Useless entrepreneurial and business advice

Jeff Bezos was in the news this week. Our local tech news site, GeekWire, published five posts about him. What are the most important traits of innovators? Have a willingness to fail. Bezos believes that truth shakes out when ideas and perspectives are banged against each other. Think long-term. Etc.

Some of the commentary was a tad critical of his personality. (Not in GeekWire, but elsewhere.) One observation (I don’t remember where I read it) was that he cared only about the business, to the point where he could make “hyperrational” decisions about what’s best for Amazon. Which makes him a great CEO, but maybe not such a great friend. If it’s true.

It got me thinking, not for the first time, that most entrepreneurial advice about starting a business is useless. Even if it comes from other entrepreneurs.

I don’t mean the concrete advice. That stuff can be quite useful. Viz.: The tradeoffs between forming an LLC vs. an S-corp. Or good, inexpensive job posting venues. Or, the components in a funding term sheet. Or, the terms used in commercial real estate leases.

But the advice on attitude, psychology, and “touchy feely” topics are all useless. Not because they’re wrong, but because they’re all correct, depending on the circumstances. Or because they’re so vague as to be incomprehensible, regardless of circumstance.

To succeed at building a business, an entrepreneur should:

  • trust their judgement, and not listen to critical market feedback.
  • listen to critical market feedback.
  • keep the financial business goals front and center.
  • focus on building a great team.
  • pace themselves and maintain a good work–life balance, because it’s a marathon.
  • give it 500% during the early years, and if not then they shouldn’t try being an entrepreneur.
  • conceal their intentions from others.
  • be transparent.
  • engage in hack-a-thons, if they’re a software or hardware entrepreneur.
  • don’t engage in hack-a-thons, because you can’t create a viable business in 24 hours.

I could go on.

None of these are bad bits of advice. They’re all true sometimes. And that’s exactly the problem. I can think of instances in my own history when each one was correct or not correct, depending on a hundred factors then in play.

My core gripe is, what can you do with this advice? You read an article about doing what you love and trusting your gut. Yay! So you build something that nobody wants and it fails! Boo! You should have listened to the market and investor feedback. Unless, that is, you shouldn’t have listened. But that time, you should have. So next time you will. But maybe then you shouldn’t. Gah!

So much of this advice is post-hoc. A technique or approach worked for this guy or gal, so (a) this guy or gal is a genius, and (b) this technique is a winner. Well, maybe. A large fraction of business success is attributable to luck. In some cases, most of the success is attributable to luck. You have an idea, and you build a business on it at just the right time, when the right connections line up. Talent isn’t the only reason for success, and it sometimes plays a minor role.

But this society tends to not think like that. Fred built something great, ergo Fred is a business genius and his approach should be studied. Until Fred fails, at which point we’ll read about the business acumen of Bill or Larry or whomever.

I don’t know what to do with this mass of “always right and wrong” information. And, jumping up a level, why do blogs and online magazines repeatedly publish this stuff? I guess the answer is, “because it sells.” That mystifies me.

Even if you believe that, say, “trusting your judgement” is the way to go, how many “trust your judgement” articles does the world need? 10? 10,000? “Trust your judgement” is great advice (sometimes) (sometimes not) but after you’ve read it a few times, what’s the benefit of the additional articles?

A tangent

This reminds me of pictures of the Space Needle.

Every Seattle tourist takes at least one picture of the Space Needle. They take it from far way, or up close, from the ground looking up, from another building, etc.

How many pictures of the Space Needle exist in the world? Or just the online world? A Google image search brings up gazillions of pictures — they don’t list the number of results, but the infinitely scrolling page scrolls, well, infinitely. A Bing search has 61,800 results.

So I don’t understand why visitors take pictures of the Space Needle. If you visited Seattle and want to remember what the Space Needle looked like, you have at least 61,800 on-line images from which to choose. Presumably this number will only increase. The probability that a picture you take will be better than every on-line picture is vanishingly tiny. Why not just copy one of them to your local photo album, if you want a local pic, and call it a day? “Here’s what the Space Needle looked like when we visited Aunt Peggy.”

Back to my point

Maybe I should trust my gut about all this advice, and ignore it. (See what I did there?) Or maybe I should listen to all of it because it’s good to learn from others. (Ditto.) Every circumstance is different, so all of it applies. Or not.

Grumble. Hey you kids, get off my lawn!

2 thoughts on “Useless entrepreneurial and business advice

  1. While reading this, I couldn’t help but think of the book Accidental Empires, about the birth of the microcomputer industry, and the somewhat improbable rise of companies like Apple and Microsoft, that succeeded in some ways despite themselves. A hilarious and skeptical look at how success isn’t nearly as preordained as it so often appears, frequently by shameless appropriation of innovations from those that never got their due.

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