Navigating Conflicting Advice from Startup Mentors & Business Advisors
I recently had coffee with an aspiring entrepreneur with a novel product who wanted some advice on his launch strategy. He wasn’t the type of guy who simply wanted me to tell him what he wanted to hear, which is usually the case with many first-time entrepreneurs. He was in an accelerator program and getting conflicting advice from well-healed mentors whom he liked and respected. He wanted yet another “expert” opinion from yours truly.
After hearing about his product and the market opportunity, we talked about his budget and goals for the launch. He detailed the current plan, which I thought was sketchy at best. I immediately started poking holes in it. He conceded the plan had flaws and asked me what I would do differently. Being the seasoned and ever-confident startup mentor that he expected me to be, I made a convincing case for a very different launch strategy than the one he was considering…confusing him even further, no doubt.
So who is right? Which mentor should he listen to? All of us….or maybe none of us.
One of the biggest challenges (and opportunities) facing today’s entrepreneurs is an overabundance of “expert” advice. Throw a stone in any direction and you will likely hit a startup mentor or business advisor. They are everywhere – as thick as locusts. They mentor at public-private accelerators…descend upon pitch events…trade on their past experiences as members of present-day angel groups or VC funds…volunteer at university incubators….and hangout at meet-ups organized by would-be entrepreneurs. Some of them ply their wisdom online and hang their shingles at economic development organizations and professional services firms from coast-to-coast.
Mentoring and advising a new generation of entrepreneurs is a growth industry all its own.
This is a very different environment than the one I came to age in as an entrepreneur. Very few people were entrepreneurs when I was starting out and almost no one knew anything about technology, which is where most of the startup action was. In hindsight, I was probably blessed with a dearth of good mentors and advisors. I had to figure it out on my own and, occasionally, with the help of like-minded entrepreneurs who were also trying to create new products and markets. There were few credible inputs, less options to debate, and no one to blame except myself if the strategy failed. How times have changed.
But I digress. How should today’s entrepreneurs navigate an ecosystem full of well-intentioned people who are put in a position to mentor or advise them, especially when they give conflicting advice? To answer this question, we need to first address the nuances between mentors and advisors.
Traditionally, mentors advised for free and advisors for compensation. A mentor was someone who knew the space and took a personal interest in you, or was assigned to you by the organization to show you the ropes. An advisor was someone with technical training, such as a lawyer, accountant or IT consultant. These days the terms are often used interchangeably. To confuse things even further, some people who mentor or advise for free or a fee call themselves coaches. For the purposes of this post, let’s draw the distinction this way:
Many advisors are also mentors, but few mentors are also advisors. Mentors breeze in-and-out, they don’t usually have defined roles or responsibilities in the relationship. They seldom have any skin in the game. Advisors usually have fiduciary duties or other obligations to the entrepreneur or startup. Their professional credentials and reputations are on the line. They are often investors and serve on boards of directors and/or advisory boards.
With that distinction, here are some guidelines for navigating conflicting advice from these people, regardless of what they call themselves:
First, don’t underestimate the value of free advice. When I was starting out people would say, “Advice is generally worth what you pay for it.” The implication being that I should heavily discount free advice and rely more heavily on professional advisors who charged an arm and a leg. They were generally right about that notion for the most part.
The Internet and the evolution of entrepreneurial ecosystems have changed that notion for evermore. Today, there are many free sources of advice and much of them are more valuable than professionals who charge for it. I’ve seen entrepreneurs pay tens of thousands of dollars for what turned out to be very bad advice. Conversely, I have seen entrepreneurs pay nothing, except perhaps a cup of coffee, for advice and assistance that was golden.
Advice is no longer commensurate with what you pay for it. That said, you should still give more weight to the *technical* advice of trained, paid professionals, than that of volunteer mentors. A mentor may be spot on by advising you to form a Delaware C Corp instead of an LLC, but you should still defer to a good attorney who understands your company’s needs and objectives.
Second, consider the biases of the source. Every mentor is a prisoner of his or her experiences and biases. A mentor who was a CXO of a Fortune 500 company is going to dispense different advice than an entrepreneur who started and built his or her company from scratch. That is not to say that one’s advice is any less valuable than the other. It’s just that they are both going to have very different ways of looking at the world and how to bring a new product to market. Look at what sectors they come from, what their roles were, and the kinds of resources they had to work with. That will help reveal how relevant their advice is to your situation.
Third, advice is only as good as clarity of goals and metrics. You can expect to get a lot of conflicting advice from both mentors and advisors if everyone you ask is unclear about what must be accomplished. You and your board should be very clear about the goals. You should not ask *most* third-party mentors and advisors what your goals should be and how you should measure their achievement. You should only ask them for the best way to achieve the goals, and for their assistance and connections to do so.
This was the problem with the entrepreneur with the novel product who wanted my advice on his launch strategy. Each mentor he asked had a different notion about his goals. One mentor had given him advice thinking his goal should be to generate revenue quickly. Another mentor gave him advice thinking his goal should be to get user traction. I thought his launch goal should be market validation and product pivot (refinement).
It’s not the place of a mentor or advisor to tell an entrepreneur what his or her goals should be! A good advisor/mentor can help frame the goals, but should not be setting the agenda for the venture unless they are also board members. It’s easier for you to weigh the how if everyone you ask is clear on the what and why.
The best way to start a conversation with a mentor or advisor is: “We think our goal is X and we plan to measure it by Y. Do you agree with X and Y?” He or she may encourage you to rethink the goal and the deliverables to support and measure them. Once everyone is on the same page with those things, you can debate the order and manner in which they should be implemented.
Fourth, understand the motives of the mentor/advisor. Every mentor or advisor is “in it” for different reasons. Their reasons influence the type and quality of advice they will give you. Some people mentor at accelerators and pitch events because they want first dibs on good investment prospects. Some people mentor because they are trolling for a job or new clients.
Beware the mentor or advisor who pretends it’s all about you and there is nothing they want for their time, expertise and assistance. They either have a hidden agenda or they are clueless. Mentors who are just passing the time because they are bored of retirement can do more harm than good. If you really want to see how much a mentor or advisor believes his/her own advice, ask them how much they would be willing to invest for you to follow it. That’s why your board/investors are always your best counsel.
Finally, never second guess your instincts and take full responsibility for the advice that you decide to follow. The primary reason you are running your own company is to be the master of your own destiny; to shape the world with your vision. After getting all inputs, listen to your inner compass. It will guide you. Trust yourself above all others. Once you decide on a path — in cooperation with your board and inner circle — accept full responsibility for the outcomes. Trust me, no matter which advice you accept or reject, you will stumble. Keep learning, keep iterating and optimizing. No matter how it turns out, you own it.
In summary, there are many roads to the same place. One may not be better than another. One may be shorter and less expensive than another, but very bumpy and more stressful. Mentors and advisors may read the map differently; suggest different routes to take. As long as they all agree on the destination, your chances of arriving there are good.
You can’t always choose your mentors or advisors, but you can choose whether to accept and apply their advice – which roads to take. Choose well and happy travels.