5 Pieces of Common Startup Advice That Do More Harm Than Good

Endless repetition has made some business aphorisms sound right, but do they hold up? Let's think it through.

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By Larry Alton


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

When you're first starting out as an entrepreneur, you're a sponge, soaking up every piece of advice people give you, from mentors and bosses to friends and family. Overall, this is a good thing; it's important to open your mind, learn new perspectives, and be open to different experiences. That's how entrepreneurs are able to create new ideas and find alternative ways to solve problems.

Unfortunately, not all of the advice you get is going to be worth following. Some of it might even do more harm than good. The people telling you these tidbits have the best of intentions -- helping you succeed as an entrepreneur -- but the execution of this advice can lead to unexpected consequences and spectacularly bad results.

When you hear the following common pieces of advice, be sure to take them with a grain of salt:

1. Follow your passion.

Famed entrepreneur Mark Cuban once admitted "following your passion" to be one of the worst pieces of entrepreneurial advice he'd ever heard. Is it really such a bad thing? No. When you're passionate about something, you're naturally motivated to work hard at it, and even better, you enjoy working hard at it. The root of this advice is the fact that if you're passionate about your business, you'll have less stress and naturally work harder to achieve your goals.

Here's the problem; you can't start with a passion and hope to make it into a business. Your idea needs to be something that's valuable to people, and passions can be anything. For example, you might be passionate about eating popcorn, but there isn't much demand for a professional popcorn eater. Find a balance.

Related: Why 'Follow Your Passion' Is Awful, Flawed Advice

2. Work hard.

The phrase "work smarter, not harder" exists for a reason. There's much value in hard work; it shows drive, motivation, and a willingness to make sacrifices. All of these are the good traits at the root of the advice.

The problem with this advice is its potential interpretation. Instead of seeing "hard work is important," people see "hard work is all it takes to succeed" or "hard work is the only way to improve." This isn't always the case. In fact, working too hard -- such as exhausting yourself by never taking breaks -- can actually decrease your productivity and motivation. Not to mention, working hard for the wrong reasons or in the wrong way is akin to beating your head harder in order to penetrate a brick wall. Often, there are smarter solutions than raw man-hours; see what you can do to find them.

3. Do something original.

The Holy Grail of entrepreneurship is the "original" idea -- the one everybody needs, but nobody has thought of before. The main problem with this should be obvious; these solutions are incredibly hard to come by. But there's another problem with it -- most first ideas are terrible.

Related: History's Inventive Minds Say You Don't Have to Be Original to Be Creative

Think about it this way. Was Google the first search engine? Was YouTube the first online video channel? Was Amazon the first book store? Of course not. Some of the best and most successful startup companies of our generation weren't "original" ideas -- they were major improvements to pre-existing ideas. Don't just make something -- make something better.

4. Trust your gut.

Instinct is entirely overrated. Some entrepreneurs have made their careers out of trusting their gut when making decisions, but they're in a position to give advice. Think of all the failed entrepreneurs who trusted their gut and lost. Are these people frequently asked for their entrepreneurship advice?

This isn't to say that you should ignore your first instincts altogether; with experience, instinct can actually be a powerful tool. But in your early days as an entrepreneur, your experience is limited, and you'll be far better off trusting the data than your own inner monolog.

Related: Know When to Trust Your Gut

5. Take every opportunity.

You have to learn to say no eventually. It may seem tempting to take on every new client, explore every new avenue for production and profitability, or give every new idea a fair shot -- this is the entrepreneurial equivalent of casting a wide net. But if you keep this up, eventually, you'll find yourself exhausted, with not much gained.

Don't worry about taking every opportunity. Remain open to new opportunities, and be careful to consider most, if not all, of your opportunities, but don't feel obligated to take on more than you can handle. Stick with the ones you feel have the most promise.

These pieces of advice aren't inherently bad; they might actually serve to inspire some people or work for some specific business models. But they can't be universally applied, nor should they be taken as absolute truth. Learn from these pieces of advice (from their intentions as well as their downsides) and be careful which advice you ultimately follow.
Larry Alton

Freelance Writer & Former Entrepreneur

Larry Alton is an independent business consultant specializing in social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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