Startups get a lot of advice. The problem with advice is that it’s almost always a product of our own unique experiences. It’s like a suit that we’ve had tailored to fit us perfectly. But then, we lend it freely and quickly to others, forgetting that because it’s bespoke, no-one else looks quite as good in it as we do and as a result, there’s a whole lot of ridiculous advice being shared. With that in mind, here’s a collection of 10 of the worst and most annoying startup advice and clichés:
1. “Steve Jobs/Bill Gates/Mark Zuckerberg or some other statistical anomaly did x, so you should too”
Here, we attribute foresight and expertise to decisions that were more often that not merely lucky guesses, because we evaluate an already successful person, in hindsight. Enjoy vomiting? I’d suggest you read this blog post about what makes a great entrepreneur. It’s chock-full of bad advice and hyperbole about how famous entrepreneurs “made it”.
“Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, said he didn’t take a day off for seven years when he launched his first venture, MicroSolutions.”
I hope the next thing he said was, “you know, I really regret that. A lot of personal relationships suffered as did my mental health. Probably, on reflection, I didn’t need to work that hard. If I’d designed my business better from the beginning, it wouldn’t have needed me constantly for 2,555 days in a row.”
Bad advice and clichés might seem like a light-hearted topic, but it’s actually quite sinister. It leads to wasted time and effort and a whole lot of hero worship around how many hours we work, or how many sacrifices we make. It results in a lot of people putting unnecessary pressure on themselves to act a certain way, often in the naïve belief that it’s admirable and that other successful people also behave this way. It’s remembering the exceptions, but filing them away as rules.
2. “Passion, Desire, Hunger and Commitment”
Let’s just retire these words. From now let’s all agree that we’ll only use the word passion when it’s followed by the word fruit. Ideally then followed by the word daiquiri.
Passion is implied. Passion is why you are reading this article. Passion is why you don’t work for Deutsche Post or a big bank. It’s why you believe that in the face of all the advice that tells you not to do it, to stick to your nice, safe, salaried day job, you’re doing it anyway. Passion is no longer a differentiator, it’s a prerequisite. It’s why you’re at the race, but it’s not the reason you’ll win.
3. Fake it ’til you make it
Faking it until you make it is also known as lying. Lying is usually an act reserved for CVs, kids and sociopaths.
We owe it to everyone else to be honest, to share both successes and failures. Otherwise it starts looking like, based on our titles, our press releases, our websites and our business cards that everyone is succeeding. Then, if we try something and it doesn’t work out, we take it as a personal failure. We think we’re the exception and not part of a larger rule. This leads people not to try, or if they do, but don’t succeed it sends these founders into burnouts and depressions
4. “The secret of my success is…”
It’s nice that people take the time to share the secrets of their success. But this only works if we’re being really honest, doesn’t it? So, when you tell me your 30 minute morning mindfulness mediation session is the secret of your success, I’m doubtful. Want to know the secret of my meagre success? Being born into the life of a middle class, university educated white guy in the 5th richest country in the world. Fortunate accidents of birth like that give you better head starts than anything in Lance Armstrong’s medicine cabinet.
5. “It‘s x, only social”
Douglas Adams once said “we need a word for interactivity, like we need a special word for a human with only one head.” It‘s the same with social.
Social is not a feature, nor is it a differentiator and it‘s not a topping that can be added like salami for a pizza. We‘re humans so pretty much everything we do is social.
6. “The Startup Ninja, Punk or Rockstar”
Titles are nice and fun and I get why we use them. But I‘m not sure we‘re picking relevant ones.
Rockstars? If your job involves spreadsheets, email or getting up before noon, you can be fairly sure that actual rockstars hate you and don’t want you using their name in your job ads.
Ninjas? I guess they did kind of pioneer “stealth mode” but beyond that I imagine they’re a little too busy being lethal deadly assassins to play Ping Pong with you in the chill out room. Which is a shame, because I’m sure they’d be great at it, with those reflexes and all.
The Business Punk
Possibly the least applicable of all. I imagine two punks sitting around a bin fire and one says, “what’s the most anti-establishment thing we could do?” The other punk ponders for a moment, then replies, “join the establishment?” , “Brilliant!”
7. “Turn your passion into a business”
If, like me, your passion is laying around on the couch in your underwear and eating chocolate then I wouldn’t assume there’s anything profitable in that. Problems are profitable. Passions, not so much.
8. “If we build it, they will come”
This is true on several levels, especially if you’re building a brothel. Otherwise, they won’t.
It would be great if the world was a perfectly calibrated machine, into the top of which we poured talent and hard work, and out dropped the matching level of success. But it’s not. Just because something is good, or someone is talented, doesn’t automatically mean it‘ll succeed. Just because it’s bad, it won’t necessarily fail. This is why Paris Hilton has a bigger house than you, why Wyclef Jean is still making music and why David Hasselhoff can restart his career by getting drunk and eating a burger off the floor.
Marketing is how you recalibrate that broken machine to give you the attention and success you deserve. Knowing how you’re going to publicise the thing you’re doing is just as important as the actual thing you are doing. For every minute you spend building it, for every dollar you spend building it, you need to do the same marketing it.
Definitely a growing trend here in Berlin, I call it the “premature pivot”. It’s where you spend eight months building something, and you’ve got your launchrock page up, but only nine people sign up, then you launch, email five journalists, get no reply, write to TechCrunch, get no reply, send a newsletter to your mum, get no reply (it’s not that she’s not interested, she’s just busy and you really should call her more), make a Facebook fan page, get a few dozen user signups, wait a month, add some new features, contact the press again, decide you’ve got no traction, pivot, then repeat.
10. “The most important thing is x”
This one is more a general summary of the last nine, than a piece of bad advice. At different meetups, keynotes and events, you’ll meet many different people touting many different things as the most important. Run from anyone who claims to know anything with any certainty. We’re all viewing things from our own positions of bias a none of us have the answer.
The fundamental law of advice is as follows: “for every single piece of advice, there will be another that directly contradicts it”.
In conclusion, if this all sounds negative, it shouldn’t. A startup, particularly the lean startup methodology, is a reaction to ambiguity. That’s kind of what a startup is, right? It’s a vehicle for the systematic testing of hunches. Would people be willing to pay for this? How much? Google Ads? Affiliate program? A/B test website copy? And so on and so on. The best startups are the most analytical in the designing and testing of their hunches.
It’s not that everything matters and it’s not that nothing matters, it’s that everything matters until you know, categorically, through testing, that it doesn’t matter.
[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Adam Fletcher, owner of the Hipstery, debunking some common startup sayings and clichés. No more pivot, passion or Startup Ninjas. Image credits: The illustrations in this post are from the über-talented Berliner, Josh Bauman (hire him already!).]