12th November, 2017

Here’s a piece of advice for you: don’t take all advice to heart

Perhaps once a week someone asks me for advice about their business or career. I do my best to offer a few wise words when I can, but very often I suspect they ignore what I say. That might be because I’m wrong: it’s hard to have real insight into someone’s circumstances when you’ve just met them. And I suspect many of us fall into the trap John Steinbeck wrote about: “No one wants advice, only corroboration.”

I know that on numerous occasions I have ignored what turned out to be good advice, and learnt the truth only by making mistakes first hand. I suspect that propensity to disregard guidance and follow your own judgment is part of the entrepreneur’s character.

Supposedly, millennials are generally not very interested in getting input from their elders — because of differences between the generations over issues such as technology, work ethic, diversity and so forth. They prefer to consult their peers, assuming that they know best.

It seems that accumulated knowledge is not valued as highly as it once was. It may well be that the ubiquity of free information in the digital age means personal expertise is less prized than it once was.

When I was starting out, I sought audiences with figures such as Sir Jimmy Goldsmith and Sir Richard Branson. Frankly, I can’t remember now all the detail of what we discussed, but I do recall that they both encouraged me to work for myself, and I certainly followed that instruction.

I divide advice into two broad categories: specific, detailed advice — helping your children with their homework, for example; and big picture advice — such as recommending what someone does with their life.

The former type of advice is rather more mundane, but can be useful, and may well be worth taking because it is more likely to be based on facts.

The latter sort is probably opinion and more doubtful — although lots of us long for brilliant, easy answers to the various existential dilemmas we all face. (There are no easy answers, of course.)

Ultimately, everything depends on who is dishing out the advice and how much thought they have given to the matter.

Perhaps the most credible advisers are those who can lead by example — proving that they have the talent and so attention should be paid to what they say.

Decades ago, I briefly sold pens in Hollywood by phone and once a day the floor boss would take over a junior’s failing call and close a sale — just to demonstrate his authority.

For entrepreneurs, there is a vast quantity of apparent advice in books, blogs, magazines, columns, videos, talks — and first-hand from many of those entrepreneurs out there who’ve done it themselves.

In some way, perhaps the best advice I’ve derived about entrepreneurship has been by reading biographies of tycoons. Life stories can teach so much about the nature of success — but I think they deliver rather more inspiration than practical advice.

Unfortunately, it is hard to apply simple formulas to markets and every company is different — especially when it comes to innovation, and in fast-moving industries.

I worry when founders want my views about the challenges they face in a start-up — it was a long time ago that I was in their shoes. My memories are fading and my entrepreneurial journey may be irrelevant anyway. Indeed, I think my advice on those occasions could be just a form of nostalgia.

Mostly, I just don’t have time to study their particular problems rigorously, so the danger is that I proffer superficial solutions. But at least I am a practitioner. An awful lot of people dispensing business advice are full-time consultants who’ve never actually done it themselves — so they lack the personal experience, which is arguably the most worthwhile source of advice.

Professional advisers — such as accountants, lawyers, investment bankers, surveyors and so on — are required in business more than ever in these highly regulated times, but their advice must be kept in proportion. They should be listened to carefully when it comes to technical questions; for big strategic choices, less so.

As Richard Branson has noted: “If I relied on accountants to make decisions . . . I certainly wouldn’t have gone into most of the businesses I’m in.”

Clearly, some have better gut instincts than others, but entrepreneurs must lead and that means making the big calls and having the final say.

By contrast, if you really do want answers to the enormous metaphysical questions, then I suggest reading the work of the great philosophers and poets. Your business probably won’t particularly benefit from their words, but your life might.