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The Problem with Most Startup Advice

man looking scared


If you have even a passing interest in starting a new business, you’ve probably read a book, listened to a podcast, or scanned several blogs (or all three) looking for advice on how to do it right. We write a lot about this, so maybe that’s how you found us.

And you’ve probably come across a lot of startup advice like this: Hire fast, fire faster. Eat your own dogfood. Or, focus on the customer.

Sound familiar? We may even be guilty of it ourselves with our weekly posts of startup inspiration.

Here’s the problem: too much of it is obvious stuff.

If this kind of advice isn’t intuitive, maybe you should reconsider your plan for a startup.

Wait, focus on the customer? That’s ingenious. I was going to create products no one would want, but thanks to this business-saving advice, I’m going to focus on my customers. Wow!

See what we mean?

We got to thinking about this after reading Sarah Lacy’s review of Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing about Hard Things which she describes as the best book about starting a new business. Here’s an excerpt:

There is real, practical business advice in here that contradicts everything anyone else in the Valley will tell you.

An example: “Hire a worldclass team!” they say. “Make a wish list of who you want and go after them!” “A players only want to work with A players, so don’t hire B players.”

Wait a minute—you are saying I should try to hire great talent? Because I was just going to walk outside and yell that I had jobs available.

“Hire a worldclass team” is about as helpful as telling someone to “Try their hardest.” Anyone building a company likely already is, and if not, you telling them isn’t going to suddenly make them try harder.

You know what’s hard? Hiring a worldclass sales manager when you have a company that is trading at less than cash at the wake of the dot com bust. Astoundingly, the best sales managers in the world just weren’t returning Horowitz’s calls. So instead—in one of my favorite sections of the book—he describes hiring Mark Cranney.

It was a decision most of his board and his executive team were violently against. (Lesson to Horowitz: “No one else gets a vote.”) Cranney actively made people feel uncomfortable—not what you want in a sales guy. Horowitz describes him as physically looking like a perfect “square.” But he was a savant at how to build an effective sales team.

My favorite passage is when Horowitz sat down to explain to his cofounder—and to many, the face of the company—Andreessen why he was hiring him:

I let Marc open the conversation…by listing his issues with Cranney: doesn’t look or sound like a head of sales, went to a weak school, makes him uncomfortable. I listened very carefully and replied, “I agree with every single one of those isues. However, Mark Cranney is a sales savant. He has mastered sales to a level that far exceeds anybody that I have ever known. If he didn’t have the things wrong with him that you enumerated, he wouldn’t be willing to join a company that just traded at thirty-five cents per share; he’d be the CEO of IBM.” Marc’s reply came quickly: “Got it. Let’s hire him!”

That is the reality of how you hire as a startup CEO going through any degree of shit, which let’s face it, they all are. Unless you are Facebook, you can’t call whoever you want an offer them a job. (And truth be told, even Facebook doesn’t have a 100% batting average on hiring.) You have to find the person the best at the single unique skill you need and tolerate everything else that comes with them. The reason they aren’t running IBM despite their skills. That is helpful hiring advice.

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Advice is like theory. And in theory, the theory works. In practice, things are a lot harder than that.