Let’s say you’re a new startup, a startup that shows some signs of possibility. Let’s say you’ve grown beyond the “I’m jobless, so I’m working on this little idea so I won’t have a gap on my resume” stage (you know what I’m talking about). Well then, you know who has some great advice for you? Absolutely everyone.
It’s a weird phenomenon experienced by every fledgeling startup, the unbelievable enthusiasm with which outsiders want to pass startups around from hand to hand hot-potato-style. Not, allow me to qualify, to render any type of actual assistance in the monetary or manpower departments. That would be too close to some type of real help. But advice? Or yes oh yes oh yes. Everyone in the world suddenly has an expert opinions on exactly what the startup is doing, how they are doing it, and, most importantly, who is the next person in line who you absolutely must talk to in order to get their opinion.
For a new startup this can seem amazing. They might even be a little star-struck. Look at all these experts who are taking the time out of their busy day to give us encouragement! Look at all these great connections we’re making! Look at all this fantastic advice! This networking is really going to come in handy if we ever get around to actually doing anything…
And of course, therein lies the problem. Meetings take time, which the advice-givers have lots of (if they didn’t, please believe they wouldn’t have taken the meeting). The startup does not have a lot of time. The first couple of months of any new company is a rush to overcome the event horizon that sucks most good ideas back to earth before they ever leave the atmosphere. Startups have a choice about how they use those precious few moments they spend wafting through the air before gravity kicks in. Don’t waste it.
There are no new ideas in the world. Any thought passing through your head is already grubby from the thousands of other heads it’s visited first. Ideas are fun, but they’re absolutely worthless without the implementation to back them up. Which means that, beyond the initial planning phase, wasting time talking with a series of potential, hypothetical mentors can be absolutely pointless. Talking can’t refine an idea, only trying out various implementations can do that. Which is precisely what a startup isn’t doing if they’re spending all their time ooing and ahhing over their role model’s wonderful office furniture and complimenting them on their custom espresso machine.
Most experts don’t actively set out to drown young startups with buckets of well-meaning advice. It’s flattering to have your opinion asked. It feels good. And often the suppliants were referred by a well-meaning friend or colleague, someone for whom they want to do a favor. It would be rude to decline. And of course, inhabiting the role of advice-giver puts the givee in their professional debt, something that they can call upon in the unlikely event the startup does in fact become a success.
How often do experts honestly have anything to say that will materially help a new company, an organization they know absolutely nothing about besides what they learn during a single, hour long meeting over tiny bottles of water? It’s difficult to say. The ties of “doing a favor for a colleague” are fulfilled no matter that gets said. Having an opinion is easy, and having a strong opinion is impressive. Ask enough people and it’s possible to get enough opinions to cover every possible contradictory course of action. Multiple opinions can just be paralyzing. And of course, that’s not even counting the most popular type of mentorship of all, just passing the supplicants off to someone else.
Here is a rule of thumb. Any meeting that ends with the phrase, “Do you know (person who does something only very tangentially related to you)? They’re in (field that’s only vaguely related to your topic). I bet they have some great advice for you,” stop. That should be your last meeting.
There is no perfect piece of advice. There is no external compass that can point you in the direction of certain success. Only getting out of the meeting rooms and back to your desk, or basement, or coffee shop, or temporary office space, or bar, or wherever you’re doing the actual work of the startup, can do that. Chasing after just one more piece of advice from just one more fascinating expert has been the death of many a project.
Break the chain of well-intentioned meetings! It’s a path that leads to another and another, and another, a series that can go on forever until you run out of gas with the window of opportunity left far behind you. Have faith in your own expertise – you might know less than the experts, but your real-world experimental findings are worth much more than their hypothetical guesses. Get out of your mentors offices and back in the lab. The next time you hear the phrase “you know, you should really speak to…” say, “No! No, I really shouldn’t!”