If you’re reading this article, you’re probably looking for business advice.
You may have skimmed dozens of articles published on blogs, newspapers and magazines by successful leaders offering advice that either worked for them personally or that they simply found online.
Maybe you clicked this link because it appeared in your news feed or someone shared it on Facebook.
Regardless of how you got here, you’re part of the biggest group of advice-seekers in the country.
According to a 2019 study by time-tracking app makers TSheets, the Internet is the leading resource for American entrepreneurs seeking business advice, with 26 percent of their 1,067 respondents citing it as their preferred source.
The next biggest group talked to fellow business owners (19 percent). Books ranked third (14 percent) and family members ranked fifth (11 percent).
This is a problem. Disregard for a moment the inherent irony that I am blasting online advice articles in the form of an online advice article — the Internet should not be your go-to resource for business help.
The advice is often too broad, and the so-called advisors have too little at stake.
Your business is an inherently personal issue, with thousands of variables to consider, including your specific industry, your target audience and broader economic swings.
This isn’t to say all advice found online is bad. But it’s important to double-check any advice against numerous other sources.
After spending more than 20 years as an entrepreneur, strategist and advisor in the communications and advertising space, I always offer a simple piece of advice to anyone who asks: Start close and expand outward.
Start with people you know and trust
Everyone has heard that you should, “Surround yourself with winners.” At this point, it’s a cliché. But more than rubbing elbows with “winners,” I’ve found it’s most important to surround yourself with people you trust.
Friends and family may not work in your industry bubble, but that can be their advantage—explaining your idea to outsiders can help you hone your message and hear honest feedback.
Professionally, I often turn to those I know and trust, especially those with proven track records as successful entrepreneurs.
I usually have closer relationships with them, which makes it easier to ask them for advice, rather than going to colleagues whose time is more scarce.
Talk to those who understand your problems
It’s a misconception that playing your cards close to your chest is always a good business strategy. Many feel ashamed to ask for advice or help, believing that signifies ignorance or weakness.
In fact, the opposite may be true: A study performed by the Harvard Business School and Wharton School in August 2014 found that workers who seek advice are perceived to be more competent than those who do not.
Moreover, study participants felt smarter about themselves when someone asked for their advice — unsurprisingingly, people appreciate being appreciated.
Despite all of this, many entrepreneurs feel paranoid.
According to the TSheets survey cited above, entrepreneurs feel like their biggest challenge is competition. It’s logical that business leaders would prefer to carve out their own path.
Yet in my experience, networking and relationship-building plays out better in the long run.
In the creative industry, “competitors” will often team up, sometimes turning to other companies to deliver clients the best possible integrated solutions.
Talking to fellow industry leaders offers me unique insight into what’s working and what’s not, and helps me generate ideas I can bring to my own clients.
Obviously you don’t want to give away ideas you’re keeping under wraps, but attending industry meetups and networking events for fellow entrepreneurs can be incredibly useful.
They present an ideal place to pose problems and ask for advice. After all, nobody understands your problems better.
Gather board members you value
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Roger Martin, a former dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, analyzes the role of a board in a company.
In the worst-case scenarios, he writes, boards can either comprise mindless yeasayers or group dictators, while CEOs can fail by either refusing to accept input, or by being too acquiescent to the board’s whims.
Obviously, both of those realities are failures of the system. A good board should always question and challenge the CEO, whose decisions should, in turn, be influenced by the board.
I personally took that advice to heart throughout 2019. This spring, I’m launching my latest company, Third Summit, whose flagship digital platform, Alteon, will ease creative collaboration and reduce the friction bogging down the production industry.
Over the past year, I’ve met with dozens of industry leaders, experienced executives, successful entrepreneurs and skilled creatives to assemble a rock-solid advisory board to ensure my company is a success.
I respect and trust my advisors completely, and made sure to create a diverse team that would be able to both appreciate and challenge our core mission. So far, their input has been invaluable.
That said, I prefer to turn to my board members for advice when the big is idea is in place to make the most of their input. That means turning to them for help fine-tuning go-to-market strategies, investor pitches and product design, rather than high-level brainstorming.
Let your own data guide you
Over time, you won’t need to ask others for advice—your business should be able to help you directly.
I’ve written before in this magazine about the value of investigating one’s own data. During the 20 years I focused on building my creative agency, I would frequently reflect on past numbers to make decisions about the future.
It’s not just about annual performance and growth projections, but also how specific projects fared and how satisfied clients were at the end.
On a micro level, any business leader can (and should) sort through months of social media campaigns, ad spends and capital investments to understand what works and what doesn’t. You can usually determine what’s working and what isn’t based on your past performance.
Any successful business ticks two boxes: It solves a problem with an intuitive solution, and it adapts based on qualitative data.
To achieve the former, you need creativity and innovation. For the latter, you need humility and trust in your data. Commit to those, and your path to success will be clear.