Lenovo, or one of the other big tech firms in the area. Do you know anyone at those companies you could make an intro to?”

“Seriously?” I asked, with the same facial expression I make when sniffing my infant daughter’s pants to check for a dirty diaper. “That might be the worst advice I’ve ever heard. Who told you that?”

I assumed the answer would be someone whose experience with startups consisted of watching a few episodes of Shark Tank and Silicon Valley. But it wasn’t. Instead, it was the leader of one of the most prominent entrepreneurship education programs in the region. Heck, if our credentials were put side-by-side, he’d surely be thought of as “knowing more.”

“Why is that bad advice?” the student asked, clearly not pleased with my response.

“You’re three guys tossing around ideas,” I explained to the student. “You might have the best idea in the history of ideas, but, at this stage, nobody could possibly know. Cisco and IBM and Lenovo aren’t going to partner with you because you haven’t proven anything. You haven’t proven a need, you haven’t proven an opportunity, you haven’t proven a market, you haven’t proven a strategy for accessing that market, and, most importantly, you haven’t proven that any of you have any competency to address any of the shortcomings I just described. Forget partnering with you… why would a multi-billion-dollar company even take a meeting with you?

“Even worse,” I continued without waiting for an answer, “it’s terrible advice because now you’re focusing on the wrong things. Instead of helping you validate your idea — which is what you need — some person who supposedly ‘knows things’ said you should pursue a partnership with a major corporation, and now you probably already think you’ve got a great idea, right?” The founder nodded his head in agreement.

“Of course you do,” I continued. “But how do you know?”

“I guess I don’t,” he shrugged. “I mean, I think it would be good, but I only have my experiences to base that on. I have no idea if anyone else would find it useful.”

“Exactly,” I said. “And you’re not alone. I can’t know whether it’s good or bad. All I can do is respond based on whether I might find it useful. And the person who told you to talk to IBM and Cisco and whatever other companies can’t know either. The only way for any of us to know is to test. So until you have more data, we can only talk in hypotheticals about whether or not your idea is ‘good.’ Which means, what should you be focused on?”

“Testing the idea?” he tentatively replied.

“Exactly!” I said. And we spent the next hour discussing the ways he and his team could investigate and attempt to validate the underlying market opportunity that spurred their idea. But, before doing that, we had a brief conversation about how to approach mentorship.

What I told him is the same thing I’ll write here. By writing this post, I don’t mean to suggest nobody should bother getting advice. Mentorship is a critical part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem because learning from someone else’s mistakes is a more efficient way to learn a hard lesson than to experience it yourself.

But all mentorship isn’t necessarily good mentorship. In fact, it’s often the opposite because people hate saying “I don’t know.” Instead, when asked for thoughts about something a person doesn’t know or fully understand, instead of admitting they don’t know or can’t answer a question, most people will give their thoughts.

Think about how problematic that is. People who know little or nothing about what you’re discussing will confidently have opinions and tell you what you think. That means it’s your responsibility, as the entrepreneur, to figure out what advice to take and what advice to ignore.

Don’t just listen to people because they’re “startup mentors” or successful entrepreneurs. You have to develop ways of validating a person’s advice. And that starts with me, the advice I’m giving right now, and every other piece of advice I share because, to be honest, I could be completely wrong.

I teach entrepreneurship at Duke. Software Engineer. PhD in English. I write about the mistakes entrepreneurs make since I’ve made plenty. More @

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