About a year ago I completed a White House Fellowship at the Office of Management and Budget. I returned to New York City, but rather than return to my job as a mergers and acquisitions attorney, I founded Maxamoo, a company bridging the divide between New York City’s amazing artistic and theatrical community and the rest of us.
In my first year as a company founder I received many tips and opinions from entrepreneurs, investors, and technologists. Some of that advice was good and some of it bad.
Below are the five best and worst pieces of advice I heard in that year and, as necessary, rebuttals. Let’s start with the bad.
The worst advice
Don’t do it.
It’s true that the most likely outcome for any entrepreneurial endeavor is a business that earns no revenue and does not provide you with a paycheck. You are going to spend time, money, and a substantial chunk of your dignity with no guarantee of reward. But it’s worth it.
You will learn things there is no other way to learn, meet people you would never otherwise encounter, and grow in ways you cannot anticipate.
Given the long odds on success, an entrepreneur must figure out how to recognize value along the journey of building a business. I’m not talking about adopting a cheesy Emersonian “Life is a journey not a destination” attitude. You must figure out a way to actually extract value from the process. If you can’t do that, then “Don’t do it” is good advice.
Before you do anything else find a technical cofounder.
When creating a technical business your most important partner will be one with technical skills. As I like to say, “If you want to start a law firm, it’s a good idea to be a lawyer. If you want to start a technology company, it’s a good idea to be a technologist.”
But, alas, many of us with business ideas aren’t technologists. So we begin by searching for our unicorn, a person who loves our idea as much as we do and, despite high demand for his or her skills, is willing to join our team for free and build a prototype.
This is a fairytale. Waiting to find a technical cofounder before you start building your business is a terrible idea. Instead, just get started. There are many do-it-yourself tools available that with minor effort and expense you can create something that approximates your business and allows you to test whether the idea is a good one.
Once you have a proof of concept it will be easier to attract technical talent and investors to pay for that technical talent.
Try tarting yourself up a bit.
In case you didn’t catch this in the byline, I’m a lady, a queer one at that. My appearance may be described as tomboy-ish, perhaps Ellen DeGeneres-esque. One day speaking with a high ranking official at a successful company in the sector where my business operates, this person suggested that it might be easier for me to maneuver in the male dominated world of startups if I tarted up my appearance a bit.
Sadly, this advice is probably true. I would have an easier time ingratiating myself in this world if I adhered to broadly accepted norms of appearance and behavior.
In one form or another, we’ve all heard similar advice about changing who we are and how we present ourselves in order to impress other people. Sanding rough personality edges and polishing a disheveled exterior is one thing but sacrificing fundamental elements of one’s identity is a mistake.
Entrepreneurs are rebels. We strive to disrupt the status quo and set impossible goals. Denying one’s inner rebel and its manifestations may be an easier path but it is way less interesting and not nearly as satisfying.
In my case, there’s a connection between my appearance and my determination to ignore the odds against a gay girl from Utah becoming a union organizer, going to Yale Law School, practicing at a prestigious New York City law firm, being a White House Fellow, and starting a company. My rebellious streak and my appearance as a non-tarted-up lady are inexorably connected. If I changed the latter, I’d damage the former.
Find a male cofounder.
You’re hilarious, darling. It’s not 1950.
Get an MBA first.
Encouraging a person to delay his or her entrepreneurial efforts in order to first get an MBA is bad advice for me and bad advice in general. If you have basic spreadsheet skills and understand the importance of networking, skip the MBA.
These gems of bad advice notwithstanding, I went forward with my start-up. Here’s the good advice that got me where I am.
The best advice
Network your face off. (@erickoester Cofounder, Zaarly)
It’s hard to catalogue the number of people who gave me this advice in one form or another. No matter how talented and smart you are, you cannot build your business alone. Many have walked the path you’re on and it would be foolish not to get their advice.
Plus convincing other people to love your business is the most important role you have as a founder. The only way to figure out how to best express your idea is to tell a lot of people about it, test different descriptions, and hone your pitch until you are confident you are accurately and effectively describing your vision.
Finally, meeting people is one of the best benefits of being an entrepreneur. Building a network of mentors, mentees, advisors, and colleagues is key to refuting “Worst Advice #1: Don’t do it.” This network is a tangible benefit, one that will likely outlast your business and probably exceed its value.
Read “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries. (@belliot2 Founder, Friendfactor)
This book is the bible of the startup industrial complex. It includes both a theoretical structure and practical advice for creating a business. Even if you disagree with Ries’s theory you need to understand it because the lean startup process is widely practiced by today’s entrepreneurs and expected by investors. If you don’t know what an MVP is (hint: it’s not the most valuable person) you’ll look like an amateur.
Do not listen to the naysayers. (@pierre Founder, eBay; philanthropist)
Wow, I did not appreciate the volume and strength of the naysayers when I first heard this advice. At every turn you will find many people eager to tell you a litany of reasons why your idea is bad and your business won’t work. Appreciate the difference between constructive feedback and pessimism. Seek, consider, and react to the former. Ignore the later and focus on your mission.
This is not the last good idea you will ever have. (@LucasCioffi CEO, AthenaBridge)
Building a startup requires tunnel vision and a massive commitment of time and energy. When things go badly it can seem like the world is ending because, in fact, your world is ending. When you feel like this, remember you have been successful in the past and had good ideas before. This is just one project and it is not your last project.
Keep the risk you’re taking in perspective. (Bill Coyle CEO, Harpoint Holdings)
Entrepreneurs take risks but how dangerous are those risks? Compare your situation to a soldier or firefighter. They face the risk of serious injury or death. The worst thing that can happen to you as an entrepreneur is . . . you have to find a job.
What’s the best and worst advice you’ve heard as an entrepreneur? Please share in the comments.
Lindsay Barenz is the Founder/CEO of Maxamoo, a website, podcast, and email newsletter that champion awesome New York City theater and the artists who create it.
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