Seeking advice is great, but conflicting opinions can turn a founder's head. Here's how to manage mentors.
5 min read
The opinions expressed by the entrepreneur's contributors are their own.
At Blue Startups, a venture accelerator in Hawaii, we are about to join our 12th cohort. As such, we have seen many founders (over 300) and many mentors (over 150) interact with each other over the years. How can you make the most of these relationships? Seeking advice is an important part of the business journey, but you need to know how to take it.
Let's say you have back-to-back meetings with mentors on sales. One advises you to build a sales team and tackle direct sales, the other advises you to sell through distributors. You get out of these meetings – which direction are you going? How do you determine what is right for your company? How do you maintain a relationship with the mentor whose advice you have not followed? How do you tactfully decline advice without being offensive? These are tricky questions. Let's tackle them one by one.
If in doubt, ask your customers
Mentors and consultants are not your clients. You may not even be your own customer. But your customers have the answers, all you have to do is ask. As a mentor, I always advise companies to speak to their customers, Basic Lean Startups Method 101, but you'd be surprised how many entrepreneurs don't follow this advice! And at your own risk.
We invested in an ed-tech company years ago that received conflicting advice on direction. I advised them to speak to their customers – but they didn't – and the company is now out of business. This founder came back to me years later and told me they should have listened to this simple but critical source of information.
Trust yourself – maybe you already have the answers
As a founder, especially a first-time founder, it is difficult to trust yourself. I always tell our founders, you know this company better than anyone and at the end of the day the money stays with you. You can respectfully let a mentor know that you don't think their advice will work for your company. Ask yourself what you know, what your gut is telling you, what your team is telling you, and what your customers are telling you. All of these people are closer to the truth of the company than consultants or mentors.
One of our companies actually had a key employee go on the advice of a mentor. They felt that the mentor was so sure of this advice that it must have been correct. But in the end, they really regretted that decision. This shortened the development period by 6 months and destroyed the competitive advantage. While the founder was mad at this mentor, the decision was still his, and he should have stood his ground and made the decision he knew was right for his company.
You can politely decline the advice
I know this is difficult. As a mentor with many years more experience than you do not have the duty to listen and respond to everything they say? You do not do that. There are respectful ways to indicate that you are listening and consider them without taking immediate action. If they ask you about it later in a follow-up session, you can say: We have carefully considered your advice, but we do not believe that this is the right direction for our company at the moment. I've never seen a mentor get out of shape with this approach. And if they do, they're probably not someone you want to work with anyway – no one is right 100% of the time.
We had a mentor at Blue Startups who got very dogmatic about the advice he was giving. If he felt that the entrepreneur was not listening to him, he would be very upset and would comment to me and others about the situation. After seeing this behavior pattern several times, we politely asked him to step down as a mentor at Blue Startups. Knowing that you need the kind of advice that comes with conditions and egos.
Maintain your vision (with flexibility)
It's hard to strike a balance, but that's what all entrepreneurs must strive for: vision with tweaks. As you switch from one approach to another, your team, advisors, and investors will begin to distrust your instincts about the company. And trust is the most important thing you can build with your network. And when you've lost confidence, it's very hard to come back. So stay true to your vision for your company. Listen to others but make commitments to certain truths about your company.
Our most successful entrepreneurs were willing to adapt their business in this way, but have always remained true to their essential vision. So far I have seen many entrepreneurs who, on the advice of others, deviated from their vision in order to return to their original concept. The only difference is that they have now lost valuable time and momentum.
Heal your mentor's whiplash
Not all advice is created equal, and not all mentors are always right. The cure for mentor whiplash is to always listen and think, but only take advice that applies to you at the time. Actions should only be taken when they meet your customer needs, your team input, and your own long-term vision for the company.