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Entrepreneurs are, by their very nature, independent, driven and decisive individuals. They have to be — whether an investment opportunity is secured or slips away, whether a new product soars or slumps, whether, when all is said and done, a business venture is a success, it’s all on them.
This much I know from experience. Having co-founded four disruptive companies and supported more than 10 others that I have invested in, I’ve endured the early mornings and late nights, shouldered the stress of big decisions and taken risks when the rewards were right. But there’s something else that I’ve always done — something I urge all founders to do — and that takes advice. Lots of it.
Why? Because, despite our love of autonomy, entrepreneurs can’t have all of the answers all of the time, especially when they’re starting out. But you know who does? Those who’ve been down the same path before.
Throughout my career, I’ve profited by picking the brains of business leaders at the top of their game. Their insight has added depth and diversity to my decision-making, and by learning from their experiences, I’ve been able to better navigate the challenges they once also confronted.
Taking advice is a skill in itself, however — one that I’ve honed over the years. Here are the principles I follow when asking for help from those I look up to.
The importance of trust
First and foremost, you must ensure you’re seeking guidance from the right sources. Seasoned business owners are always the best place to start — they’ve done the hard yards and know precisely the obstacles that entrepreneurs encounter.
Trust is another crucial factor. Before tapping someone’s wisdom, you need to be sure they have your best interests at heart. That doesn’t mean individuals who are simply going to agree with you — “yes men” and “yes women” cause more problems than they solve — but people you can rely on to act in good faith.
Trust is also key for creating a safe space where concepts and concerns can be shared without fear of embarrassment. Some of the best and boldest ideas are lost because inexperienced entrepreneurs lack the confidence to share them with those they admire.
To remedy this, I suggest partnering with a designated mentor — someone who understands your vision and goals and is a constant source of support along your business journey. They might not be a formal member of the company, but if an individual feels personally invested in your success, their advice will be all the more impactful.
Don’t assume you know best
So, you’ve built a trusting relationship with a business veteran who shares your aims and ambition. That’s a good place to be. Next, you need to make sure you’re asking for help in a way that’s conducive to success.
Before reaching out, ask yourself this: What do I hope to achieve by requesting advice? If the answer is finding a solution to a genuine dilemma, then go right ahead. If, on the other hand, you’re merely seeking validation for a decision you’ve already resolved to make, neither party has much to gain.
Relatedly, it’s no secret that entrepreneurs often value their own opinions — it’s one of the reasons we create our own companies. This sort of headstrong approach is almost always an advantage in business; unless it erodes your ability to take honest advice and acknowledge when someone else knows best. If a mentor recommends a change of direction and deep down you know it’s the right thing to do, don’t let pride stand in the way of good sense.
Don’t be hesitant to push back
Of course, blindly following every bit of guidance you get isn’t a good idea, no matter how well-intentioned it may be. If you have a strong suspicion that a piece of advice is wrong, don’t feel hesitant about pushing back and offering a counter-argument. That safe space we talked about earlier, it works both ways — those dispensing wisdom must be prepared to justify their positions under scrutiny.
If, after a lengthy back-and-forth, there’s still doubt in your mind about a particular recommendation, sit with it a while and let things percolate. It’s also worth seeking a second opinion, assuming it’s from an equally dependable source. Doing so can be daunting — you don’t want to appear disloyal — but any business leader worth their salt knows prudence comes first. Besides, all advice should be treated as provisional; something that is discussed, digested, acted on and then revisited further down the line.
A founder’s greatest asset
In every entrepreneur’s DNA, there is a strong thread of resilience — and at the end of the day, there’s no replacement for your own judgment.
But no solo business person, however motivated, can solve every challenge they come up against. That’s why having access to trusted and qualified advice is one of the greatest assets a founder can have.