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Don't give bullshit advice (humbledmba.com)
158 points by jaf12duke on May 25, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 39 comments

I was in the Entrepreneurs Organization (http://www.eonetwork.org/) for a few years, and the organization had a required protocol for advice sharing called 'Gestault Protocol', loosely derived from principles in Gestault Therapy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gestalt_therapy#Overview). Effectively, the protocol prohibited you from sharing opinions as advice, and forced the sharing of specific experiences through personal stories.

This protocol becomes very useful in situations where other people have been down the same road as you - things like business processes, development processes, hiring, dealing with employees, raising money, investing money, etc. However, it also provides a nice boundary for giving advice - only share experiences, never share opinions. So, when I'm asked for advice, I listen careful, and try to see if I have any relevant experiences to share, or I try to think of who might be better suited to share experiences.

Further, when I am asking for advice, and someone lends an opinion that seems interesting, I ask pointed questions about this persons experience to determine how I will weight the input, and whether the experience indeed does apply to my situation. So overall, I've found experience sharing to be a relevant boundary for giving and receiving advice.

I reached a similar conclusion when I noticed two things that repeatedly happen when giving advice:

1) People don't follw your advice. I don't mean this in a frustrated, "I know more than others" manner, but just as a matter of fact: people want to solve their own challenges, and they know more about their own challenges than you do. When advice is given in the form of "Do this, it will work out for you," it's usually ignored, and often with good reason.

2) Advice is based on personal experiences. This is what the "Gestault Protocol" sounds like, and it makes a lot of sense. Your personal experience is the "primary source," in a sense, and your advice is an interpretation of it. Why not let others draw their own conclusions and benefit in a richer way from your experiences?

I've been following these two guidelines, and find it gives good results. Glad to see others are doing similar things.

The best advice I get usually is in the form of "these are the hidden dangers you may not anticipate..." i suppose this is a special-case of the personal-experience-sharing "advice" that the GP is talking about

I have a different experience from you. I am a rookie at this entrepreneurship thingy. When I ask for advice, I really am looking forward to following it. Try it and see where that leads.

My biggest skepticism is advice from people who never tried it themselves. They are successful so they feel the right to give advice even if they don't have any experience.

The best quote about startup advice that I've ever heard comes from Paul Buchheit, Limited life experience + Over generalization = Startup advice

experience is data; opinion is theory

My experience has been to the contrary: I rarely find people willing to crush entrepreneurs' ideas; instead, most people seem to be quite reluctant to tell others that their ideas are, frankly, terrible. In the end, people waste money on ideas that are untenable.

I once had a old friend bring his bajillion-dollar social networking idea to me -- he liked snakes, and wanted to meet other people who liked snakes, so he wanted to make Facebook but only for people that own snakes. And he'd charge for it! And he'd make millions, because damn it, people love snakes!

I understand that almost every idea is derivative, and that I can't really understand the pet-snake market, but should I really say "Gee, buddy, I don't know..." when every brain cell is screaming "tell him to run far away from this!"?

When pitching my ideas, I generally assume that people who don't like it wont tell me what they really think, to avoid having an 'awkward' conversation.

When people pitch ideas to me, I try to avoid talking about whether it's a good idea (as Jason says, one generally has no idea) - but what I do instead is say whether I would personally actually use it, and/or pay for it. I find it surprisingly easy to say, "honestly, I wouldn't use that" - whereas saying, "I think that is a bad idea" is not something I'd generally feel comfortable saying to a stranger, unless very specifically asked for it. Of course, it could be that I would actually use, and I just don't realize that yet, - but that is data in itself.

I agree it's not going to make millions, but it might be a viable side business. Niches are where it's at for small bootstraps! If your friend is sufficiently technical to build the site himself, on the cheap, I'd encourage him to give it a try. Who knows, it might bring in a couple thousand a month once it matures. Hey, for most of us, that's worth doing!

I can tell from experience that snake-owners is a pretty good niche. It's under-targeted in the mainstream, the community around it is very enthusiastic and generally has no problem spending money (for example, when a snake is a slight bit different it can be hundreds more expensive).

But yeah, I agree that a facebook for snake owners is probably not going to be a great hit... there's a lot of free snake online communities already, also on facebook. He's got to be somewhat more original on what to market.

People do love snakes. And TV shows. And Sports teams. They've also had social networks for decades -- known as "Fan Clubs." Fanpop took that idea online, and according to a Mixergy interview, they're making $1 MM in profits.


This is where the "advise on process" would have come in. Programmatically, there's little difference between a social network and a fan club. But changing the definition and labeling is extremely powerful.

Help him clarify his hypothesis--that people do indeed love snakes--and test it really quickly. A good lean development process would prove it wrong quickly.

It's not a question of whether people love snakes (some do, most don't) but whether you can capitalize on the love of those who do in order to build a sustainable social network. And the answer is that you can't -- social networking doesn't work that way. There's already a facebook for people who like snakes, and it's called facebook.

Even if people love snakes that doesn't mean they

a) want to spend time talking to other snake-owners

b) want to do it over the internet

c) can't do it already

d) will pay for it

Maybe not, but there are books and magazines regularly purchased about snakes (and just about anything else you can imagine). The trick, if you could get it to work at all, would be to get good content and build the social web around that.

I like cats who look cute. I wonder...

On-topic: I completely agree. The worst thing is that even if you tell people to be brutally honest, they rarely are (there's a good Seinfeld episode on this with George being told by Elaine that he's cheap). People are socially trained not to be negative to other people unless they absolutely have to.

> I like cats who look cute. I wonder...

Unfortunately the catbook app for facebook already has this covered :-)

It was meant as a joke. I know there's a huge market out there for cats that look funny. (LOLcats is worth 30M).


While I agree with the headline I think his specific advice - not to give people feedback on their ideas in the conceptual phase - is bullshit.

When somebody asks me what I think of their idea, I start by highlighting several things I like about it, then discuss a couple of the challenges or risks, and try to make suggestions about useful next steps. People almost invariably find it valuable -- and often tell me later how much even this short conversation helped them.

Conversely, I often ask people what they think of my early-stage concepts, and their responses are almost always useful. Even if somebody just says "wow that's a great idea!" without really thinking about it, I can continue the conversation with "Cool, what do you like about it?"

> Your ability to predict the future is no better than his.

Really? It's not like I have a crystal ball, but after doing startups and strategy for 25 years, I've seen quite a lot of patterns for success or failure, and learned a bunch of techniques for making success more likely. What's the matter with sharing that?

I've heard plenty of terrible ideas, and I've also heard plenty of "great" ideas that are doomed to failure because it's patently obvious that the person presenting the idea is incapable of seeing it through to fruition. In either case, I think it's my duty -- as a friend, a colleague, an adviser, or in whatever capacity -- to be honest without being a dick. It can be a fine line.

People are always going to be seeking validation, and I think you have to accept that as given. Some measure of "Do you approve of what I'm doing?" is always going to be baked into these sorts of conversations. Some folks ask it outright; others merely dance around it or imply it. Either way, politely acknowledge it and then move onto the practical advice.

To that end, I think practical advice can be given. The trick is, as the author suggests, not giving unverifiable advice on the viability of the concept, but rather, teasing out how well the presenter has thought things through. It's a Socratic form of "advice." It's not about poking holes for the sake of poking holes, but about challenging the person to think about all sides and ramifications of the problem he or she is trying to address.

Some of the best advice I've ever received on startups came in the form of what, at the time, I'd considered "pushback" from would-be investors, friends, or mentors. It took some healthy distance from the ideation/pitch phase in order to receive the wisdom for what it really was. At the time, man oh man, I hated hearing it. But in retrospect, I am glad I did. Some very smart people saved me from some very stupid moves, and I owe them my eternal gratitude.

I am with the author 100%. The apocryphal VC batting average is 20%: That means that a VC firm with a full-time, professional team evaluating deals and has four failures for every success is considered capable. A VC who has just three failures for every successful investment would be considered good, and if they could do that based on a single pitch, they would be considered God-like.

I am not a VC firm, I'm just one guy. I don't perform due diligence. I don't pick winners for a living. So if you ask me, what's your chance of success, what am I going to say? Even if I like your idea, and even if I was good enough to manage $200,000,000 of other people's money investing in winners, I'd only be right one time in four or five.

So I also tell people that I have no fucking idea.

Upvoted, but if I am not mistaken those statistics are for false positives (VC thought idea would work, but it didn't.) What we're concerned about here are false negatives (VC thought idea wouldn't work, but it did).

I could be wrong, but I would bet the true negative:false negative ratio for a good VC is (1) very, very high and (2) higher than Joe Average who doesn't do this for a living.

Sure, nobody has a perfect crystal ball (famously, http://www.bvp.com/Portfolio/AntiPortfolio.aspx) but that doesn't mean there's no value in getting input from someone whose job is to get it right more often than your roommate. I'd even go so far as to say that any really great idea should go through a chorus of "that will never work"s as a kind of conditioning process.

You're totally wrong about the (true negative|false negative) ratio. Most early-stage businesses that pitch VCs get turned down by more than half the VCs they approach (this is changing as angel rounds are getting businesses to traction). The phenomenon of "hot deals" is very rare.

So for every VC investment into a Facebook, Zappos, Zynga, etc. there are multiple VCs who turn it down, pushing this ratio under 1.

You're not substituting the right numbers into that formula. The numerator includes all bad (will fail) startup ideas that get rejected.

Yep, my bad :-\

> I would bet the true negative:false negative ratio for a good VC is very, very high

I'll take the other side of that bet! VCs are trying to optimize their TP:FP ratio; they don't get paid for minimizing FNs. I'd bet, in fact, that their TN:FN ratio is little if any better than average.

There are exceptions, but VCs on the whole have a reputation for groupthink, not for being visionaries.

A VC that explicitly tried to maximize the the proportion of their investments that made positive returns could probably do a bit better on that percentage, though. They currently try to maximize the overall total return, which isn't the same goal, and probably leads to them making bets that they know are low-probability (but which have high potential return; the "home-runs" investing strategy).

Great article. I was very worried at the beginning, because honest feedback is incredibly important. But I agree with most of the conclusions - attacking an idea directly is the worst way you can go about helping an entrepreneur.

I know that these days, when I hear someone pitch an idea, what I do is this:

1. Try to figure out an MVP to get out of it.

2. Convince the entrepreneur that an MVP is the right way to go (depending on the person/idea, this may be tricky).

3. Talk about how to get the MVP made the most cheaply. If the entire idea can be tested by throwing up a quick WordPress-powered website, get them to do it.

I will tell people what I generally like about the idea, but the truth is, after so many failures of my own (failed startups and failed predictions), I really don't think I can wholly trust my intuition about what ideas are good. And I'm pretty sure I'm not unique in that. But those other ideas, about MVPs and customer development, etc, are things that I've just learned from my time in the "business", so it's the best knowledge to impart.

Once in a while non-technical friends come to me and ask me to help them implement ideas they've come up with. Often enough, I think the idea is bad for one reason or another.

That puts me in an awkward situation. I don't want to work on an idea that I don't like, so I have to explain my concerns, whether or not they're objectively justified (or "bullshit").

Last time it happened (a couple weeks ago), I tried to give some suggestions for an alternative solution. He took it personally and asked point-blank if I would help him or not. Overall, it didn't go over well.

The best answer here, which is honest, straightforward, and has the least chance of being inflamatory is something like "Sorry, I don't have time to help you with any of your ideas, I'm already working a bunch of my own ideas" (although, I might stick the word "shitty" before both instances of "ideas", depending on the audience, to communicate my position on Sturgeon's Law).

Perhaps I'm extrapolating too much but if the guy is asking you specifically, "Do you think it's a good idea?" then either he's very early in his idea, he hasn't thought through why HE thinks it's a good idea or he doesn't have the confidence that his idea is good.

If it's the first two options, then he needs to put more time into developing the idea to gain the confidence that it's a good idea. If it's the final one, then perhaps it's not worth pursuing the idea or he's not in the right position (confidence) to do so.

Of course, it's always smart to solicit advice on an idea such as the potential challenges, risks, strategies etc.

I think it's hard to get great honest constructive reactions from people you don't know let alone the people you do know who just want to support you.

With a startup (http://infostripe.com) outside the insider circles of the west coast (or even the US) it has been extremely difficult for us to get any professional response from the tech punditry so far.

I think you face three battles in this industry. Creating something new, better or great, having someone on the inside pass a little acknowledgement to you early and getting (and accepting) good honest (negative) feedback.

The lack of which can in turn lead you down the path of asking if something is any good after you have already built it.

If you've gotten so far as to build your vision don't give up because every visitor or user does not get it or need it. Is your product at all useful to anyone, it's it reasonably priced? If it is then market it to those people, continue seek out industry leaders and the everyman opinion and don't give up in the face of the internet's vapid attention span too easily.

If you haven't built it yet. Then consider getting to work on a prototype before spending months trying to convince anyone it's a good idea.

If someone thinks it's a good idea, they'll invest money into it. Rough parallel, but always remember: it's not a principle unless it costs you something.

I'm not sure that execution always trumps ideas, but I'm pretty sure that no "great" idea is static and any idea requires more than just potential energy to turn into anything--plus, I'd be way more interested in the personality and abilities of the person presenting the concept than what the concept itself. Chances are if they have sufficient confidence and endurance to plow through the inevitable challenges, they won't ask your opinion.

Simplified (not necessarily) simple concepts tend to work the best. Sounds obvious, but you can't always complicate to profit.

Years ago, before taking my first job, someone told me that the keys to success were pretty simple: persistence, commitment, and patience. I thought I had the first two wrapped up neatly, and would eventually find that "patience" thing. Turns out, I had NO idea what persistence meant and didn't understand the first (or second, or third) thing about commitment.

You don't learn about those things by having a few good ideas. You learn about them by doing things, over and over again.

Reminds me of all the times when I share an idea to hear the other guy say "wow, great idea!" to which I go "wait, really? how do you know!?".

I've replaced the binary means of judging my ideas with one that allows for more shades of gray. I rarely give any specific idea more than 15-25% chance of gaining traction.

I always wonder whether you're better off trying to talk an entrepreneur out of it, try to talk them deeper into it, or just try to be neutral yet supportive.

On the one hand, good entrepreneurs are supposed to be relentless and ones that are likely to give up should give up earlier rather than later.

On the other hand, we've all heard stories of that brink that many entrepreneurs blindly stumbled onto, missed going off the cliff of failure purely by chance, and came out as huge winners. Substance or not, perhaps my words could be the ones that could make the difference from falling off the edge?

These are the games that PG plays on a regular basis at great scale, with his own money no less. Any thoughts on what the best strategy is, and why?

If you really want to help someone you need to go a little deeper than your initial gut reaction. I've heard 'can't miss' ideas that had me excited days afterward that were executed by a stellar team but still failed.

Research the idea and you will likely find one or several people who had already tried the idea. Ask the enterepreneur to research them, get in touch and figure out why they failed. Ask them to explain how they will avoid their predecessors mistakes.

Unfortunately that doesn't always work. Sometimes an 'A' team can fail when something was just too early. A 'B' team can knock it out of the park a few years later when the timing is better.

How does one get non-bullshit advice?

I understand that nobody wants to be "brutally" honest. And, being only human, on some level I'd prefer to hear that I'm awesome. But it's more important to know if I'm doing something stupid. So is it better to prompt the advice-giver with my own concerns, like "I'm worried that my inexperience at X is going to be a problem"? How do you get people to be straight with you?

A great illustration of "ideas don't matter, execution is everything".

And, execution actually involves many, many small ideas. Ed Catmull said this of movies - ideas make a movie great, but it's all of them, not just one.

Jaqueramaphan is a sympathetic but tragic portrayal of ideas without execution (A Fire Upon the Deep).

No vice is as bad as advice :-)

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