The 10 Pieces of Bad Startup Advice That You Should Ignore
There’s a lot of bad advice out there. Here are the worst offenders that won’t seem to die.
We still have a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way from where we started.
And throughout that journey, I’ve worked hard to learn as much as I can from people who have done it before me.
I’ve gotten a lot of amazing advice that has helped us make huge breakthroughs in our business.
I’ve also gotten plenty of very good advice that, for various reasons, didn’t work for our particular situation.
I’m still thrilled to have gotten that advice, though, and have been able to pass it on to other founders who have found success with it.
But there’s some advice that, in my experience, typically comes from people who have spent more time coming up with advice that sounds good than actually executing on growing a business. Or, worse, from people who simply parrot those “authorities.”
That kind of advice often does more harm than good (that is, it helps far fewer businesses than it hurts).
I’ve heard the phrases below repeated as gospel time and time again, and frankly, for the reasons I’ll explain below, I wish it would stop.
1) “Entrepreneurship is about taking risks”
Part of entrepreneurship is about taking SMART risks, and that key word—which is often left out—makes all the difference in the world.
This advice encourages first-time entrepreneurs to be gung-ho with their decision making, to think that “laying it all on the table” is the only way to build a business.
But the fact is, most of the entrepreneurs I know who win consistently are quite risk-averse.
They’ll make calculated bets and take smaller risks—this is what lean startups are built around—rather than swinging for the fences with any single business decision.
Taking smaller risks and hedging against loss helps you stay around for a lot longer… and gives you the time to place a lot more calculated bets.
2) “It’ll never work.”
There’s a reason that Pessimists Archive has become one of my favorite Twitter accounts: its entire existence is based on highlighting people who said things would never work, well before those things went on to, well, work.
A couple of my favorites:
“I imagine most users are not going to want to have all of their Twttr messages published on a public website” (2006)https://t.co/wGGj0NzQS2— Pessimists Archive (@PessimistsArc) March 21, 2016
Saying that something new “will never work” sounds catchy, authoritative and smart, but here’s the secret that the people saying it don’t want you to know: it’s not up to them.
If you can build something that delivers value to people and that you can profit from, it’ll work.
3) “Never give up.”
Don’t get me wrong: perseverance is really important if you hope to make it.
For a long time, especially at the beginning, entrepreneurship can be a lot of lows punctuated by fleeting highs.
But it’s important to understand the difference between perseverance and spinning your wheels.
The best way to tell the difference? Talk to your audience and do lots of customer development.
You’ll learn very quickly which one you’re doing.
If you find that the idea you’re pursuing is something that solves a real pain, keep chasing! Even if your product is wrong now, you can pivot and get it right.
But if it’s something that people don’t really care about, then giving up should be a real consideration; no matter how good your product is, if people don’t care or want it and you can’t make them care, then it’s probably not an idea worth pursuing (or perhaps you’re not the right person to pursue it).
There are an incredible amount of opportunities out there for entrepreneurial people, and the faster you give up on one that won’t work, the faster you can move on to one that will.
4) “It’s all about the product.”
Have you ever heard that if you build a product that’s good enough, you’ll win?
Here’s the thing: products don’t win. Businesses do.
And if you want to beat the competition, your product isn’t all that matters. You’ll also have to out-market them, out-support them and outperform them in many other ways.
Yes, of course your product has to be good. As Gary Vaynerchuk says better than I can, “great advertising won’t save your shit product”.
But a great product won’t save bad marketing, either.
5) “Focus on users now, money later.”
This is great advice if you’ve raised millions in venture funding, have years of runway, and need to absolutely dominate the majority of a market in order to succeed.
But that’s not most of us.
And just because it applies to a few unicorns, doesn’t mean that it applies to you.
If you’re going to build a business, one of the first things you need to do is figure out how it’s actually going to be a business. Because building a business that’s self-supporting will give you the freedom to focus on whatever it is that you want.
Sell sell sell. Get as much practice as you can. Force yourself to practice. Force yourself to learn how to make money as early as you can. You may hate it in the short‑term, but it’ll make you a great businessperson in the long term.
6) “You need an office.”
There are only two things that a business needs, and an office isn’t one of them.
In fact, any advice that’s couched in “you need ____” is advice to be very skeptical of. But this one deserves special attention here, as it’s never been more wrong than it is today.
With so many businesses—including ours—growing profitably as remote teams and sharing how they do it (also see Zapier, Buffer, Automattic, Basecamp and many, many others), an office has never been an easier expense to avoid.
Work from home, coffee shops, coworking spaces… anywhere that doesn’t tie up thousands of dollars per month that would be better spent actually building your business.
Just make sure you do remote right:
- The Pros & Cons of Being a Remote Team (& How We Do It)
- How We’ve Optimized Remote Team Meetings For Ultimate Efficiency
- 14 Ways Our Remote Team Stays Sane Working From Home
- 19 Tools Our Remote Team Uses to Stay Connected, Productive and Sane
7) “Keep things under wraps until you’re ready to launch.”
If you’re worried about people stealing your idea, then you’re focused on the wrong thing.
Ideas are the most hugely overvalued currency in the business world. We all have ideas, and my ideas, combined, haven’t made me a dime. The 99% of the equation that counts most is the tireless hustle and thoughtful execution that you need to make any idea succeed.
I’d rather have a first-rate execution and second-rate strategy any time than a brilliant idea and mediocre management.
Being in “stealth” robs you of incredible opportunities to build an audience of people who want to buy from you, setting yourself up to make sales as soon as you launch and enjoy the ultimate business luxury: profitability from day one.
8) “Fail, fail, fail. Keep failing until you succeed.”
There’s this weird notion in the startup world that the way you become successful is through failure. That if you’re not failing all the time, you’re not doing something right.
I get that failure happens, and that it’s a big part of being an entrepreneur. It’s one of the reasons we’re so transparent with our failures on this blog. I think it’s valuable for people to see that it’s simply a fact of growth and trying new things.
But I also think that the trend of “embracing failure” is dangerous for a lot of first-time founders, because it causes people to think that failure is SO “okay” that we don’t need to take steps to prevent it; to do the hard work of mitigating our risk so that we minimize the chance of failure.
Don’t embrace failure. Embrace discomfort instead.
9) “Raise money while you can.”
While this trend appears to be slowing slightly, founders of companies that make noise will always be approached by investors looking to profit from you.
But be careful. These offers can bend the way you look at your business goals and path to success, and the earlier you take in money, the sooner you’ll be expected to produce a return on that cash.
And sometimes, that pressure is what kills businesses in their infancy, before they’ve had a chance to understand their market and truly come up with a product that fits.
But the most important counterpoint is this: do you really even need the money?
10) “Find a market with no competition.”
Early on in Groove’s development, a fairly well-known VC asked me:
Why on earth would you want to enter this space? You’ll be fighting an uphill battle against huge players. Zendesk, Desk.com, plus an overcrowded market of smaller companies.
And he was absolutely right—our customers had dozens of options.
But that was exactly why I wanted to get into this market.
Fifty other companies trying to solve the exact same problem?
Fantastic. I’ll take that over trying to convince people of a problem they didn’t even know they had.
The frenzy of customer support software companies shows that it’s a problem that people want solved.
Plus, we don’t have to be better than Zendesk. We just have to be better than Zendesk for our specific audience.
Groove isn’t right for everyone, and neither is Zendesk. Or Uservoice. Or Desk.com.
But by building the best damn support software possible for our small‑ish niche of potential users, Groove can become the no‑brainer best option for enough customers to still achieve our goals as a business.
And you can do the exact same thing in your market, no matter how competitive it is.
How to Apply This to Your Business
I hope that if you’re just starting out, you learn to ignore this advice far earlier than I did.
And if you’re the kind of person who gets asked for advice a lot, I hope you help those who seek your help by urging them to avoid these mindsets.
Together, maybe we can put an end to bad advice that hurts more businesses than it helps.