Startup advice should be strong on the ‘why’ and the ‘what’

I just read a great post titled Dear startup advisors, you don’t always need to be right, but you have to be solid. Forward Partners is very much in the business of startup advice so I was keen to read what Phin Barnes from First Round had to say.

As I say, it’s a good post and well worth reading in it’s entirety. What follows are the money quotes and the rest of the post is largely an example from when Phin was an entrepreneur that really brings the point home.

Quote 1:

the most valuable advisors deliver clarity of thought and structured arguments that can be climbed step by step or taken apart piece by piece

and, Quote 2:

I could never get a solid grip on advice summarized by, “I’ve seen this before + instinct = decision.”

To me this works because ‘clarity of thought’ and ‘structured arguments’ help founders understand why they should be doing something as well as the what they should do, whereas the pattern recognition and gut feel in quote 2 only delivers on the ‘what’. Founders get contradictory advice all the time (in his post Phin describes how one of his investors advised him to launch on Xbox and the other on Playstation) and making an intelligent choice between contradictory advice is only possible if the ‘why’ is present as well as the ‘what’.

I hear advisors venting frustrations about CEOs that aren’t following their advice all the time. I even do it myself sometimes :). Going forward I will think about whether I’ve explained the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’. Figuring out the ‘why’ takes work and some advisors either can’t or won’t take the time to make their thoughts clear and to structure their arguments. That’s not so helpful. Once the why has been explained if there’s still a disagreement as to what should be done then the reason should be clear, which makes it much less frustrating.

My advice to founders and CEOs is to help advisors unpack their instincts and explain the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’. When advisors are drawing on experience ask questions to explore what they are remembering, why things worked out well last time, and then get into detail on the similarities and differences between the what happened in the past and the current situation. Most advisors will welcome this discussion, it makes them smarter and makes them feel valued. Conversations where advice is passed and then ignored are much less satisfactory.