Startups are primarily learning organizations. If you lose sight of the imperative to learn, you miss great opportunities to accelerate progress. The goal is to maximize learning per unit effort. (Much easier said than done.) Lean Startup and all that.
Execution is also very important. Without execution (of something: a user/customer interview, prototype, inbound marketing copy, etc.) you’d have a hard time learning anything meaningful. At some point the learning must pause, so that execution can tee up the next learning cycle.
Learning and execution require different attitudes and skills. Learning is about humility and listening. Execution requires self-confidence, shutting out doubt and persevering long enough to walk across the tightrope. So actually, listening and not listening are both important for startups. The art is when and for how long to do each.
I’ve listened to a lot of people over the course of my entrepreneurial journey so far: users, customers, advisors, bloggers, authors, coworkers, etc. There is a lot to say about each category. For this post I’m focusing on what I’ve learned about listening to advisors, both formal and informal, personal and impersonal (bloggers & authors). For context, I’m talking about experiences I’ve had in the early stages of startups.
1. Most people don’t understand your business.
Heck, you don’t even understand your own business yet, definitely not well enough to really explain it to other people. Plus, your business is evolving every single day. Very few people can be expected to keep up. This is not something to get frustrated about.
Over time, as you deepen your own understanding of what you’re doing and how to explain it to people, it does get better. But my guess is until your company has passed the startup stage, most people you talk to won’t really understand your business.
2. Most people think they understand your business, even after a two-minute conversation.
This is my undeniable impression after hundreds of conversations, and I’m often guilty of it myself. I think this is just human nature. We all have a very-hard-to-shake belief that we possess insight into what sorts of businesses will or will not work. We are all armchair business designers.
This is another important piece of context to remember when talking with other people and, again, not something to get overly frustrated about. Instead use this to guide the way you approach conversations, so you can get the most out of them.
3. People are still worth listening to.
The more time an advisor spends listening to you, or the longer they’ve been doing something very similar to what you do, the more likely it is that they’ll understand your business. The vast majority of people you talk to, though, won’t have the time or the background.
This doesn’t mean you can’t learn anything from these casual/arm’s length/etc. advisors. This is the tricky part. You might need to ignore the surface of what these people say, and instead try to understand why they’re saying it. The deeper motivation is much more significant and educational than the surface details when the speaker doesn’t understand your context.
I’m not suggesting that you patronize people. On the contrary, you should take an authentic interest in understanding more deeply what they’re trying to say to you. This takes a lot of humility sometimes, because of point #2.
To take a simple and impersonal example, I disagree with Ash Maurya’s approach to Lean Startup. He is selling a dream: a formulaic, step-by-step approach to building an amazing company. I don’t believe it’s ever formulaic, that there’s some best practice that anyone can reliably follow that ensures you’ll get from point A to point B. But that doesn’t mean reading his books isn’t useful to understand why he believes this. He thinks that without a rigorous process, we don’t hold ourselves accountable to the facts. We cut corners in our minds and fool ourselves too easily with our egocentric desire to feel like we’re up to something great.
I’m reminded of a great user interview technique I learned from Lane Halley. Whenever a user suggests a design choice (“You should put a Cancel button here”) instead of accepting what they say at face value, always follow up to ask why. “If we put a Cancel button there, what would that allow you to do?” Understand the person’s underlying goal. They may or may not be right about the button, but it’s important to understand their underlying goal.
4. People are not always worth listening to.
People give advice for all sorts of reasons. Many genuinely want to help. People often also want to feel smart. Sometimes they just want to feel smarter than other people, or to justify their own choices and histories. Use your gut to sniff out these ulterior motives and know when to move on.