Startup Advice: Who/What/Where/When/How

I take advice from everyone.  It doesn’t mean I’ll use it.  I listen because I’m always interested to hear other people’s perspective on starting and running a business.  You never know what ideas people will give you (for free).  But when it really comes to advice that I plan to use, I’m very critical of the source I use.  And you should be too.

whoWHO DO I LISTEN TO?  It depends on what I want to know.  I always read what many experts have written on the particular subject before I go talk to people.  Being informed on the topic will help me filter out the “BS” people have a tendency to share sometimes.  Plus, it communicates to the expert that I’m serious about the situation and have done my homework, so I won’t be wasting their time.  Most experts want to be consulted, so they are happy to cull out a bushel of advice to help demonstrate their comfort with the subject.

Remember, you need advice you can use. It must be tried and true.  It must be applicable to your situation and spit out in terms that can be easily translated into action.  As for the people I pursue, they must have a few credentials that I can validate before I consider contacting them to ask for advice.  Here are some from my general list of traits.

  • Shares their experience (not too many years in the past).
  • Provides references to resources and people.
  • Offers actionable advice.
  • Respected in their field or industry.
  • Proven successful.
  • Share in a few fundamental beliefs: Faith, Family and Friends.

Don’t be afraid to ask anyone for advice, no matter how successful.  Recently, I had lunch with an alumni from my MBA school, Indiana Wesleyan University.  Evan is a financial advisor who just moved to Georgia and into my neck of the woods.  It never hurts to have such a fine, upstanding advisor in my corner.  Will I use his expertise?  You bet I will.  As you branch out to connect with the rich and powerful, realize it might take time.  The highly successful will just take a lot longer to connect with.  But keep trying.  My record is 18 months of continuous nagging. I think they felt sorry for me and gave me an hour of a billionaire’s time.  Wonder what that was worth?

whatWHAT DO I ASK ABOUT?  For me, this could be anything from the legal obligations of ADA, OSHA and E-verify to building the best marketing strategy.  I seek support as I need it.   Unlike the many executives I’ve served under over the years, I think it is very important to seek advice and get answers on anything that you don’t know about.  I’ve watched executives tank their company because they failed to reach out to experts to understand a part of the business that they didn’t.  Maybe it was pride or ego or just plain laziness, but a company’s existence depends heavily on its leadership’s knowledge base….and you never know enough!

For example, maybe you want to know how to distinguish your business from all of your competition, especially since you all seem to do the same thing.  I would say to you, “read the “Blue Ocean Strategy” by Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne.”   In fact, I’ll send a copy of this book to the first two people who send me an email showing me that you promoted this post.  Running a great business is about finding the right answers and you must chase them vigorously. Your future depends on it.

whereWHERE DO I GET THE ADVICE I NEED?  I’ve found that the best advice comes from other business owners.  If you’re a startup, you probably don’t have a lot of connections to business owners.  Well, maybe you do.  My kids have been playing sports for years and now that I’m engaging in my own startup, I’ve just finally begun talking shop with the other kids’ parents.  I’m amazed how many are running their own business.  I never asked before because I didn’t have a real interest in their experiences, but I do now.  Business owners are great advisors because they can share real experience, not theoretical notions that you have to figure out how to apply.  Even better, they can connect you with other professionals they have worked with in the past, saving you considerable time in finding the support you need, such as legal, accounting, marketing, branding, strategy and funding.  You’re support is likely all around you and you don’t even know.  Take time to let people know what you are doing and what kind of help you need.  Many will be happy to help you succeed.

whenWHEN SHOULD I ASK FOR ADVICE?  This question is easy.  You ask for advice before you need it.  It takes time to really understand your issue in enough detail to ask a question.  You also want to ensure you do a little research to generate some potential answers to your question before you propose the question to an expert.  Then, you’re not really asking a question, you’re seeking validation of your ideas.  Professionals are more likely to respond positively to this scenario than an “out of nowhere” question from a stranger.  It also takes time for experts to respond to the question.  So you need to give yourself sufficient time for a response.  To improve your success in getting that valuable advice, choose times of the day where professionals are more likely to share information.  This includes early morning, the end of the day or after exercise when we are tired, as these are times when our defenses are down and we’re more likely not to think you might be a risk or threat.  Additionally, shared times of relaxation and enjoyment, such as during a golf game or a networking event, are great times to secretly tap into the minds of the experts.

howHOW DO I ASK FOR ADVICE?  There are several ways to approach this.  First, you can use mutual connections to make the initial pitch for you and setup the question for you.  Start with people you already know to identify potential experts who experienced what you’re preparing for.  Second, you can reach out to experts directly but you may want to hone a simple elevator pitch about your business that ends with the question that you so desperately need an answer. Third, you can invest in the experts you seek guidance from.  Most experts get tons of requests for information from people who want it for free.  We are all in the business to make money.  Show your expert that you have invested in them by purchasing their book, going to their seminar or promoted their work in some way.  Then, they’ll feel somewhat compelled to invest in you.  I would suggest that investing in the experts first is by far the best way to get the answers you seek.  It provokes feelings of reciprocity and will likely build a much stronger relationship that you can tap into for years to come.

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