Five veteran entrepreneurs and investors shared the stage on Monday at Seattle Startup Week on a panel called “navigating the firehose of startup advice and truisms.”
The speakers included:
- Chris Devore, managing partner at Founders Co-op and managing director at Techstars Seattle
- Kristina Bergman, CEO of Integris and former venture capitalist at Ignition Partners
- Amy Buckalter, CEO of Pulse and former president of Chief Pivot
- Sarah Daniels, CEO of Blue Canoe Learning and former chief marketing officer at Market Leader
The panel, hosted by Galvanize and moderated by Wellpepper CEO Anne Weiler, focused on helping entrepreneurs with how and when to take advice, and from whom, along their startup journey.
I’ve listed some of the key takeaways below — they shared some great tips for how to digest feedback. For example, the entrepreneurs recommended that early-stage startups establish a trusted board of advisors, and to make sure you put a personal filter on each piece of advice you receive. Company builders should also seek peer mentorship — those that are going through the same trials and tribulations and who can empathize with you.
But I most enjoyed the end of the discussion, when Weiler asked the panelists for the best advice they’ve ever received. Here’s what they said:
“The best piece of advice I ever got actually wasn’t really about startups, it was just related to career in general. I got it when I was 25 years old and I hated my job at the time and wanted to just run away and go do something else and maybe become a monk. The advice was, never run away from something — always run to something. If you run away, you’ll just run from something bad to something worse. If you’re running to something, it’ll force you to suck it up, deal with the situation, and find your next great thing. And that next great thing — make sure it’s always something better that propels you forward toward where you want to go. It’s a piece of advice I’ve had to remind myself of on many, many occasions throughout my career and every time I followed it and listened to it, it worked out extremely well. That was the best piece of career advice I ever got.”
“When my brother was in high school, he wanted to be a rockstar. He’s not a rockstar now; he’s a lawyer. But to my parents’ credit, they didn’t tell him, ‘we don’t want you to be a rockstar.’ They said, ‘if you’re going to be a rockstar, be the best rockstar you can possibly be.’ It’s the idea of not being what the world wants you to be — it’s about being what you want to be, but being awesome at it. I think all of us internalize that. It’s really liberating and hard at the same time, because it’s up to you to choose what you want to be, but then it’s on you to be good at it.”
“The best advice I got was when I first started fundraising. Everybody here, you’re building your baby. [But] don’t take it personally. I think there are a variety of reasons for why investors come into your business and partner with you or don’t. Sometimes it’s mysterious for why somebody does or doesn’t. So don’t take it personally. Don’t spend too much time on trying to convince someone if it’s not the right fit. Keep moving on.“
“A piece of advice that has really served me well in fundraising, and in trying to be a good leader in recruiting and making sure my team knows where we’re going, is about storytelling. I started life as a math major — I get the numbers right and I know how to build models and execute things. But making sure you know the story and you know the why and you can connect with people — this is so important whether you are fundraising or you are recruiting or making sure that your entire distributed team is on the same page. Telling stories and remembering that at the heart of it, it’s all humans.”
So how should you understand and digest their advice, or anyone else trying to advise your startup? Here are some tips.
Devore on “investor whiplash,” or getting pulled in multiple directions based on advice from different people:
“At Techstars, we have hundreds of mentors and companies can have 10 mentor meetings in a day. The velocity can be really confusing to founders in the program. Everyone gets confused by it. We try to remind the founders that it’s your company. Never forget that it’s your company, your experience, your business — you know it better than anyone else. And the second thing is that everyone comes to a meeting with you with their own experiences and biases. They will be playing back the lessons they’ve learned the hard way in their career; their career and their journey is probably different than yours, whether it was when it happened, what industry it was, what role they played. So understand who they are and where they are coming from to be able to filter out the stuff that’s useful from the stuff that’s just heuristics and biases and instincts that may or may not be useful to you. It’s a two layer filter: never forget who’s company it is and remember that that person experiences are not necessary relevant to what you’re doing.”
“As a general rule when you have a mentor that very forcefully tells you to do ‘X,’ you should be very careful about whether that’s something you want to do. If you have a mentor that listens to you and helps you unpack your thinking about how you can improve or be better at something in a way that is collaborative and socratic, that’s probably an indication of a mentor you should spend more time with.”
Bergman on doing your own due diligence on investors:
“A lot of entrepreneurs forget that they can do due diligence on the investors as much as the investors do due diligence on them. If you are going on the route of VC funding, I highly encourage you to go call the CEOs of people who have taken funding from the partner you want to work with, and go do diligence on that partner and see what kind of advice they gave and how they interacted with CEOs and founders at each stage, or at the stage that’s relevant to you. That will be your primary source of feedback. If you’ve done your homework really well on the VC, they’ll be your best and primary sounding board because they are on your team once you’ve taken money from them.”
Buckalter on finding a mentors who can “tell it like it is”:
“For all of us, because so much advice comes our way through every single stage, we need to have at least one person we can really trust and one person that can really tell it like it is to us. When you are [immersed] in so many things, sometimes you can’t see the forest through the trees. Someone who you can really sit down with and have the hard talks with along the way, no matter what stage you are at, is so important.”
Daniels on looking for humility in advisors:
“I don’t try to advise my advisors. But if I am picking my set of advisors, I tend to pick people that are super smart and who have relatively low ego because that’s what I tend to like. Picking advisors is a selfish sort of thing. I want these people to help me. I want to be able to comfortably have good conversations with them where we debate issues and they help me. So I’m selfishly going to pick people that I want to have those conversations with and who will listen to me. Typically, super smart successful people with low ego are nice to deal with, so that’s what I look for.“