One of the more challenging skills to help develop in a founder, is being able to discern b.s. from experienced and valid advice. As you might imagine (and I hope you can relate from the all too prolific frequency with which this happens), it’s particularly difficult to know how to put questions back on a person from whom you’re seeking capital.
We live in a society in which we’re led to believe that the accumulation of wealth = success, or that the popularity of a brand or personality means they know what they’re doing; first and foremost, appreciate as a founder the idea that if anyone’s advice was “correct,” they’d be doing it, and you’d be out of the job.
How to Validate the Advice of a VC
Over the years, I’ve developed the habit of using 3H to discern if any advice is valid, and I want to share that with you because I’ve been increasingly asked how to deal with accelerators and investors that don’t seem to know what they’re talking about. At the root of the challenge of validating advice is the social norm of developing a good relationship with people; requiring, avoiding calling them out, avoiding making people feel like they’ve been caught with their pants down, and truly, being genuine in trying to work together.
I’m sure, or rather, hope, you’ve heard the advice about fundraising, “When in need of funding, ask for advice, and if you’re seeking advice, ask for funding.”
Inherent in that, recognize, that advice from investors is most likely valid advice about what is ideal for them. Drawing from their experience, their job, and the expectations of raising and managing funds, what they advise WHEN in the context of raising capital, is experienced advice. But that doesn’t mean it’s right, how it should sit with you is greater merit given the source. In my experience, the other most likely form of advice from an investor is advice given because they are trying to help you overcome something but it might be something with which they’re not familiar – they know something is amiss so they’re offering some advice that might help.
How then do you validate if advice given actually comes from a place of experience and know-how? That it’s valid? Rarely (largely, if you think about it), is advice from an investor based in experience with what you are trying to do.
The risk that creates for all of us is that when entrepreneurs take investor advice on the surface, it’s likely misleading, wrong, or at least, inexperienced.
Bobby Goodlatte, Managing Partner at Form Capital, shared this wonderful tweet that fueled my pen to paper, “A VC who gives no advice adds far more value than one who gives bad advice.”
When Advised (and really, this applies to all advice!)
3H: How, Help, How?
- Verify advice/recommendations by asking how to do it
- If they can explain how, ask for help
- If they ask how you did anything, it’s okay to have that friendly attitude that kind of doesn’t understand what they’re asking. Why they’re asking something they should know how to do. “I’m sorry, I don’t follow, the same way everyone would …”
VCs often network for good reasons. Might be nothing more than that; they’re trying to help.
They might genuinely be interested and wanting to help, to stay connected, but their advice isn’t that great.
They might be fishing for intel.
And let’s be realistic, you and I know, they might have terrible advice.
3H gives you confidence in dealing with any of those possibilities. Let’s explore each by going through them in some detail in reverse order:
Are they fishing?
You feign misunderstanding when they ask HOW YOU ACCOMPLISHED something because they might want to know how for a reason (competitor?). Instead of calling that out, which is awkward, you are completely in the moral right to imply and establish that you know better than the VC, by making it seem so and being confused why they would be asking such a thing of you. In fairness, they should know how to do things valuable to startups… so why are they asking?? Are they fishing? Do they really not know? Are they trying to prove for themselves that you know what you’re talking about?
“I’m sorry, how we did acquire those customers?” in response, for example, tends to cause a reaction that gives you insight to what the inquiry is trying to accomplish.
After all, you’re there to raise capital, or at least in other ways secure some resources to help you be successful, so when advice is capably followed up with HOW TO do what is being advised, ask for help!
When they can and do tell you HOW to do something, they’re the one with the funds and they obviously have the know-how so in recommending a valid possibility; if truly wanting to help, they can, somehow: recommend a hire, refer to an advisor, or why not even ask for less capital, to do what they’re telling you will work.
How do we do that?
“That’s great advice and of course we’d love to get that done but that’s not my skillset, how do I start and make that work?”
Why ask that besides the obvious reason that you need to know?
They very well may not have a clue. Their advice might be crap, it often is. Having the check dangling, having acquired the funds, or in other ways being successful, absolutely DOES NOT mean that their advice is in fact valid. Don’t let advice sit there for you to then have to figure out how, with what resources, and worse, determine if all that effort is worthwhile, ASK THEM HOW TO DO IT.
If they can’t explain how to do what they’re advising, is the advice that you do something really based in experience?
The 3H – How? If good, Help. And, why are they asking *us* How??
Really rather simply, always remember HOW and ask how-to of every recommendation you receive.
A favorite example to explore together: Too often, Angel Investors and VCs will give the bad and unhelpful advice of “focusing on customers,” and if you’ve had that experience, you know, they’ll usually leave it at that alone, because of course, it sounds right.
But, hol up. As a startup, we don’t have customers; certainly, not many we can talk to…
“Great advice! How do we get more so we can do that?”
If they can’t explain how to get customers for what you’re doing, how valid is advice that such customers are the right focus? When it’s not even clear who the customers are, where to find them, that they’ll agree there is a problem/opportunity, and how to start that conversation… why would focusing on customers be good advice??
Yes, I said it’s often bad and unhelpful advice to focus on customers because you’re not an idiot, you have experience in your industry (I hope), and it’s well known that having an experienced team and understanding the market and competitors, informs best what a solution should be. Anything that meaningfully creates value can be monetized, and “The customers is NOT always right!”
If and when they can indeed explain HOW to get more customers and accomplish what is being advised, it puts the conversation back in that loop of why you’re seeking advice — getting help … such as, asking for some money if they are certain that that focus on customers is good advice.
I’m going to continue to provocate, flip conventional wisdom on its head, and focus on flaws in the startup ecosystem (and what you’re doing) more than merely rehashing that things are great. When we know most founders will fail, I find it helpful to explore more of what will help us all avert failure. If that’s meaningful for you, do join us at mediatech.ventures