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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

10 Startup Founders Tell Us: The Best Advice I've Ever Received

When you’re thinking about starting a company or first in the entrepreneurial trenches, any nugget of advice you can get from someone who’s been there before is like gold.

But as time goes on, you’ll realize that some of those tips are better—and more applicable to your business—than others.

So, to get you started on the right foot, no matter where you are in your startup journey, we asked 10 founders to weigh in on the absolute best advice they received as they built their companies. Take note of these (sometimes surprising) lessons for your own venture.

1. Get Comfortable With the Unknown

You will never know enough. You will always be forced to make a decision without fully understanding what is coming. As a founder, that is just something you have to get comfortable with.

—Aaron O’Hearn, Co-founder and CEO of Startup Institute

2. It’s Not Just About You

The best advice is to not give yourself too much credit when times are good and too much blame when times are bad. Once you realize that luck plays a necessary role in success, it makes you both more humble and more self-confident at the same time.

—Ethan Austin, Co-founder and President of Give Forward

3. Show, Don’t Tell

'Show, don't tell' is a dynamic axiom, but it's such a good one.

For startups, being evidentiary about your value proposition is huge. So many upstarts talk about being the Facebook Killer, or the X for Y, loftily and prematurely positioning them among megasuccesses. Talking instead about what your company does and has achieved sets the stage for your vision in a way that is authentic, believable, and much less highfalutin. Always be a producer of value, so you can highlight current and translatable proof of what you factually can do versus what you aspire to become.

—Shaun Johnson, Co-founder and COO of Startup Institute

4. Know When to Let Go

As a founder—or anyone who feels proud of and close to the product he or she creates—you struggle to have the right perspective about your business. It's easy to get too close, and that can be distracting. Here's the good and bad news: No one is looking at your work as closely as you are. So, remember that when you're on hour four debating which shade of navy blue works best for your logo. Yes, details matter. But at a certain point, you have to let go and move on to the next thing.

—Pavia Rosati, Founder of Fathom

5. Know the Startup Hierarchy

Think of the startup community as high school: You've got your freshman, sophomores, juniors, seniors, and then teachers and staff. When you first enter the community, whether as a founder or an employee, you're a freshman. By all means, develop relationships with mentors and more senior, experienced people, but also foster relationships with people just one or two steps ahead of you. Ask them the 'stupid' questions and the things that seem silly or small; soon enough you'll be the sophomore or junior and pulling the newbies up the ladder with you.

—Christina Wallace, Director of Startup Institute NY and Former Co-founder of Quincy

6. Find the Balance

With the community, give before you get. Do deep research for your ideas, but trust your instincts. Actively seek guidance, but know the advice often conflicts, so you need your own conviction. With product, think expansively, then pare it back to basics. Be proud of what you build, though there will never be perfection. Be aware of competition, but don't worry about it. Be direct with your team, but always kind, empathetic, and self-aware. Understand that maybe the world doesn't need your idea, so know when to move on. Luck and resilience are as important as ideas and talent. Don't believe your own press, good or bad. Don't take yourself too seriously, even if you're trying to change the world. Never lose sight of the important stuff: love, friends, family.

—Jamyn Edis, Founder and CEO of Dash Lab

7. Do Anything and Everything

The best advice I ever received was from Stacy Blackman, who runs a successful MBA admissions consulting company: 'Definitely do anything and everything. When I started, no coffee or meeting, no speaking engagement, was too small. A lot of people have asked what's brought in the most leads. I have had hundreds of partnerships and marketing initiatives, but our success has been an aggregate of everything. I have had partnerships that I thought might be the one big thing, the slam dunk. But I don’t know if the slam dunk exists.'

—Jenn Yee, Director of Startup Institute Chicago and Founder of MBASocial

8. Don’t Worry About the Noise

Ignore the hype you see about other startups in the press. It's usually a pack of lies, and half of them will be dead in a year. Focus on building your business so you can be the one left standing.

—Jules Pieri, Co-founder and CEO of The Grommet

9. It's Your Company—You Decide

We've been fortunate to have many incredible mentors throughout our journey building EverTrue. But these mentors often provide conflicting advice. 'Go after big accounts!' 'Go after small accounts!' 'Go B2C!' 'Go B2B!' Mentors provide a point of view based on their professional experiences and limited perspective into our market and customer base. Katie Rae helped my fellow TechStars founders and me understand that while mentor feedback is extremely valuable, we ultimately need to make key decisions ourselves.

—Brent Grinna, Founder of EverTrue

10. Don’t Seek Risk

The best entrepreneurs don’t seek risk. They seek to mitigate risk.

—Rick Desai, Co-founder of Dashfire

Photo of nature courtesy of Shutterstock.