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5 Ways to Politely Decline Unsolicited Advice

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Everyone has an opinion–and I believe in everyone’s right to an opinion. I, too, share my thoughts and advice in this column with you faithful readers (okay, maybe only my mother is reading these, but let’s not digress).

But there’s something that’s been bugging me lately about opinions. And one of Teddy Roosevelt’s quotes keeps running through my head about the man in the arena who’s muddy from playing the game versus the critics in the stands:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming…”

We entrepreneurs are in our own arena. And when you’re starting or building a company, there are plenty of spectators who come forth and let you know what they think about your business model, your potential market, your product, or even your product leader.

When you are starting a business there’s no shortage of people who have opinions about things they should not have opinions about.

There are too many people who think it’s their role to opine on whether or not they think your business is going to work. I’ve always appreciated my business school classmates who would wax poetic about whether my last company was going to work–even though we already raised $30m of capital and had 200 employees with revenue growing 4x every year.

Um, thanks for the thoughts. It’s working. And no, you cannot work here for 5 percent of the business.

And, for the founder who is rolling up his or her sleeves, digging in day in and day out, making decisions left and right, consulting with their own gurus, this unsolicited advice is nothing but a distraction.

So, advisor to advisor let me give you some of my own unsolicited advice. Stop saying things like this:

“I’m excited to see what you’re building. I’d be willing to discuss your company more and share my expertise on what you should be doing.”–says the person who was too important to take a meeting in the first place and has never built anything on his own.

“I’m a little bit concerned with the team.”–says the 25-year-old VC associate who has never founded a company.

“I don’t understand how this is scalable.”–says every VC ever about every event, hardware, local acquisition, or any business they do not understand that doesn’t involve some simple piece of software that smacks them in the face.

“Have you thought about doing X or partnering with Y?”–says the well-meaning advisor with an idea that is near impossible to pull off.

That last one is the most innocent but deadly, in my opinion. Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s a fantastic idea, one that a founder would love to be able to have the time, energy, and money to implement.

But unless that advisor is giving you 10 million dollars to make it happen, the founder is too busy actually running the business, and you’ve just reminded him or her of that fact. Especially since most high-growth companies are lacking funding and the founders are on a constant hamster wheel.

Every entrepreneur will have to deal with criticism and opinions. And you should, in fact, listen to what people are saying. After all, if you don’t talk to people about your ideas, they will rust and die.

The feedback may in fact be a good idea or a blind spot you haven’t thought of. So feedback is good. Remember, you don’t know everything. But here’s how to handle it:

  1. Learn to smile and nod. Try to understand what learnings, if any, you can actually take from the advice. Create advocates by letting people think they are helping you–even if their feedback is worthless

  2. Don’t get defensive by self important know-it-alls. Don’t let stupid advice or generally nasty unhelpful people get you emotionally worked up. It’s not worth it. Remember the big picture. Many could never build what you are building. It’s simply a defense mechanisms for their own insecurities and inability to take risks and do what you are doing.

  3. Put it back on them. Say, “Can you tell me what else you’re thinking about?” This will either provide the soapbox they’re craving or will make the person realize to back off. Ask for details for provocative stances when someone throws up on your brainchild.

  4. Use it as a way to identify your advocates. Sometimes there are good eggs who genuinely care about your success.

  5. Generally maintain a positive attitude and willingness to learn. Great businesses are built on user discovery and learnings. Always get the feedback and filter it.

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