By Ratmir Timashev
Sometimes you may not want to share that you’re an entrepreneur. And it’s not because you want to hide what you do, but because you’re trying to avoid all the helpful advice people feel compelled to offer once they know you run a business. The advice might be well intended, but rarely is it actually advice that you sought or needed.
As an entrepreneur and business owner for over 20 years, I’ve experienced just that. While all the advice and words of wisdom were offered with good intentions, it hasn’t always been advice I’ve wanted to follow.
Advice is born of experience, but no two experiences are the same. Knowing this, I’ve learned it’s best to take any counsel with a grain of salt and no single plan is going to work perfectly. Owning a business means frequently thinking in the moment and modifying plans as things change. All the advice in the world isn’t going to prepare you for every situation, but knowing what to listen to and what to disregard can help you navigate new situations.
I don’t have a secret for distinguishing what advice is good or bad, but I can definitely pinpoint some of the worst advice I have received in my career.
“It’s better to use data than to rely on your intuition.”
About 10 years ago, when I was building my company, a business associate recommended that I hire product managers. He said these product management teams would gather customer feedback, and then use that information to make decisions and build a road map. His suggested strategy was allowing product managers to take the lead in scaling innovation, rather than me leading this process.
Going to product teams with massive amounts of customer data and asking them to uncover the next innovation is a waste of time. While there are good product managers, no product manager knows better than the business owner how to come up with solutions for customer problems. And not getting direct customer feedback is a mistake.
Innovation comes from an entrepreneur knowing what his or her company needs to do to compete effectively. Product managers are useful, but at the end of the day it is the business owner who knows customers best, and has to think about and uncover what they really want and what they may not even know they need. Relying on others to tell you what to do can lead to coming up with solutions for problems that your customers aren’t asking you to solve, which is a huge waste of time and resources.
When it comes assessing customer wants and needs, I know I can trust my gut and my instincts because they have been instrumental in the ongoing success of my business. Don’t waste time looking to analytics and data for the answers your instincts have already provided. Relying on the opinions of others is what kills successful innovation.
“At the first sign of a financial crisis, it’s best to lower your head count.”
When we started our company, we knew we had found a hot market, and we were growing incredibly fast. However, only a few years into our business’s North American growth, the 2008 financial crisis hit. At the time, I was hiring hundreds of people, using money from the sale of a previous company.
When the downturn began, companies started to lay off their North American employees. A friend, who also happens to be a business owner, shared that as growth in the region was slowing down, I needed to cut my head count by at least 20% and focus on building a stronger European presence. Even though I am not usually very risk-averse, I trusted this friend as an adviser, and we slowed our investment. To this day, it is a business decision I strongly regret.
Even during this economic downturn, our business remained healthy. Our products were actually more in demand in North America during the recession, as companies that were losing employees had to ensure they didn’t also lose their data. The lasting impact is still being felt today on our business, and we are working to rebuild our previous momentum and North American presence. I have no doubts that we’d have grown much faster and larger in the region had I not followed that bad advice 10 years ago.
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“When the business landscape is crowded, focus on outdoing your competitors.”
The technology industry is more competitive than ever, with companies releasing increasingly advanced products and faster updates. However, a trap that many entrepreneurs fall into is focusing on outdoing the competition, rather than concentrating on their own value adds. I’ve received this advice before, and thankfully was smart enough not to follow it.
Getting caught up in flashy new technology that might impress competitors will only cause entrepreneurs to lose focus. A business must compete for the customers’ attention, and the best way to do so is to focus on the initial, specific value your business has for them. If customers are not asking for a particular trendy solution, it’s not worth your time as a business owner to devote time to develop it, even if it is an industry trend or media focal point. What should matter to you is serving the needs of your customers. Focusing on outdoing competitors is not going to help you be more competitive in practice.
Follow your gut
While advice can be helpful, it’s important to remember it’s just that: advice. Many times, entrepreneurs become so overwhelmed with advice, studies, data, and other outside sources of information, they get lost in the details and their intuition is muffled in the madness.
No outside source holds as much value as an entrepreneur’s own knowledge about his or her business. Rather than make important, critical business decisions based on the advice of others, it’s usually best to tune it out and bet on your own intuition. Remember that even if advice is well intentioned, you know your business best and can rely on your gut to tell you when you should take advice, and when you should say thank you and move on.
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