“Bad shit is coming. It always is in a startup. The odds of getting from launch to liquidity without some kind of disaster happening are one in a thousand. So don’t get demoralized.”–Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator
As a company founder, I’ve received my fair share of advice over the years. Some of it has been instrumental in helping me build my startup. Others, well, not so much.
I’ll give you an example:
I started my AI matching company, ThisWay, to try to address the shortcomings that currently exist in today’s world of work. I wanted to make it easy for people to find the right job for them, and vice versa. As I got started, other founders advised me to hire people with specific technical skills. When I took this advice, I ended up with team members who lacked the necessary breadth of tech knowledge for my company. We hit roadblock after roadblock and ended up making some misguided decisions. This was largely because the founders I spoke to worked in tech, but they weren’t as familiar with the AI or HR spaces specifically—and my company operates in both. I needed people who understood the entire evolution of the tech universe, from legacy tech up to the latest algorithms, as well as the HR & recruiting industry.
They meant well, but the experience taught me a lot about knowing when to stick to your guns and when to heed the feedback of others.
While advice from other entrepreneurs is one of the best ways to learn as a first-time founder, it’s just as important to know when to ignore suggestions and trust your gut instead.
It’s easier said than done, but you need to figure out how to filter advice if you want to succeed.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you navigate the waters of founding your own company:
Keep in mind that some advice, however well-intentioned, just won’t apply to you.
It’s unfortunate, but being a female founder comes with a unique set of challenges—particularly because there aren’t that many of us.
For example, when I pitch to investors, I’m regularly asked whether I think it’s harder to raise money than it would be if I were a man. Or: “Would you have raised a bigger round or would you have had different investors if you had been a man?” Until that point, it didn’t enter my mind that people would react this way—that they’d be predisposed to think that I’m struggling. In reality, I’ve succeeded at raising significant rounds and in many cases my raises were five or six times larger than anticipated.
Founders have also encouraged me to only pitch to female investors—but I prefer not to filter my investor conversations based on gender. If I did, I’d be reducing my potential investor pool. I care far more about if we are a good fit for one another or not.
I’ve also been advised to network with other founders and VCs. And that’s great advice—other founders are fantastic wellsprings of information. But often, networking in the startup world involves going out to bars. There’s a bit of a bro culture that comes with this and it’s just not aligned with my personality nor how I like to meet people to discuss business.
But remember, even bad advice doesn’t necessarily come from a place of malice. Rather, it’s more about bias or ignorance.
Much of my dislike for this type of networking has more to do with the fact that I’m an introvert, rather than I don’t like socializing with fellow founders and VC’s. Unfortunately, it can be viewed differently and can create a glass wall that is less than ideal.
Men and women alike need to be confident enough to ignore the advice that doesn’t resonate and find your own way.
Consider an incubator or an accelerator.
Founding a company can be a solitary experience, so I recommend getting into an incubator or accelerator because misery and innovation love company.
Put simply, business incubators are organizations geared toward speeding up the growth and success of startup and early-stage companies. They can help you prepare for pitching, introduce you to investors, and share grant and loan opportunities from state governments and economic-development coalitions. These environments are great because you’re sitting next to other founders that are in the same boat as you, and you can learn from each other. You can even be each other’s first beta customers.
I was fortunate to be accepted into incubation at ideaSpace, at the University of Cambridge in England.
Following the 2008 recession, I watched people lose their jobs and companies fold. I had an engineering background and wanted to explore how technology could help put people back to work, in the right jobs, once the economy rebounded.
Fortunately, luck struck and my husband was offered a job just miles from Cambridge and I began my application process shortly after we arrived in the UK. Following my application and interviews, I was accepted into incubation and a nearly vertical learning curve began.
It was an amazing way to get my feet wet in the startup world because I had access to some of the greatest minds in technology and business— people from around the world, speaking different languages and representing one of the most diverse populations I have ever had the pleasure of working with.
Really, ideaSpace and the fellow founders there taught me things that can’t be learned from a book and I think can only be learned from transparent and thought-provoking exchange.
When you’re starting your own company, seriously consider a similar program that has some structure built in—as opposed to just a shared workspace, even those that come with free beer and accompanying distractions.
But you will only get what you put into the experience. Commit to working hard and being focused during your time in this type of environment. Set a date when you want to move out of this stage and stick to it. Because moving forward should be the primary objective from day one.
Build your network through genuine connections with other founders.
I’ve benefited most from founders who are open and genuine with me. But typically this only comes after time and once you have developed a trusting relationship. Respecting fellow founders, and the confidences they share with you, is paramount.
But if you don’t already have a close network of founders to lean on (and many first-time founders don’t), don’t worry—there are other ways to establish trusting business relationships.
I recommend signing up for conferences that encourage smaller groups of founders having real conversations, rather than empty small talk or generic advice. In my industry, for example, one of the best conferences is the Business of Software. It’s attended by a few hundred founders from companies of various sizes. People talk openly and honestly about how they’ve overcome various challenges. Being in a room with people of high caliber that are willing to be vulnerable and speak candidly has helped me a great deal. If I only had time to attend one event each year, this would be the event of choice.
I’ve heard founders bare their souls about losing all their clients files, how they battled back from near suicide level depression, and how they decided to walk away from millions because they were afraid of not having a company to wake up to each morning.
The point is to attend smaller, but high value, networking events—even if that’s just dinner and drinks with 1-3 other founders. There, you can have honest conversations and build relationships. It’s much easier to do this in a small group than at a 50-person networking event or in a loud bar.
Another tip: listen to founders who have failed and succeeded. There is so much to learn from people who have been knocked down, got back up again, and let that failure help drive them forward.
Your goal is to establish a founder network that will become a mutual sounding board, built with honest and meaningful advice you can trust.
Take every investor meeting—even if it isn’t the right fit.
There’s more to investor meetings than getting money—they can be great learning opportunities.
My philosophy is to take any credible investor meeting. Spending just 20 or 30 minutes chatting with experienced investors will provide you guidance to identify your weak points and blind spots.
For example, an investor brings something up you haven’t thought about—like how fast you’ll be able to scale—and you realize you haven’t really thought that through. Or you might hear yourself say something out loud that doesn’t sound the way you wanted it to. Often, investors will offer their honest opinion—sometimes bluntly—and even if you don’t totally agree with it, it’s useful to know.
Put simply, these meetings are an opportunity to not only hear what they have to say, but also to continue evaluating your strategy and learn what pitfalls might be ahead, based on their experience. They aren’t always correct but you will have more data points to consider as you make your next move or take your next investor pitch.
Read as many books you can get your hands on.
I often like to think I read myself into success.
When I was founding my company, I read every book I could on topics relevant to my industry. And if I came across a particularly insightful or game-changing piece of information, I’d write the author a letter. I would genuinely thank them for sharing their story and how it helped me, my team or my company.
More often than not, they’d respond and tell me they were glad they were able to help, because it was difficult to write or to share. Over the years I have met many of them. In some cases, I’ve been able to pay them back in my own way with an introduction or opportunity.
Now, they’re part of my network.
Listen to your gut.
Founders do (and should) get a ton of advice, especially when they’re starting out. But some advice, even if it’s meant well, can be disastrous for your company. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to filter the good advice from the bad.
It’s all about developing the confidence to trust your own voice and perfecting the information based on the advice that can fundamentally improve your business. Pay very close attention to the advice that conflicts with who you are or your core values as a founder. These are the places you must rely on your gut.
If the advice can be evaluated by data, then set up a test and evaluate to eliminate your personal bias. Using data to eliminate variables and confirm cause and effect has been a key component of my success. Not confusing correlation with causation has also helped me avoid the pitfalls of red-herring advice.
But when all else fails, you must have the confidence to trust yourself and the voice inside that has guided you to this point.
You know who you are. You know what you want to do. So stop reading this article and get back to it!