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This blog represents my own views, not those of my employer, Brooklyn Bridge Ventures.

Do not pitch me a story or book review for me to write about. This is my personal blog. For more info on that, see this post.

 

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« The Robert Moses Effect | Main | When should I raise my seed round? »

The Problem with Startup Advice

I'll show up generally anywhere I get invited to speak.  I love public speaking, teaching and generally being helpful.  I'm often the last one to leave an event, held back by the most persistant of entrepreneurs trying to squeeze as much advice as they can out of me.  It's totally fine--except when I really really have to go (as opposed to when I just said I really had to go, ten minutes ago). 

But the truth is, you probably shouldn't listen to me.

I mean, what do I know?  I've only recently started leading investments a little over two years ago.  My track record of leading deals consists of only seven investments, luckily no zeros (knock on wood) and one exit.  I have one failed attempt at a startup under my belt as a founder and I don't have any particularly usable skills that anyone would pay for like selling, designing, building, etc.

Why should that stop me, though?  It doesn't stop anyone else.  Conferences, startup blogs, meetups--they're all filled with people telling you how to build your company.  Often times, the advice is terrible or impractical.  On average, it's probably nonsensical.  

There are several key problems to this knowledge sharing little community we've built:

  • People make themselves look better in hindsight.  I read this book, "Why We Make Mistakes" and it talks a lot about "recall bias".  When we look back at things, we're terrible at remembering what actually happend.  We remember ourselves as being smarter and more thoughtful than we really are.  When people tell you how and why they raised capital or what drove their app to success, they often attribute success to planning or neat little explainable reasons when they might simply have no clue what happened.
  • Venture capital is kind of like a knuckleball.  Even the guy tossing it around has no clue why it winds up where it does.  VCs construct stories in their head as to why they invested in this or that, and much of it is based on prior experience, but they're often awful at articulating the real reasons.  Maybe you reminded them unconsciously of an entrepreneur they regretted passing on in the past.  Maybe they turned you down because they thought you were too pushy.  So much of this is gut feel with a thin later of strategy retrofitted to seem more than random.
  • It is nearly impossible to derive truth given the number of stakeholders that needed to come together to create success.  Try and figure out exactly what a startup had to show at the moment a VC chose to invest in them.  Half the time, founders were pitching a completely different idea than what took off--so the VC who looks brilliant for funding the latest viral app really funded a B2B product that never took off.  In hindsight, they'll say, "I knew that was a smart team" but in truth it's kind of impossible to predict the success of teams.  Does that mean everyone who fails was dumb?  Not special?  Smart people fall all the time, trust me.  Same with product ideas.  Whose idea was it to be private, or public?  It could have been that awful hire you made that disrupted the team and you had to let go, but funny enough, that's never the story is it?
  • The biggest problem is that what gets lauded as successful strategy isn't replicable--or at minimum should never be advocated.  There's a difference between saying that Twitter succeeded because it was free and then turning around and advocating that some entrepreneur's site be free so it can be successful.  Most startups fail.  By taking best practices from other companies, at best, you lessen your chances of failing, but you do not, by any means, guarantee success.  In fact, if you borrow best practices from someone else, but those strategies for one reason or another don't apply to your team, product, industry, etc. you could very easily increase your chance of failing.

So why bother showing up?  Why ever read another tech blog?

The problem isn't with the content.  It's what people do with it.  Unfortunately, people are out there taking Skillshare classes, reading VC bloggers, and buying Steve Blank's books and taking the advice contained within them as some kind of religion--mindlessly applying them like my grandmother applies Vicks--everywhere and anywhere there seems to be a problem. 

What you should be doing is thinking about this more like a Pinterest board--meant to inspire and not necessarily for you to just buy everything.  When someone tells you they achieved success because they launched a mobile app, that means you should go off and consider whether it's appropriate for what you're doing to be on mobile.  Does it work for your customer?  Is what mobile did for someone else relevant to what you're doing?

New entrepreneurs seem to lack discernment--the ability to take the firehose of information coming at them and weed out what is relevent and sensible for them.  They don't stress test.  They don't look cautiously at the advice given to them by their favorite VC blogger.  I've heard far to many times entrepreneurs telling me "We're a lean startup" as if that magically means they're different/better/etc.  If that is a methodology that has worked for you, great--but at the end of the day, you're just a business--one that is doing well or not, on a path to success or not.  If lean methodologies have lead to product improvements, that's great for you--but just because you're using lean methodologies doesn't guarantee you're going to achieve anything. 

So gather up all the ideas you can--new ideas, especially ones that force you to challenge your thinking--are good, but spend just as much time weeding them out as you do listening and applying.  Go to a conference to figure out what other people are trying not to figure out what to do. 

Think for yourself.  I can often and will be--once history proves it--terrifically wrong.  So will everyone else.

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