A friend pointed me to a superb summary of advice for startups, specifically calling out the ways that advice can be flawed, along with some perceptive insights into how to identify advice that’s actionable and useful. The post is by Eric Reis, and is appropriately titled The 10 Ways Startup Advice is Flawed
Eric’s pov is appropriately snarky, and at a macro level he calls out various ways that being lucky and being smart are frequently confused with each other. Snarkiness aside, the really valuable point he makes is how important it is to be a critical thinker, in general. The value of making your own assessment of the information you’re consuming, and not just accepting it.
I especially liked his point #6: Maybe the thing they did used to work, but it doesn’t anymore
I think about that a lot in my own context. I was at RealNetworks back when it truly was pioneering this new phenomena of sending audio and video over the internet, and we owned that market. In public we said we had 85%+ share of the market, but in reality it was closer to 95% for a good long time.
We called the shots, named the prices, dictated terms. We muscled into and out of markets we cared about, aligned ourselves with titans of the technology landscape.
And then Microsoft showed up and we fought them tooth and nail. It was a hard and ugly fight, which they eventually won (once they started paying attention).
Well, they won, sort of. It was epic, and in a start-up kind of way, it was epic fun. I remember picking a big fight with the Windows Media team on an internet media list-serve, where I’d just published some user research showing how people preferred our new video to Windows Media’s.
And Microsoft’s head of a/v technology posted to the list, accusing us of fluffing up the research, and he included a three page outline of the ways you could falsify/skew consumer surveys. And it was so much fun to respond to the list , asking “how was it that Microsoft knew of so many ways to distort research?”
But I digress.
We each became so obsessed with each other we quit paying attention to what Macromedia was doing with Flash and what Apple was doing with the tight coupling of iTunes and the iPod. So, while we were both wrestling in the mud pit, Apple and Macromedia left the building and started more interesting and lucrative businesses elsewhere. And until that point the thing we did at RealNetworks really did used to work.
Eric’s “ten ways” are simple and insightful. The hard part is putting them into action, in the moment. My experience at RealNetworks is valuable to the startups I work with and talk to if and only if both of us are cognizant of its context. And it takes discipline and a good dose of humility to walk the talk Eric is alluding to.
I know there’s a ton of stuff I did that was a product of luck and timing, and a lot that was a result of deliberate hard work and applied intelligence. The hard part is being honest enough with myself to examine where those boundary lines are, to strip out the specific circumstantial knowledge from the generalized, truly durable knowledge.
So, let’s all get a good laugh out of Eric’s list, but also remember how hard it is to actually do what he’s suggesting.