25 Entrepreneurs Share the Worst Advice They Ever Received
If you decide to make the leap and launch a business, the people in your life -- from family and friends to investors -- will all have opinions that they will gladly share with you, sometimes whether you ask them to or not.
The fact of the matter is, you can take in all the advice in the world from the most respected sources, but if it doesn’t feel right to you, you have to trust vision and conviction enough to go your own way.
We asked 25 entrepreneurs about the worst advice they ever got and what they learned from it.
Dress like everyone else to fit in.
Name: Alexis Maybank
Company: Project September
Bad advice: Right as I was coming out of college and was going to work in a predominantly male environment as the only female, people would try to be kind, but would tell me that I must dress and act a certain way in order to fit in. I felt so uncomfortable and so not like me. A few years later I broke away from that and realized you are your own brand. And the more comfortable you are, the more confident and memorable you’ll be. You’ll be the most effective if you achieve your own personal style.
Read more about Maybank: The Co-Founder of Gilt on What Her First Job at Ebay Taught Her About Running a Company
Listen to the vocal minority of your users.
Name: Luis von Ahn
Advice: I don’t know if it's bad universally, or if it was just bad for me. When you’re building a product, typical advice is listen to what your users are saying. I have found that is terrible advice for Duolingo. The spirit of the advice is good, but a lot of times, there is a problem that arises. If the feedback channels are such that that only a few users get to talk to you, you are only hearing the loudest ones, not all of them, and that is where it breaks down.
We have a forum on our website where people can talk about language, but they often ask about features. I have found that listening to people in the forums is a terrible idea. For example, we redesigned the website a few years ago,and people in the forum were saying how terrible it was. Hundreds of posts about how this was the worst decision we had ever made. All the while we were looking at the metrics for the new website, and they were significantly better.
If you are just listening to the people who reach out to you, than that is a biased sample of people who are a loud minority. Of course that is not always the case, but unless you know what you are doing, you should watch out for that bias.
Read more about von Ahn: Why This Founder Says the Worst Advice He Ever Got Was to Listen to His Users
Name: Julia Hartz
Bad advice: To be fearless. This is unattainable, because humans are innately built with fear, and it’s part of how we survive. I think it’s better to examine your fears and divide those into buckets. There are irrational fears that you should pack in a box and put on a shelf, but then there are warranted fears that you should listen closely as you think through challenges. You will encounter fight-or-flight situations where you need to act fearlessly but feeling the fear a little isn't always a bad thing.
Read more about Hartz: The Day This Eventbrite Co-Founder Learned When to Speak Up
Don’t call attention to your work.
Name: Tim Chen
Bad advice: I'm Asian. My parents told me to keep my head down, work hard and show my value through work rather than through my mouth. I think that might work well in some industries, but even in those cases, there is a benefit of speaking up and communicating.
Don’t try something new.
Name: Heidi Zak
Bad advice: The worst advice that I've gotten is to not do something. There is never been a time that I have regretted going somewhere new. Most regrets come from not seizing an opportunity or not doing something. A lot more comes out of saying yes than saying no.
Growth is the most important metric of success.
Name: Scott Harrison
Company: Charity: Water
Bad advice: Growth is everything. While we had eight years of consecutive, and often breakneck, growth, we didn’t grow in our ninth year. We focused on foundational efforts, made great strides in increasing the sustainability of our global programs and built a new subscription-revenue program. But I had a personal sense that something was wrong, that I’d failed the organization, because I’d placed so much effort in “always growing.” We grew again the next year and, looking back, I realized how important it was to have that experience, stay the course, and stay true to our values and vision.
Read more about Harrison: Everyone Can Adopt This Founder's One-Step Productivity Advice
Your idea will fail.
Name: David Bladow
Advice: When I started Bloomthat a lot of people told me it wasn’t going to work. I think it was well intentioned, but I’m glad I ignored it. Take that kind of advice with a grain of salt and keep pushing.
Go big before you’re ready.
Name: Oliver Kharraz
Bad Advice: When we launched Zocdoc, there was a lot of investors that told us to go national right away. We had launched only in Manhattan, and we stayed in Manhattan for three or four years, which is forever in internet time. To actually learn how the business works at the smallest possible scale before we expanded as to the complexity of the business and ignoring the advice to go broader and staying hyperfocused early on was was crucial to our success.
Read more about Kharraz: This Founder Says to Succeed You Need to Question Everything
Follow someone else’s lead.
Name: Bastian Lehmann
Bad advice: To be like someone else. I see that happening a lot in college when everyone has to fit into one thing. It’s totally okay to have a different playbook. Just listen to your heart and try to find what you want to do and the people that support you. That’s the answer.
Play it safe.
Name: Daniella Yacobovsky
Bad advice: That's tough because I always find advice to be helpful in some sort of context. It's more about taking that advice and being smart in how you apply it to your own business. One example is when Amy and I first decided to leave our jobs in finance and venture into the startup world. We had a lot of people warn us that it was a risky move and while they were definitely correct, we still remained focused, made thoughtful decisions and went for it.
Dwell on mistakes.
Name: Bea Fischel-Bock
Bad advice: In the early days, a VC advised me to stay underground while building out our product, even if it took a year. Luckily, I didn’t take that advice.
I attribute our success to a mantra we have at the office: “Fail fast, fix fast, learn fast.” That means you put pieces of what you have into users hands as soon as possible and iterate from there. If I had listened to that advice we would have wasted a year building the wrong product.
Read more about Fischel-Bock: This Founder Shares Why In Order To Learn Fast, You Need to Fail Fast
To move on before you’re ready.
Name: Daniel Lubetzky
Bad advice: To sell KIND, almost 10 years ago. Beyond the financial reasons, selling KIND would have prevented me from learning, growing and increasing my impact in society.
Read more about Lubetzky: How a 9-Year-Old Taught This Super Successful Entrepreneur About Taking Risks
Try to be someone you’re not.
Name: Angie Hicks
Company: Angie’s List
Bad advice: To be someone I’m not. Early on in my career I was getting advice about how to act and how to be, because I was 22 and starting a business. Every time I tried to follow the advice, it wasn’t genuine. I had to be me. I don’t have an outside persona that’s different from who I am. What you seen in the brand is who I am as a person. If it’s not genuine, it doesn't work. You always have to be true to who you are.
Read more about Hicks: This Introvert Founder Swears by This Management Tip
Rush your growth.
Company: Pure Barre
Bad advice: Once I started franchising, I was growing organically and selling franchises to the people that were right for the company. In franchising there is a theory that that you should grow your business regionally. I never followed that. I’m a firm believer that it is better to have the right people than to grow regionally.
Read more about Dorr: This Founder Shares How to Tailor Your Schedule to Fit Your Brain
Do something you aren’t passionate about.
Name: John Zimmer
Bad advice: We were told to shut down Zimride [a ride sharing startup that was the precursor to Lyft that Zimmer started at Cornell]. They said, you guys are passionate about transportation, but what if you did something else? I think us deciding to stay on the course was the right thing.
Read more about Zimmer: Lyft Co-Founder John Zimmer: 'You Should Never Veer Off the Path of Your Own Values'
Sleep on it.
Name: Jen Rubio
Bad advice: When people tell me to sleep on it, it never turns out well. I just end up questioning myself and not having any real conviction in my decision.
I've really learned how to read my instincts. Now that there is an entire company, I will look for the right data to validate my instincts. Sometimes my instincts are wrong, but now I know the right questions to ask to get there, instead of wasting away without trying to find more information.
Read more about Rubio: Use This Founder's Top Tip To Make Your Meetings Work For You
You can’t have interests outside your business.
Name: Randi Zuckerberg
Company: Zuckerberg Media
Bad advice: Someone once told me to be less interesting. I think they meant it in a constructive way, because in Silicon Valley there is a culture that you have to be 24/7 invested in your startup, otherwise you’re not taken seriously. It’s a very “all in” culture, especially if you’re a woman. People already expect you to be distracted by your family, so you need to go even more down that road to show you’re all in.
I always loved theater and art, so I got some advice to be less interesting, because they felt like people might think I was distracted if they knew I also had an interest in theater. It took me a few years to realize that was probably the worst piece of advice I had ever been given.
Read more about Zuckerberg: Why Everyone Can Use Randi Zuckerberg's Number One Focus Tip
Hire for the sake of filling a role.
Name: Jordana Kier
Bad advice: Just hire someone and get them in the position. Hiring is about finding the right people, and it takes a lot of time. The idea of just filling up positions with a warm body is the worst advice, because you’ll regret it later. The old adage is really true: hire slow and fire fast. Bringing somebody on to your team impacts your culture and drives your business.
Read more about Kier: How You Can Use Your Computer Password to Make Your Aspirations a Reality
You have to raise as much money as possible.
Name: Katrina Lake
Company: Stitch Fix
Bad advice: When you're in Silicon Valley, people tell you all the time to raise money when you can and raise as much money as possible. I just don't think it's great advice.
It was hard to raise money for this concept. We turned profitable in 2014, and we've been able to stand on our own two feet and invest in ourselves.
All of that is a function of the fact that we were forced to think about the economics of our business early. And I think there are companies out there that may have failed, because they had too much money and never had to think about the economics of their business.
Read more about Lake: Stitch Fix Founder Explains Why the Worst Piece of Advice She Ever Got Was to Raise A Lot of Money
Don’t trust your own gut.
Name: Alexa von Tobel
Bad advice: I've had plenty people tell me that pursuing my dreams and starting a company was too risky or dangerous. I had plenty of people say that it was going to fail, or it wasn't a good idea. You're too young. You don't have enough experience. I just had to trust my gut, and go with my own instincts.
Read more about Tobel: This Entrepreneur Shares Her Surprising Secret to Fighting Decision Fatigue
Succumb to doubts about what is possible.
Name: Bruce Poon Tip
Company: G Adventures
Bad advice: The amount of times people have told me I can't do something. Today, people from 160 countries purchase with us every year. But back when I wanted to first export tourism, everyone at the time said we couldn't do it, that someone from Germany wouldn't book an African safari with a North American company.
If you're trying to innovate or what you're doing is very unique, there's so many people who will say you can't do it. No one ever thought we would become as large as we have. We're still growing. We've had 25 years of double-digit growth.
Read more about Poon Tip: I Was About to Shut Down My Business but I Changed My Mind. Here's Why.
You shouldn’t try new things.
Name: Jeff Chapin
Bad advice: When I was thinking about leaving IDEO there was a senior person who told me I was making a big mistake leaving, and I’d never find another place like it. I think it's healthy for people to move on and find something new. If I waited even just a month or two, I wouldn't have been here.
Be like everyone else.
Name: Gavin Armstrong
Company: Lucky Iron Fish
Bad advice: Stay within the mold. The advice came from a senior person at a bank [where I was working]. They said that if you don't look the part of the traditional banker, you won't be a traditional banker. That you should just fall in line [and conform].
Read more about Armstrong: This CEO Has Helped Thousands -- and He's Just Getting Started
Change your appearance.
Name: Tracy DiNunzio
Bad advice: More than one investor that I pitched in the early stage commented on my appearance and told me I needed to look more like that of a fashion founder, rather than showing up for meetings looking like I spent three days straight at my computer, which is what I was doing at that time. That was terrible advice. What you look like has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of your work or the validity of your pitch. I think anyone who thinks it does is probably not worthy of being your investor or partner.
Don’t put yourself out there
Name: Tina Sharkey
Bad advice: Don’t volunteer for anything. That advice is antithetical to everything I believe in. When there's an opportunity, put yourself in the middle of it, figure it out and figure out how you can make a difference. That's where all my opportunities come from in life. You have to invent it every day, and you have to see opportunity where it doesn't exist.
Read more about Sharkey: This Successful Entrepreneur Shares How to Find Opportunity Where It Seemingly Doesn't Exist