Hunting U-Boats and Taking Advice

10/21/2012

It sounds circuitous, but one of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve received as a founder is on taking advice.

When I first sat down with someone who would later become one of my lead investors, he asked me if I had read any books chronicling submarine warfare in World War II. He jumped up to the whiteboard, and starting telling me an anecdote, which has stuck with me to this day.

In order for submariners to track down a German UBoat, they couldn’t figure out its exact location based on one piece of evidence alone. Their job would involve collecting many different signals and data points, mapping them out, and using that in order to get a good hunch of where an enemy submarine was located. And it worked.

As a founder of a startup, I’m constantly receiving a deluge of information. Discussions with co-founders,  mentor feedback, opinions from advisors (often conflicting), other entrepreneurs, user feedback, blog posts… Everyone wants to tell you what should be done, from their viewpoint. Following the lean startup methodology only expands that river, as you’re now working with metrics, customer development interviews, A/B test results.

In my belief, the primary challenge of a founder is to ingest all this data, and map out your path. Take everything you know, and find out where the key to success is (or seems to be, test it :-)).

In concert with this, I try and avoid giving out “advice.” If you know where to look, you’ll find no shortage of answers for whatever information you’re trying to seek (seriously, spend ten minutes on Quora). I’m no expert on your startup or issue, and as Paul Singh usually prefaces most of his advice, “I could be wrong.” Rather, if I have any experience, I’ll relay my  story, what I learned, and what I would do differently if in the same position.