A couple of years ago, one of our most talented team of founders came back barely recognizable from an international certification program. They had been unexpectedly rejected. The reason: Mentors had concluded that their hybrid B2C and B2B strategy lacked focus and was so clearly flawed that the team did not deserve their vote of confidence. A year later the company was acquired by the European leader, a unicorn, precisely because they had persisted in their apparent lack of focus.
Unfortunately, this kind of story is all too frequent. Mentors, investors and board members for startups have been ‘adding value’ by sharing and explaining conventional wisdom to founders. Given the expectation is to provide advice no matter how little they understand and how unexperienced they are in a particular field, conventional wisdom has become the default setting. So much so, it makes fortune cookies look like professional advice. Conventional wisdom may lead to ill-advised strategies, confusion or at best, a waste of time. Here are some of the most common message you should be ready to ignore.
Revolutionary ideas always seem dumb at first
That’s easy to say for investors on the receiving end of pitches when they are charging millions in management fees. Most ideas that seem dumb at first are dumb. The same applies to crazy ideas. However, there is a fine line between crazy and revolutionary and the art of being able to distinguish the two is, at times, hard for investors to master. When Sergei and Larry launched Google and explained PageRank to Sequoia and Kleiner Perkins back in 1999, it did not sound dumb or crazy. More recently, when Elizabeth Holmes explained her blood screening platform, it made perfect sense for the educated as much as the uneducated.
Speed to failure
Patience becomes a rare commodity when technology rules. Indeed, some of the most successful startups, caught fire and skyrocketed immediately after launch. Other equally successful companies, took years to find the right product and scale. It’s nearly impossible to know what path your project will take. When given the choice, top VCs will choose a rapid adoption curve rather than a promises of exponential growth in years to come. “Sooner rather than later” is the foundation to the VC vision wherein time has no value and patience is not an option.
Thinking big is so much better than thinking small. Difficult to argue against that lame advice. Don’t get me wrong, Founders should be ambitious about what they want to build or how they want to change the world. However, success rides on flawless execution, and execution is about the small things that make a company big. Unfortunately, too many founders that think big forget to think about their small customer and about their small team.
This is by far the most common advice founders receive from mentors, investors and board members. It does make sense in business, even more so in smaller ones, to put all resources behind scaling a single product or market. However, this logic assumes a founder and its investors know what or where to scale (or worse, it assumes the mentor knows it). Unfortunately for founders, it is rarely the case. Focusing is key but only at the right time behind the right idea. Otherwise, it can lead to awful results.
Winners take it all
The great legacy of the Internet bubble from the nineties: a ballsy “first-mover advantage” will always win. This has recently been reinforced by high-profile B2C highly scalable successes. But even for technology companies, winners rarely take it all. Crafting a strategy assuming this hypothesis can lead to overspending and overreaching.
If you have been a founder for long enough you probably have your own list of most frequent advice. Receiving bad advice should not discourage you from seeing the wood for the trees and taking the great advice. Most of what we have accomplished as a team in the last years was in one way or another, influenced by unconventional insights from great mentors. So while you ignore these obvious bits, keep on having an open mind to find that feedback, it might come from people you would not have expected.