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Even good advice can be bad advice

Even good advice can be bad advice

The most common mistake new entrepreneurs make is looking for “right” answers.

They want to know how Uber validated their product or how Segment trains their sales teams so they can copy their strategies and become the next unicorn. The problem is, startup success doesn’t work like that.

You can’t just copy someone else and get the same results. There are a million untraceable factors that play into a startup’s success or failure; you can’t track every single one, let alone copy them.

Forget about trying to recreate someone else’s success. This is how you can create your own, starting with asking for information instead of answers.

Ask questions that focus on insights over answers

Whether you’re landing your 1st customer or your 1,000th, you’ll probably have a lot of questions. There’s nothing wrong with that. The problem comes when you ask the wrong questions.

When a new founder asks, “How long should my free trial be?”, they’re really saying, “What trial approach will turn me into the next Uber, Slack, or Spotify?”

First-time entrepreneurs want to believe that success is a linear path but the road to success is different for every business. There are no “right” answers.

Instead of asking, “What should I do?”, ask “If you were in my position, what would you do, and why?” For example, you could ask, “If you were in my position, how long would your free trial be?”, then follow up with:

  • “What made you choose that length of time?”
  • “Why do you feel that would work?”
  • “Do you have any other thoughts on free trials? Any insights from your own business?”

These questions focus on understanding the strategy rather than blindly copying it. That information is more valuable than asking someone to guess what will work for your startup.

Find different answers to the same questions

Don’t limit your insights to one source. Find two to five different perspectives on the problem you’re trying to solve.

You probably won’t agree with them all, and that’s okay. You just want to make sure you have a rounded understanding of what’s worked for others so you can create your own plan.

Not sure where to start? Here are a few resources to kickstart your information gathering.

  • Mentors and advisors: When looking for advice from others, find someone who isn’t more than a year or two ahead of you. They’re far enough along that they’ve probably solved the challenges you’re facing, but not too far to have forgotten how.
  • Books: Books are a great resource to learn fundamentals. Find the oldest text on your topic possible and compare it to some of the newer publications. In most cases, any similarities between the two can be considered timeless and effective.
  • Blogs: Industry blogs are powerful tools for relevant, up-to-date information on highly specialized niche-topics like SaaS trials. If you’re facing a challenge in your startup, someone else has probably solved and written about it.

As you’re gathering information, look for contradictions. Find similar businesses who have succeeded with entirely different approaches.

Dropbox and Box, for example. They’re both massively successful cloud storage services, but Dropbox focuses on B2C and Box specializes in B2B. Although their product is similar, if you were to ask them about the best go-to-market strategy, you’d get two totally different answers.

Conflicting strategies like that prove that there’s more than one way to succeed, so don’t limit yourself to tradition.

Tap into your authentic competitive advantage

What are you really, really good at? Everyone is naturally skilled at something, and those natural skills are your authentic competitive advantage. Leverage them for a high ROI.

To find your advantages and pinpoint your weaknesses, ask these questions:

  • What am I really good at?
  • What am I really bad at?
  • What do I really enjoy?
  • What do I really dislike?

If you feel like you don’t have any marketable skills, ask, “What would I enjoy learning?”

You’re never going to do anything as well as something you enjoy, so it’s important to double down on your strengths. Don’t do something just because it worked for someone else or because everybody says it’ll be the next big thing.

Optimize your business to build on your strengths. Delegate or outsource what you’re weak at. The payoff on executing on your strengths is so much bigger than the payoff on trying to remedy your weaknesses.

One size does not fit all

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’ll have to do things the way [insert unicorn startup here] did it. Yes, Dropbox might have unlocked massive viral growth through referral incentives—but only because it was the right choice for their particular product and market at that particular time. Not because “refer-a-friend” programs are the “right answer".

You have to constantly strive towards a better understanding of your product, your customers, your market, and what will provide the most value to each.

Turn theory to action

You can read and interview all you want, but the only way to find out what’s really going to move the needle for your startup is to take action.

Spend a little less time on research than you think you should, but spend it well: Ask powerful questions, learn from multiple sources, and optimize around your strengths.

After that, start taking massive action and measure the results. The data will speak for itself and you’ll know once you’ve found the best approach for your startup. Just don’t make the mistake of assuming that’ll be the correct approach for your next startup, too.

The most common decision-making mistake entrepreneurs make
This post was inspired by a conversation Hiten Shah and I had on our podcast, The Startup Chat. Check it out here!

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