by Aaron Harris7/23/2018
“Make for yourself a Rav (a teacher); acquire for yourself a friend; and judge every person on the positive side” -Pirkei Avot
We recently announced the launch of a new version of Startup School. As part of that, we created a library of the best advice we’ve written and created in the past. This is a powerful collection, and it got me thinking about the nature of advice. Specifically, it made me consider an issue that frequently confronts founders: what to do with too much advice.
At first glance, this would seem to be an unlikely problem. Ten years ago, there wasn’t much high quality advice available for starting a startup. There were some great essays from Paul Graham and from Marc Andreessen and then there was quite a lot of bad advice. Most founders’ access to in person advice was even sparser. There simply weren’t enough people around who had recently started companies or advised early stage startups to give a founder easy access to someone experienced.
The rapid expansion of the early startup funding ecosystem has changed this dynamic. There are now hundreds, probably thousands, of people with at least some experience in startups. Most of these people are willing to help/advise some number of the people who ask. This is a blessing and a curse.
The blessing in this dynamic is that a larger group of people trying to help each other is a net positive. People who want to be founders can get more access and do it more quickly. The bad part is that there are simply too many places to turn for advice and help.
When a founder has access to so many sources of advice and help, it becomes easier for that founder to delay decisions under a rational argument that she is simply trying to do things “right” the first time. This is dangerous for two reasons. The first is that the ultimate enemy of a startup is time, and perseverating over a decision wastes that irreplaceable commodity. It is better to make a bad decision and iterate through it rapidly than it is to spend a huge amount of time trying to make a perfect decision, only to discover it wasn’t quite right either.
I’ve found, in working with startups, that good founders generally have a strong sense of what they want to do before asking questions. They are led astray when, in attempting to avoid a bad decision, they start asking many different people for confirmatory advice about an idea. At YC, we call this “shopping for advice,” and it usually ends with a long period of nothing happening, or with founders getting frustrated that no one is confirming what they want to do. The best thing a founder can do here is either a) listen to the first person and alter course or b) try the thing they want to do anyway and see how it goes.
Understanding this means accepting the fact that, in all likelihood, any decision that you make as a founder, no matter how well advised, will likely be at least a little, if not mostly wrong. This seems illogical because advisers are meant to know so many things, and we expect them to give good advice. However, no adviser can possibly understand the full context of your business, so, at best, they are able to offer general advice or frameworks for thinking through problems.
“Make for yourself a Rav” is a quote from the Mishnah, which is the core of the Judaism’s oral law. The idea here is that there are always many sources of thought one could follow, and many experts that one could consult in the pursuit of a goal. However, the key is to pick a single expert and make that person the one you consult, make that the person to whom you look to for advice and counsel.
For a founder, this means picking a single adviser who can inform your thinking, rather than someone who makes decisions for you. Picking a single adviser means that you won’t get all possible perspectives on an issue, but that should never be the point of advice in business. The goal is to find someone who challenges your thinking and makes your perspective better without trying to make you do exactly as he would do. It means accepting the fact that this person will not always have a perfect answer, may sometimes be unavailable, and may sometimes give you bad advice.
Founders who are searching for perfection in their advisers are chasing impossible ideals. No investor or adviser I’ve ever met is perfect or even nearly so. The strength of great advisers is in their ability to think about new and complex ideas with a clear sense of their own subjectivity. These people admit what they don’t know, avoid giving overly prescriptive advice, listen, and are hungry to learn. Perhaps most importantly, the best startup advisers have a near invincible optimism about your potential and that of your business. Make for yourself a Rav that has these qualities, and know when to stop listening to them.
Aaron was a Group Partner at YC and a cofounder of Tutorspree, which was funded by YC in 2011. Before Tutorspree he worked at Bridgewater Associates, where he managed product and operations.