THE BLOG
08/01/2014 04:07 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2014

Aesop for Startups: Thanks, But It's My Donkey!

Building a company is hard. Founders get an onslaught of advice on what they should do from experts.

Here's mine -- remember the fable, "The Man, The Boy and The Donkey." It's your donkey.

In the fable the man and the boy keep changing what they are doing because everyone says they are wrong. They lose their valuable asset, their donkey. Instead of walking forward to market, they alternate who should ride, and then carry the donkey on a pole. He falls in the river and drowns.

Startups don't want drowned as their outcome.

I hear repeatedly from other founders, "Remember you know your business better than anyone else." Yes, it's my donkey.

Everyone will give you advice. They will wrinkle their nose at your market, tell you that your strategy sucks. They may encourage you to change your core beliefs. They will tell you that you are measuring the wrong things. Or they will give you suggestions that burn time and resources.

One person will say- try this method. And give you heartfelt assurances it is the push you need to scale. The next person will tell you, hand to heart in a grave voice, "Do not waste your time doing this method. It will fail." They are speaking about the same method.

Before you take advice, consider not only who is offering it, but really look at what questions they ask. Do they know or care about your donkey? Do they understand your goals?

Someone who takes apart what you are doing and why; who asks questions like, "Tell me more about" or "Help me to understand" That person will be more likely to give you advice that is contextually relevant.

Someone having experience does not mean their story and choices will also fit your problem.

As we worked on building our Mind My Business tool, I went door-to-door and store-to-store. I wanted to understand directly from the shopkeepers their pain and frustrations. I wanted to immerse in their experience.

I pitched an investor who shook his head and said what we needed was dashboards and charts. He said, "I wouldn't use this, you're not giving me enough information. This is too simple. It does not tie to any ROI."

"Thank you. But you are not my user. You don't have his mindset."

I couldn't tell whether he was annoyed or perplexed. He just barked, "What?!"

I continued, "You ever work behind a counter? Do you know what it is like to manage a diner? Do you know what it is like to get to work at 5am and be there for 14 hours? Or to have a delivery come with the wrong items, a line out the door and a counter person call to tell you they are going to be late?"

"No."

"That's my customer."

"Do you understand what it's like to work with tight margins where having one less staff member on three slow days makes a difference to your end of the month numbers?"

"No. But if that's your customer market, I'm not interested."

"Fair enough, and thank you again."

This is my donkey. I believe in it, as does our team. And our users.

When someone offers you advice, remember, no one knows your donkey better than you do.

Sign up for our email.
Find out how much you really know about the state of the nation.