How to give advice

We’re about to kick off the next cohort of BGV and that means shifting into a mode of being available to offer advice to the new startups. That’s a very privileged position and I don’t take it lightly. Having been on the other side of the table I know that not all startup advice is good advice or even welcome.

I have a few rules of thumb:

  • Listen first — I like to know as much of the story behind the people and the venture before offering my perspective.
  • Ask good questions — sometimes you need to ask the obvious ones (‘how are you going to make money’ etc) but also try to approach it from a different angle.
  • Offer your experiences gently (both good and bad) — if I do have direct experience of the problems the team is facing, I don’t assume the situation is the same. I’ll also try to explain how I got it wrong (what not to do) as often as explaining what I think they should do.
  • Offer analogies or comparisons with care — saying you should do what X company did isn’t very useful, especially when you don’t have real inside knowledge of how they did it.
  • Be clear when you don’t know the answer — if you’re asked for advice on something you don’t think you can help with, just admit it.
  • Give the opportunity for people to find out more — I’ve often found that offering up useful things that people can read can be helpful, whether that’s books, articles or talks.
  • Think about it afterwards and follow up — I always try to think more later about questions I’ve been asked for advice on. The best ideas sometimes take a bit of time.