All startup advice is wrong: How you can avoid “mentor whiplash”


I get asked for advice by a lot of people – startups, tech companies, people interested in mobile and business people, and I have also been the recipient of a lot of advice.

But I’ve started prefacing a “disclaimer” when I speak to people who ask me for advice.

What worked for me may not work for your situation. If you receive advice from an adviser, its based on what worked for them. It is what worked in a particular circumstance, in a particular industry, in a specific point in time. Every industry, every situation has its own dynamics. Advice that worked for one particular circumstance may not work in another. Even if you have seen similar pattern in different industries or in similar companies, it doesn’t mean its going to automatically apply to your situation.

Life is not black and white. There’s a lot of grey. There’s a ton of variables and nuances that can change things.

Advice for one mobile app may not work for another mobile app. Conversely, experience building a mobile product may not work for a subscription box business.

If I give someone advice, it is based on my perspective. It is based on my experience. It is entirely subjective. Even if I have the numbers to back up what happened in my app or website, it may not apply directly to your product.

A while back a few people recommended a well-known marketing book to me. I have it on my to-do list to read.

But another friend told me: “I’ve read the book. I’ve applied all of the advice and techniques and it didn’t work for me”. I haven’t read the book (only the excerpt and the email newsletters). This is not a judgement on the book either. All I wanted to say on this matter is that the advice in the book didn’t work for my friend.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is when people blindly apply the advice they’ve been given or something they’ve read. Advice is not always directly transferable, in some cases it is.

Conversely, adopting part of an advice sometimes means you don’t get the full effect of it either.

Hence, its important to question the advice you’re given. To understand and appreciate the context its given in. Sometimes what you read in a business textbook published in the 1980’s may still be applicable now. Sometimes it may not. You need to make the adjustments needed to apply it to your business, product, market or situation.

I believe its better to start from the position of: “This advice worked for you. It could be wrong for me. It may not be directly applicable to me. I need to question it and understand it first.”

Use advice as a source of ideas and inspiration

I’m not suggesting that you don’t read a blog, book, hear someone speak on a topic or receive advice – I’d encourage you to do so.

What I am suggesting is that you don’t blindly apply it to your circumstances. You need to work out if its going to work for you. Use it as a source of ideas and inspiration.

Ev Williams put it best in this excellent blog post. He stated: “correlation is not causation.”

I read Intercom’s blog on product management and its excellent. But what worked for Intercom may not work for my product. What works for Facebook or Google may not work for a startup at a much smaller scale.

For example, Google has 20% time and is a successful company. Does that mean you should implement 20% time to be a successful company?

Correlation is not causation.

The problem is that for every piece of advice you get from a mentor or adviser, there is probably equal and opposite advice from another person.

One person might say, “You need to focus on marketing!” and the other says “You need to focus on product!”. “It’s time to raise money!” or the other says “It’s time to charge for your product and bootstrap!”.

Mentor A says “Focus on user acquisition!” versus Mentor B that says “Focus on retention!”.

This phenomena is known as mentor whiplash. I’m sure that both have equally valid reasons based on their experience and perspective.

So what do you do?

Develop your own world view

I’m sure you receive a ton of inputs. From investors, stakeholders, management, colleagues, friends, customers and the internet.

In a world where everyone has an asshole opinion, you need to develop your own.

The output should be your own view of the world. Sometimes your view will be aligned with others. Other times it will be counter-intuitive. My point is you need to have your own opinion and back yourself. Take it all in, develop your thesis, and stick to it. It doesn’t mean you should be rigid – you can change your world view. But the point is you need to have your own opinion.

In life, products, startups, and fantasy basketball you need to have your own opinion.

Reframing the question

Sometimes the answer is correct but you’ve asked the wrong question. It depends on how you frame your question.

Once you’ve told someone the facts and the scenario, you can frame a question in this way: “If you were in my situation, what would you do? Why?”

Understand the reason for the answer. The why is more important than the what. This may give you some ideas to develop your own world view.

Your world view versus others

Some of the biggest disruptions that have occurred were based on people having their own opinion which has been opposed to how everyone else thinks.

When everyone zigged, they zagged. The founders of a startup believed that this was going be the future based on their view of the world. This was how it was going to play out.

I briefly worked for a company like that. Everyone thought the idea of staying in people’s houses for accommodation and renting their rooms out was crazy. But they believed based on their world view it was going to eventuate.

They initially found it really hard to find investors to accept their world view. That company was airbnb.

Sam Altman, head of Y Combinator argued in a blog post that the most hotly contested seed rounds did not have a correlation with success.

This means that the startups that had the most demand from investors to put money into the company did not necessarily become successful. However, the startup funding rounds that were not highly contested have lead to the biggest success. He posits that investors see patterns and they follow those patterns.

But it’s the outliers that knock it out of the park. These are the anti-patterns.

The founders saw something that no-one else did.

They saw an opportunity, an anomaly that existed in the matrix. They believed in a future that others did not and they made it happen. A lot of amazing companies now looked like really bad ideas at the beginning. The view that the ideas are bad are from people that didn’t understand it at the time.

My thesis is that if these founders had listened to conventional wisdom, they wouldn’t have gotten to where they were today. They had a different view of the world and were able to eventually convince everyone that it was true.

This article was originally published on the Inspired Worlds blog.

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Matthew Ho is a mobile product manager at Atlassian. He has a personal blog at
  • Richard Hughes-Jones

    This is a really helpful post. As a coach, I work daily with startup Founders and CEOs to help them make sense of, and navigate their way through, conflicting ideas and advice. I’ve collated a list of resources on how to give (and receive) advice that might be additionally helpful: