Let Me Give You Some Advice

And I encourage you not to take it

Advice is important . . . but you don’t have to follow it.  

In fact, you often shouldn’t.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t ask for advice. I’ve benefited tremendously in my career from people I could turn to when things got tricky.  Especially if you’re just starting out, it can be critical to hear from people who have been there and done that. So, go ahead and ask: What have they learned? What has worked? What should you do?

Do this long enough, though, and you’ll realize that most advice is flawed. It often suffers from survivor bias, where people share what worked for them, ignoring the fact that many others did the exact same thing and got completely different outcomes. And just because someone was successful doesn’t mean they understand why they succeeded. Did they succeed because of that particular approach…or in spite of it?

But mostly, advice is flawed because whoever’s giving it doesn’t really understand your business.

You will always know more about your business than any of your advisors. The trick is to listen, consider what they are saying, think about whether it makes sense, and then make your own decision about what to do.

Letting someone else make a decision for me led to one of the biggest mistakes of my career. It was 1999, not long after Netflix had launched, and “internet portals” were all the rage. The prevailing wisdom said that if you could create a single site that was the ultimate resource for a given category, the world would beat a path to your door. Not surprisingly, several of our VCs were pushing hard for us to pivot Netflix into being a “portal” for everything to do with movies. And foolishly I agreed. We hired more people; started listing showtimes, reviews, and cast data; and started selling advertising. Based on our rosy revenue estimates, we found an underwriter who agreed to take us public. 

Six months later, the market crash of 2000 left us—and every other “we’ll make it up in volume” portal business—dead in the water. We pulled our public offering, scrapped the movie stuff, and went back to DVD-rental-by-mail. If we’d gone public as a portal, Netflix would be dead now.  

So much for that advice.

Don’t get me wrong: part of being a strong leader is listening. You gather feedback from your team and your customers. You seek out advice from mentors and advisors. But it’s equally important to recognize that the buck stops with you. You’re responsible for that final decision, and you can’t let yourself be unduly influenced by the crowd.  

This isn’t always easy. You may be getting advice from people you are expected to listen to, like your boss, your investors, or your board members. They usually expect you to take their advice, so you need to take care that you understand what they are suggesting and why. If you disagree, you need a strong case for why you believe you should do something different.

The other reason it’s hard to reject advice is because the people you asked for help probably know more than you. That’s why you asked them, after all. They have a track record. They may have had multiple exits. They are probably older, more experienced, and more confident. It’s easy to wonder “What do I know?”

Sometimes when I’m giving advice and the power dynamic is particularly unbalanced, I caution people not to be overly influenced by what I’m going to tell them. I warn them that one of my skills as an entrepreneur is the ability to confidently dispense advice on subjects I know very little about. I remind them: “You know more than I do about this.”

Despite these warnings, I still get hundreds of requests for mentorship (I must be doing something right). I can’t possibly help everyone, so to winnow things down I look for people who display two seemingly contradictory traits.

First, I look for over-the-top self-confidence. This is a business where everyone will happily give you 100 reasons why your idea will never work. So the best entrepreneurs need to be confident that the naysayers are wrong and they are right. They are convinced that there is a way to make this work and that they are going to find it.

But at the same time, I look for an ability to listen. Do they hear what I’m saying? Do they understand it? Do they recognize how it might apply to their situation?

It’s a rare founder who has both traits. The overly self-confident ones tend to see me as just one more person to ignore. They may hear my suggestions, but rather than trying to evaluate their merits, they’re simply thinking up how best to rebut them.

The best entrepreneurs (or at least, the ones I want to work with) hear what I’m saying, think carefully about whether my suggestions make sense, and then make their own decision about how to move forward.

So here’s my last piece of advice: Yes, ask for help. Listen carefully and assimilate that information with what you already know. 

Then make up your own mind. Because no matter their credentials and their confidence, nobody is ever going to give advice that’s better than your own.  

And that goes for me, too.

 

To find other things I’ve written and much more, check out MarcRandolph.com

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