At some point, smart people will give you bad advice. Here’s how to spot it.
You shouldn’t follow all of the advice on this blog.
Yes, I know how ridiculous that might sound.
After all, the whole point of this blog is to help you learn from our journey, and we try to give a lot of tips and takeaways that anybody can use in their own business.
But no matter how hard we try, every piece of advice won’t apply to every business. If it did, that would make for a very broad, generic, boring and, frankly, useless blog.
And so while we try to make our blog, in its entirety, useful to all small businesses, every single post will only be valuable to some of those businesses.
The same is true of every single valuable blog on the internet.
There’s amazing advice to be found out there, to be sure, but knowing how to filter that advice to figure out if it applies to you, and understanding how to apply that advice to your unique situation, is a massively underrated skill.
Chris Sacca, one of the most successful startup investors of all time, told the Dropbox co-founders that they should pivot rather than take on Google.
I passed on @Dropbox because I had already been using what became GDrive and told the founders Google would crush them. Sigh.
— Chris Sacca (@sacca)
Is Chris Sacca stupid?
Of course not. He’s insanely smart. But the Dropbox founders were smart not to take his advice.
Imagine how different things would be if the founders had listened to the advice of a brilliant, successful entrepreneur and investor.
Advice, especially on the internet, is never in short supply.
And given how many founders I’ve spoken with recently who have dug themselves into holes by listening to the wrong advice, I wanted to revisit and important topic: the art of knowing which advice to take, and which to ignore.
5 Questions to Help You Filter Every Piece of Advice You Get
Over time, I’ve honed in on five questions that I ask myself about every piece of advice that I’m considering. I’ve found these questions to be really valuable when it comes to deciding how to act on advice, or if I even should.
1) What’s the advisor’s perspective for this advice?
I remember in college, one of the most common questions that incoming freshmen asked older students was: “which classes should I take?”
The problem was that some students want the classes that would challenge them and that they’d learn the most from, while others wanted the classes that would be easiest and would let them get the best grades for the least amount of effort.
For obvious reasons, whichever perspective the student had make a huge impact on the advice that they gave.
The same is true today.
Not everyone you ask for advice is looking for the same outcome as you are.
Some might be giving you advice that’s best if you want your business to grow slowly and sustainably, or if you want to scale rapidly and sell the company, or attract new investors… the best course of action is often very different in all of these scenarios.
Consider not just the advice, but the perspective that motivates it.
2) How closely does their experience mirror my own?
While it’s helpful to get advice from people with experience that’s different from yours, that’s also a factor to consider when figuring out if the advice is relevant to you or not.
We tend to give advice from the perspective of “well, here’s what I would do…”
But if the advisor’s experience is vastly different—for example, if they raised venture funding and consistently had 18+ months of runway in the bank—then their advice will likely be colored by that. In that example, their advice might be to take bigger risks than what you’re comfortable with in your cash-strapped position.
When taking advice, always take the context of the person’s experience into account.
3) What are my own biases regarding this advice?
One unfortunate-but-inescapable truth of being human is that we’re a lot more likely to take advice if it validates our existing beliefs than if it contradicts them.
So when I’m evaluating a decision and considering advice from a number of different sources, I know that I tend to subconsciously give more weight to the advice that I already agreed with.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing (as I’ll discuss in more detail below), but it’s important to be aware of.
It’s hard work to try and strip your biases as you consider advice, but recognizing those biases is an important step in giving all good advice the consideration it deserves.
4) How does it compare to other advice I’ve gotten?
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten was from a mentor who was telling me what he thought I should do about a particular hire I was considering.
He told me his opinion, and then he said: “and before you do anything, ask three more people.”
It’s the non-medical equivalent of getting a second opinion about your diagnosis, and it’s absolutely critical to ensuring that you’re getting insight into all of your possible options.
5) Can I live with this advice being wrong?
At the end of the day, every decision you make is up to one person: you.
If you follow someone’s advice and it hurts you, it’s not their fault. It’s yours. You executed on it.
That means two things:
First, always take full responsibility for any course of action you choose.
Second, sometimes it’s better to trust your gut and be wrong (and learn from it) than take someone else’s advice and be wrong (and regret not trusting your gut).
How to Ask for Advice
The questions above are also really useful for thinking about how to ask for advice.
The better your ask, the more clear the answers to the questions above will be, and the stronger your entire feedback loop becomes.
So when you ask for advice, always include:
- Your desired outcome
- The options you’re already considering (and evidence that you’ve thought hard about this decision)
- Any important relevant context
Consider this ask:
Who should my first hire be, a marketer or another developer?
Compared to this one:
Between myself and my co-founder, we’ve put together a prototype that’s almost ready to go to market, and I’m ready to make our first hire. Our goal is to start producing revenue as quickly as possible.
I’m considering either hiring a developer to accelerate production and get our product out the door faster, or a marketer to start building an email list that we can launch to. I could spend some time doing the latter myself, but I think a specialist might be able to help us do it more effectively and get more users. On the other hand, another developer would push our launch up by almost two months.
What would you do?
Which one sounds stronger to you?
Which one is more likely to get a better response?
Which one is more likely to get a response at all?
If you’re not getting great advice, you might just not be asking right.
How to Apply This to Your Business
Getting feedback is one of the most important things you can do, both in business and in life.
It’s something that everyone should be doing. But it’s easy to get overwhelmed by advice, and just as easy to forget to think for ourselves when smart people tell us what they would do.
I hope that this post helps you get better advice, and know when—and how—to act on the advice that you get.