Stop Asking for Advice and Look for Guidance

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to. Alice: I don't much care where.

The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn't much matter which way you go.

Alice: ...So long as I get somewhere.

The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you're sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.” ― Lewis Carroll

As an investor and entrepreneur, I am often asked my opinion on start-up related subjects; and, I hardly ever give it, at least directly. I almost always follow the initial question with a question of my own along the lines of, "What do you ultimately want to achieve?”

As Alice’s cat points out, it is critical to know where someone wants to go and why before giving an opinion on how to go about getting there. I say this primarily because no one person has the magic answer that will solve all your problems, even if they claim to. So that advice giver, if honest, must say they don’t actually know for certain, and if they say they do, they aren’t being honest. Furthermore, no one knows as much about your business as you do, so their advice will almost certainly be based on the information that you decide to share. It is a funhouse mirror; their advice reflects your views. And finally, most of the time when a person gives advice, it comes biased by whatever experience or information they have. For all these reasons, I often do not give my opinion on what an entrepreneur should do directly; instead, I do what I can to equip them with the tools necessary to think about the problem and come to their own best solution. This is the "guidance method" towards helping start-ups and think it is much more powerful at equipping individuals in developing their own, more effective solutions.

This shading between guidance and advice may seem like a subtle difference, but it is important. Let me give an example. A friend of mine was going through a complete rebranding of his company, and in doing so, hired a marketing firm to help with the job. They were experts in the space and came highly recommended. Over the course of a few weeks, the firm went about getting to know the team and creating a variety of mood boards to help with the process. Everything was going great until the proposed logos arrived. The firm had delivered five potential logos, each with its own specific strengths, and wanted a decision of which one to move forward with. The problem was that no one loved any of them; they all just a little off. When my friend went back to discuss the issues with the branding firm, he received strong pushback. Being experts in the space, the firm was pushing hard to get the company to listen to their advice and go with their choice. Struggling with what to do, my friend explained the situation to me, adding that he was getting a lot of pressure to make a decision quickly so they could move forward with the rest of the rebranding. I was asked the standard question, "Which one do you like best and why?"

Instead of straightforwardly selecting an option and offering my advice, I sought to provide guidance. I explained that it is my belief that a logo should do two things for a company: it should do work for you with your customers, and it should motivate you the entrepreneur. The first seems obvious; when a customer sees your brand, what do you want them to think? Does it communicate what you do, or is it merely a tool to help customers remember you more easily? Whatever it is, when people see your brand, there should be an intention. Second, as a founder, there are so many hard times and if you are putting everything on the line you, you should love your brand to the point where you want it tattooed on your body.

After talking about the problem in this way, my friend realized that while some of the logos accomplished the first goal, none of them accomplished the second, and therefore none of them were viable options. Instead, he went back to the firm armed with this thought process and was able to get a new set of logos and to a place where everyone is now excited with the outcome.

The difference here is again subtle but important. I was asked for advice but instead gave guidance. It would have been easy to give the advice I was asked for: choose a logo and give my reasoning for why I thought it was the best. This plays to ego and ownership, but at the end of the day, would not have created the correct outcome. My friend would have selected a logo that he ultimately was not proud of nor motivated by. Standing removed from the business, it is much better to give thoughts around solving the problem and to equip people with a toolset to empower them to solve their own problems in the most thoughtful and effective way possible.

So, stop asking for advice and look instead for guidance; because at the end of the day, your inside knowledge is your most valuable resource, and the best an outsider can do is to help you come to your own decision.