Dear Startup Advisors, you don’t always need to be right, but you have to be solid
When I was actually working at startups (including the one I founded), I remember feeling like there were too many variables, nothing was in my control, and like the shifting sands might swallow me up at any moment. These were the moments where I sought advice from advisors and investors.
Sometimes their advice was really valuable and other times it was not. But, my level of agreement or disagreement with the advice didn’t define what was helpful and what fell flat. I found that the best advisors were not always right, but their guidance was always solid. When I was drowning, being offered something solid to push against was just as good as being thrown a lifeline to grab. As a founder, I would build on their thinking and discover the best path forward or push back and gain a new perspective as I took apart their logic piece by piece. For me, it was this process of collaboration and debate that brought out my best and was most valuable to me and my company. Because of this, I believe the most valuable advisors deliver clarity of thought and structured arguments that can be climbed step by step or taken apart piece by piece. (fwiw they also have the attitude and empathy to engage in this process without ego).
I could never get a solid grip on advice summarized by, “I’ve seen this before + instinct = decision.” Unfortunately, that’s the format that most advisors and investors fall back to when asked for help. For example, at my fitness video game company we did not have the resources to build for both Xbox and Playstation and we needed to choose one or the other as our launch platform. In many ways, this was a bet-the-company moment and I started asking for guidance.
Investor #1 said Xbox first. He had faced a “similar” platform choice in his own company and was certain we should focus on Xbox. I pushed him on why and he told me successful launches depend on platform support that comes from strong relationships with internal champions. He had worked with Microsoft before as a third-party software vendor and believed he could help us connect with the executives there and get them on our side. I was left to trust that he had “seen this before,” that his experience was similar to ours and that he actually could connect us with the right people at Microsoft.
He did get me to the right people at Xbox in the end, but nothing he said helped me make the platform decision.
Investor #2 argued for Playstation. He felt that we should optimize for getting to market vs. optimizing the level of success we would achieve once we got out there. He advised us not to underestimate the risk of not shipping at all — like unexpected delays in product development, changes in priorities at platform partners, lack of interest at the retail buyer level, etc. With an alternative title targeting an alternative audience, he argued that we should be optimizing for the highest probability of getting the game to retail shelves. He felt retailers would be more likely to take a risk on a Playstation title because of the relative scale of the Playstation install base (about 5x what Xbox had at the time I think).
We ended up launching on Xbox first, but Investor #2 helped me the most in making the decision. The shift in focus from best opportunity once in market to best opportunity to get to market at all was critical.
He really helped organize my thoughts around taking the product from its current state of test code to a shrink wrapped game on store shelves. For both PlayStation and Xbox, we identified dependencies at each stage in the process. We discussed the retail buyers, the distributor/channel partners, the platform marketing support, the process of publishing, QA/QC, internal deadlines, budgets and and submission timelines for publishing approval.
This conversation with Investor #2 made it obvious that we had to go Xbox first — but not because it was a better platform with buyers who were more open to alternative titles or because we had stronger relationships at Microsoft. We had to go Xbox first because it was the only version of the game that could possibly be ready to launch for the holiday season (and generate the revenue we needed to survive and build a second title). We had built the play testing PC version in Visual C (because Xbox and PlayStation developer licenses were expensive) and the DirectX development environment was much closer to Visual C than the Playstation development environment. We had high confidence that our current team could port the game to Xbox from PC while the same move to Playstation had a lot of risk and would have required 2–3 more engineering hires (putting more pressure on us by increasing our burn rate).
In my experience, you shouldn’t look for advisors who give you an answer on a silver plate (in this example the best advice started with the wrong answer but the process got us to the right conclusion). Instead, you have to push for well reasoned, well researched, strong opinions that stand up to your analysis. You have to demand that your advisors offer solid advice that you can latch on to and use to pull yourself up or push against to spring forward in the opposite direction. You need guidance from people who aren’t afraid to unpack their instincts so you can choose the best, recombine it, and leave the rest.