Who are the real experts and how do you use them?
For most entrepreneurs the word “expert” doesn’t have a positive connotation. For a startup this could be someone who can tell you all about building a successful, game-changing business, but for some reason has chosen not to do it him- or herself. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach” – is an often-heard proverb.
On the other hand, wouldn’t it be strange if you were the only one in the world with valuable insights for how to make your start up succeed? I mean, there is some pretty cool folks out there – and chances are that some of them have tried to tackle the exact same challenges as you are dealing with right now. Yes, your start up is unique, but still the problems you encounter have surely been encountered by lots of other entrepreneurs in similar situations. So what to do?
First of all, be selective. Identify the few who you really would like to talk to – and then spend your time engaging with them. The fact that “someone” out there is worth listening to, doesn’t mean that “everyone” can help you with valuable insights and advice.
In my experience the real “experts” are the active entrepreneurs who have within the last 1-3 years successfully dealt with the exact same problems that you are dealing with now. It can be inspiring to listen to stories about how your uncle or investor “conquered the world” back in the 80’s, but their advice is seldom very specific and spot on for your current situation and particular industry. General guidance like “always listen to your customers”, “have a strong vision” and “make sure to collect your invoices” is timeless and definitely good to be reminded of now and then. But specific insights that go beyond common sense are harder to come by – and way more valuable, given that you have already your fundamentals right.
Let me offer you an example.
In my current start up, BetterNow.org, we have been busy at work all of 2011. We managed to convince the first 25 customers, to get some early traction with 10,000 people using our product, and to raise an angel round. Then in January 2012 we felt it was time to stick up our heads and think anew about what we were doing. As part of that process we decided to get input from external “experts”.
First we identified the seven people we felt were best equipped to give us what we were looking for: specific insightful advice on how to get our business to the next level. These seven were all successful entrepreneurs themselves, one of them recently turned VC recently. We wrote them an email and politely asked for an hour of their time. Five of them gladly accepted.
We then wrote a brief and distributed it to them in advance of the meeting. The brief was 3 pages long and outlined the situation; what had we achieved in 2011, what our vision was, what we planned to do next, and which challenges we currently faced. A quick and efficient way of getting them up to speed, and making it possible for them to provide insightful advice, not just the common wisdom.
We then held meetings one-on-one with our five experts, and had extremely energizing and fruitful discussions with them. We listened to their advice, asked them to be brutally honest, pushed back when it made sense, and asked them questions like:
- “what would you do if you were the founder of this business?”
- “which one thing do you think would make our traction go 5x?”
- “what are we currently doing that you believe is not good use of our time and money?”
- “what do you see as our 3 wildly important goals for the next 6 months?”
- “what opportunities are we not seeing here?”
I took notes during the meetings and afterwards summed all the advice we had been giving up in one document. My co-founder Bent Haugland and I read through all these inputs on a Friday, and then digested it over the weekend. Then we sat down on Monday, talked it all through and finalized our plan of attack, incorporating what we had just learned the week before. I would say that our plan got adjusted 15-20%. Not radically changed, actually we felt reassured that our overall thinking had been right. But on a couple of significant points we were definitely influenced, and were now able to make some good adjustments. Maybe most important we felt again ready to dig in, re-energized and more certain than ever before that we were onto something big.
As entrepreneurs we often feel that we should know all the answers ourselves. But more often than not we can really benefit from identified some real experts and getting ourselves into an informed dialogue with them. No matter what problem you are trying to tackle right now, chances are that dozens of other entrepreneurs have recently faced an almost identical challenge, and found a way to overcome it. Go out there and learn from them.