Founder at http://epek.app - passionate about products, their users, and the makers
Entrepreneurship is tough and full of unknowns… Deciding to start a company is like going back to school on purpose, every single day, knowing that there’s much you don’t know. Luckily, it’s 2020: a whole lot of people have started startups before you, and many of them like to talk about it.
However: not all startup advice is created equal.
This article is about how to make sense of all the advice you need, should get, don’t get, get without asking, and lastly, the advice you get but don’t need.
Since starting epek.app, I have asked for, and received, a lot of advice in the last 6 months. Unfortunately not all of it has been good. Fortunately, I have been learning how to make sense of it. Even though my company is in the digital productivity tech space, the ideas in this article should be applicable to most businesses.
As an entrepreneur you have to do a lot of things. It all starts on the day an idea plants itself in your brain and starts nudging you towards the most meaningful thing that can happen in your life: creating something. And the work never ends.
But most of us have no clue how to do most of the work involved in being an entrepreneur. We didn’t learn it in our previous jobs or at school, didn’t even know we were going to need it, let alone start learning how to execute it. So, we Google, and we learn by doing. This is where the advice trap starts.
Let’s say you wanted some advice, read a bunch of articles and asked a few friends, and got some tips… What happens next might sound familiar to you:
This doesn’t apply to my situation!
Our business is in too early a stage for this advice.
He didn’t even try to understand our situation! (usually that’d be a “he”)
That’s such generic advice…
Sounds good, but how do I actually do it!?
Welcome to the club! I’ve been through situations where people dish out generic advice that they didn’t care to think twice about, or give you concepts that they themselves don’t know how to put into practice. Usually though, people are so eager to give advice, they don’t even listen to you properly, or they give you examples of Apple and Microsoft when you’re a two person team working out of your living room…
I’m sure we can organise the defence a bit better here!
So over time I have been developing a relatively simple framework for separating good advice from bad advice. And I call it the C.A.R.P.A. framework.
CARPA is based on my experience sifting through a whole lotta useful and useless advice and its sole purpose is to help you identify fortune cookies advice and walk away from it as fast as you can.
CARPA helps you save time by identifying fortune cookie advice fast.
CARPA stands for Concreteness, Applicability, Referrer credentials, Personal experience, and Alignment of values and strengths. Let’s dive into each right away:
The very first step of judging any advice is to see, how concrete it is i.e. is it a generic idea, perhaps a thought experiment, or just something to check out OR it’s something very specific that you can start applying right away. Figure out where the advice fits between “You should talk to your users” vs “Email 10 of your users inviting them to coffee and talking about your product”.
Example: Let’s assume you’re an early stage bootstrapped internet startup with no marketing budget and a small team and you want to grow. A friend might suggest spending some money on Google ad words and advertising on linkedin. Another might suggest writing to everybody you know and asking if they could recommend your product to someone who might need it. The second one seems much more concrete than the first one, since you’ll have much more control over who reads your message, and you can adapt it and keep it personal and it seems to fit much better financially as an early stage small startup. And it’s concrete enough that you can start doing it now.
The second step is to check how well the advice can be applied in your current context i.e. while the advice might be one of many good solutions to the problem, does it actually fit your current context?
Example: continuing with the same example: If you were to try the first path (advertising to gain new customers), you’ll have to spend plenty of time and money, and still have no real control over who sees your message and chances are your competitors who have been in the market are already bidding a lot more than you on the same keywords. So even though it might be an otherwise valid solution to a problem, it fails the contextual applicability test. Whereas the advice about writing to all your contacts applies directly to your context since it doesn’t cost you additional money and you might get a lot more specific feedback. All of which will directly contribute to your next steps in your growth challenge.
The advisor — is it someone who has had multiple successful businesses similar to what you’re doing or someone who’s never seen the problem you’re trying to solve? In other words, find someone who knows what they’re talking about.
Example: I have a friend who has never started his own company, and never launched a product he built from scratch. But he loves giving me advice based on comparisons with bigger competitors in our space. Over time I have realized that 99% of the time, his advice serves only as a distraction, rather than actually help in any way. Perhaps, when we have reached financial stability and over a 100k users, and need to plan retention improvement measures, his advice might be a better fit — or maybe not. At the same time, I have another friend, who started his own company at the same time as me, and has done another one before. His advice always seems much more fitting and creative, given his current and past experience.
Assuming you’re getting concrete, applicable advice from someone who has done a similar business to you e.g. you’re doing SaaS and they’re doing SaaS, the next thing is whether they have applied that advice themselves. If the advisor has actually used their own advice in a similar situation, you can learn a lot more from them. Based on their experience you might be able to avoid some pitfalls or mistakes, all of which can only come from real personal experience. An acceptable alternative would be if they have worked closely with someone else putting that advice in practice.
Example: Someone telling you to write to people who has never done it themselves can’t tell you that it might backfire and you might burn a bridge because you didn’t put enough effort into how you crafted your message or ask the right question or failed to include a call to action. But someone who did it before might be able to share with you the nuances of direct asynchronous communication and how to turn those contacts into your product advocates.
Lastly, but most importantly, the advice has to align with your values and strengths. When someone fails to recognize that no matter how fitting an advice seems, it will fail if it doesn’t align with your abilities and wishes, they are failing you.
Example: If your values are being non-pushy and your strengths are in writing, content marketing might be a good way for you to talk about your product. A growth marketeer who wrote you three unsolicited messages on linkedin telling you about their wonderful “100 steps to grow any business” guide might not be the best person for you to get advice from.
If you look closely, all of these points come down to one thing: how well does the advice fit the problem you’re trying to solve, whether in terms of concreteness, contextual applicability, credentials and experience of the advisor, and alignment with your values and strengths. The closer the fit the better. If you see a gap in at least 2 out of the 5, the advice may need to be heavily tweaked to work for you, or simply discarded in favour of another.
So there you have it, the C.A.R.P.A. framework for separating good advice from bad, and finding your way through the unknowns of entrepreneurship. This framework is not done yet, and I feel I should add a separate section about who to get advice from. But it does the job for a start, and that’ll do for now.
I would really love to get your thoughts on it! Does it make sense to you? What would you add or remove, or refine?
Sound advice for all situations!