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Sunday, October 13, 2013

How to get good advice/insights from others?

This is a tough question which I encounter quite often. Entrepreneurs frequently feel very lonely and we sometimes do not know how to even start handling the problems that are in front of us. Some entrepreneurs swear by having a formal or informal board of advisors. Others say getting advice is a waste of time. I will share my personal experience on this topic and readers can draw their own conclusions. I believe it is not a waste of time but we need to have the right mindset and approach. Learning this way frequently has high impact to my business and helps me be more confident.

1) My business never got a formal set of advisors. We did ask around back in 2001 to see if anyone would join us formally but in the end it did not work out.  I remember asking a politician and a GLC MD this and they both turned us down on grounds that they were too busy. Now on hindsight, i think they were right to turn us down for varying reasons.

a) I did not attempt to align them at all. No talk of equity, no clear idea how they can add value.  Not that i think it makes sense to offer advisors equity except in very special cases. But i did not know that then.

b) I like to think they liked us and were self aware. They new that their value add to our work was minimal. Both were not business owners or business coaches, so I think from their point of view, they also wondered what kind of advice or coaching could they value add with.

2)  The next time i got great learning was in 2003/4 when i got to meet Mark Chang who founded Jobstreet. Obviously as competitors, he did not advice us anything but what i learned just interacting was how an entrepreneur should think and how a business is run. We must have spent at least 40 hours interacting with him.

This is an important learning point. Frequently, the best advice i have gotten is from just paying attention to what other people do and say. From there, i will notice key attitudes and mindsets they have which point the direction to where i should go. Most recently, we paid a visit to Patrick of catcha at his office and i went away with some good food for thought on the psychology of Snr Mgmt.

3) Another example of learning is when i visited eFusion office back in 2007 or so. Looking at how metric driven that business is (they had whiteboards lining almost all the walls of the office!), gave me the advice i needed. Of course, this was reinforced by what Sam shared and it pointed and confirmed for me that my business needs to be ultra metric driven. This was before it became a trend.

4) Advice can directly sought. I have experienced this in an impactful way. When i was selling the company , i got in touch with an old friend who has done a fair bit of M&A work and whom i knew was a brilliant fella (scholar, mckinsey etc). Because as entrepreneurs, it is usually the first time we are encountering many concepts and terms like earnouts, reps and warranties etc, it helps to level the playing field by getting experienced professionals on our side. Together with a good lawyer, both proved to be invaluable in understanding the entire due diligence process and in negotiating the S&P agreement.

But what they were of little help with was on mindset to have during this process. Our business had no VCs, shareholders were almost all family and 1 CTO old friend. What helped me was a group of business owners whom i meet regularly. Their sharing on similar situations and view points helped tremendously.

5) Advice & insights can also be garnered from reading online and print literature and connecting the dots with our own experience. Recently, i have been reading many HBR case studies and books by Harvard professors (my better half is taking a course there). I am the type of person who learns by reading, so i actually find that advice and insights can come very much to me via reading good quality books.

For example, "The Man in the Mirror" by Kaplan is really a good book that has much insight on leadership. And by connecting the dots with own experience, it is as good as speaking with many advisors in my opinion.

So looking at the above cases, there are a few learning points.

1) Advice seems to be best for me when it comes from fellow business owners who are more advanced along their company development. This is extremely important. Learning from the snr management team of an established business is different from learning from the actual owner.  Esp if the snr mgmt in question does not own equity.

2) Advice or learned insights can come when there is a clearly defined problem which we actively seek relevant people to get their opinion on, or it can come from serendipity where i learn from osmosis when interacting with business owners.

3) Professionals can give great advice but only if they are in the field they are advising on and if we are asking the right questions. So stuff like mindset learning not so useful but stuff like what are industry norms for earn outs, or what is fair based on the thousands of warranties they have seen or how to do best SEO/SEM etc

4) The person giving advice and sharing matters a lot. You need to view what they say with the background of what they come from. Eg. an american CEO of a F500 company's views on M&A considerations is very different from a 10M businesses view.  But the same CEO view on leadership and the exercise of it may not be that different. But if against a 100K startup, then it may be too alien again.

5) If you are the reading type, learning from written case studies or books can be an excellent way to learn too. Only gripe i have is that there are too few case studies written for startups and SMEs. Most are for big organizations.

Hope the above helps! Feel free to share your experience with getting entrepreneurial insights and advice.


  1. Extremely well put across. Even as an aspiring freelancer, I find your sharing very useful and relevant. Thanks! :)

  2. Thanks Joyce. Feel free to give comments and share the blog,