When you’re starting a business, there’s no shortage of people eager to hand out advice. It seems that everyone, even someone you've just met, has an opinion on how you should be developing your product, running your marketing, handling your finances and much more.
I'll be the first to admit that I've met some very smart people and have had great mentors over the years. Their contributions have been invaluable to my success. Yet after launching two companies over two decades, I’ve come across some terrible advice.
Below are the top five bits of advice that I could have done without.
1. "Hire people you know."
I've had countless people tell me that it's always better to assemble a team of "known quantities" — friends, colleagues or former employees whom you know and trust. But I've discovered that for me, the best hiring decisions are based on the specific positions I need to fill at that moment in time. In other words, I need to focus on the specific expertise and skill sets the company needs, rather than trying to piece together how Jill, Sally and Joe will fit into the new business.
In addition, if things aren't working out between an employee and your company, you need to part ways (and usually, the sooner the better). You may be more reluctant to let friends go, even if you know they aren't good fits.
2. "There's no room for you in the market."
When my husband and I launched a legal document filing company the second time around, the field was quite crowded, with several big names and established players. Many people told us to find a new space because there simply wasn’t room for us to compete.
However, the key to business success doesn't always hinge on finding a completely empty field; rather, it’s how you define your company and its place in the market. Starbucks wasn't the first company to sell coffee, but they did revolutionize the coffee shop by selling an experience along with a caffeine fix. Still, numerous boutique coffee shops are able to open and thrive today, even though there's a Starbucks around the corner.
Rather than struggling to come up with a brand new idea, take a look at your target industry and see where there's a void to be filled. Figure out the best possible way to fill that need and run with it. You don't always have to blaze a new trail, but you need to know who you are.
3. "You have to be cheaper than the other guys."
I admit that my husband and I fell into this pricing trap with our company. We felt that the only way we could compete with the "big guys" was to undercut them on price. So, we dropped our prices. Our business grew, customers were happy, more customers came in, yet we were nearly losing money with every new order.
Many young companies feel the pressure to discount their prices heavily in order to win business. While customer acquisition is important, attracting customers at unsustainable price levels will just result in a race to the bottom. I’ve learned that you’re better off in the long run to focus on how to bring more value to customers, rather than simply slashing your prices. After all, someone will always be able (or willing) to absorb a lower cost than you. You'll need to find a new way to stand out, and then work as hard as you can to be exceptional in those differentiating areas.
4. "Social media is free."
Over the past several years, I've had people tell me that starting a small business today is much easier than a decade ago, because of all the free marketing on Facebook, Twitter and Yelp. Sure, you don’t have to spend a dime to join Facebook, create a Twitter account or start a blog. But, I think a more apt comparison is that social media is free like a puppy. It may not cost much to bring a shelter puppy home, but from day one, it's an endless whirlwind of training, toys and treats.
Likewise, social media is far from free once you factor in the blood, sweat and tears it demands. From developing fresh content to keeping up conversations, social media requires nonstop commitment once you start. Unless you consider your time (or the time of your employees) worthless, then there’s a significant cost involved with social media.
5. "You have to spend money to make money."
This cliché never applied to our business, particularly at the beginning. We set up shop in our apartment and did everything we could to keep expenses down. Sometimes we thought things would be better if we just had the money for X, Y or Z. But it's risky to think that throwing money at a problem is your silver bullet. Sometimes, creative thinking and strategy work far better than a checkbook.
We had to learn the difference between spending money and investing in the business. Certainly, money can scale a business faster, but only when you spend money on those things that will produce more money in return.
People will always give you advice — some good, some bad. The key is to never forget that you are running the show. Other people's opinions should always be viewed through the context of your own experiences, convictions and value system.
Final decisions are always up to you, so there’s no blaming someone else for bad advice.