The Worst Advice I Received as an Aspiring Entrepreneur (and What Was Actually Helpful for Growing My Business)

Any successful business founder will tell you that you need external input and second opinions during your entrepreneurial journey. Being an entrepreneur means knowing what’s best for your business and knowing what advice is valuable and applicable. With so many people offering their insights and personal experiences about starting a company, it’s not always easy to recognize the good from the bad.

Like with any new venture, it’s human nature to seek out tips from those who have gone before you. However, entrepreneurship is an ever-evolving landscape, and what was helpful two years ago could be outdated today.

While many entrepreneurs are inundated with advice, few receive relevant, expert advice. Nonetheless, the startup community harbors an impressive scope of knowledge, and even the smallest piece of good advice can have a drastic positive impact on your company.

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Here are some examples of the worst startup advice I have received, and what was actually helpful in growing my business:

“The customer is always right”

This is an age-old expression and a common misconception in many industries. At its core, the sentiment is a positive one: it emphasizes that customers are a priority and should be respected. The problem though, is that founders often cater so much to customers, that they forget to take care of their teams.

As an entrepreneur, you have a responsibility to create a safe and productive environment for your employees. If the customer is always right, that makes it easy for them to treat your staff poorly. By weighing too heavily in favor of customers, your team could feel unappreciated or even uncomfortable, which has a damaging effect on your overall product and service.

I once worked at a company where the boss enforced a rule that customers who were rude to employees had to leave the store. The policy reassured the team that they were taken care of, and it also set a precedent with customers that the company believed in treating people with respect, regardless of whether that someone was buying or selling. Ultimately, this attitude shaped a positive image for the company, and proved to be beneficial as consumers gravitated toward ethically-driven businesses.

A great example of this at work is Short’s Brewing Company’s recent statement in support of its staff, who has been subject to customer bullying as the brewery attempts to adapt its policies day by day in order to continue serving amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s also important to remember that in the digital age, customers are within shorter reach and can be acquired across different channels. Forming a strong team (and more importantly, nurturing a strong team) should be your primary focus above constantly appeasing customers.

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“Your company is a family”

Again, this advice is well-intentioned but it’s a little misleading and can draw founders away from the realities of running a business and a team. Having a good relationship with the people you spend the majority of your time with certainly matters, but viewing colleagues as a family adds emotion to already difficult decisions.

As the founder, you will inevitably have to make hard choices, and if you’ve implemented a family mentality, it will be hard for everyone involved not to take things personally. At the end of the day, your company has to perform, and at some point, you may have to let someone go or an employee may choose to leave. Operating as a “family” will mean that those scenarios cause a big drop in morale, which won’t be easy to restore.

An alternative way to view your company is as a sports team. You play, win and lose together. You have a tight bond and are united, but players can be transferred from time to time, and that’s seen as a better opportunity for them. Likewise, players who aren’t performing to their best ability sit on the bench until they improve. Even as players come and go, the general team stays strong because everyone believes in it. This narrative is healthier and more realistic for entrepreneurs, and unlike the “family” lens, can feed into your wider branding.

“Fake it until you make it”

While this is meant to inspire confidence in founders (particularly first-timers), it tends to inadvertently make people superficial. I’ve been in many interviews and worked with people where it was obvious that they were “faking it” to get ahead. Once I realized that what they were saying or doing wasn’t real, it felt like I was being lied to and that immediately tarnished our relationship. I didn’t trust them and I certainly didn’t want to do business with them. No matter how good an actor you are, people can spot fakeness a mile away, especially in the competitive sphere of entrepreneurship.

Rather than helping to drive your company, “faking it” wastes precious time. If you’re not being genuine, you’ll quickly learn that you won’t attract genuine, hardworking employees, nor the type of investors or customers you want. Not to mention, “faking it” could put you in a hard spot where your false sense of competency makes you overpromise things you can’t deliver, and you could potentially end up in debt or losing valuable resources.

Being honest, open and sincere is far more beneficial for the long-term success of your business. Letting people know where you are in your journey and being transparent about your struggles is what makes you relatable.  Your customers want to know that you’re a human being and that you face obstacles just like them.

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Key takeaways

Entrepreneurs are sometimes the most vulnerable to bad advice because they’re eager to begin generating revenue and scale fast. Amid the hurry, any tips or tricks are adopted with the hope of earning quick results, and while there may be signs of change in the short-term, bad advice can’t sustain a long-term successful strategy.

Knowing that the customer isn’t always right, that your team isn’t a family, and that you don’t need to fake it until you make it will help you find momentum as an entrepreneur. Moreover, it will additionally lay the foundation for a company (and a founder!) that is lucrative, authentic and happy.

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