When you own a small business, everyone wants to give you advice. “You know what you should do,” your annoying brother-in-law Sheldon tells you at the family barbecue, “you should sell everything below your cost; customers will flock to you.” Right, and pretty soon, you’ll be out of business.
Unsolicited advice comes from all kinds of sources: friends, family members, neighbors, social media connections, people you meet walking your dog. Most of it is worth the price you pay for it: nothing.
But many entrepreneurs have a bad habit of failing to listen to any advice, stubbornly sure of their own ideas and stuck in their ways of doing things. That’s not a recipe for long-term survival or success. There are many people who have worthwhile insights and experience that can help you grow your business.
How do you know who to listen to and who to ignore? Here’s a handy guide to some kinds of people you should give an ear to:
1. Experienced industry businesspeople
Novice entrepreneurs often believe they know better than those old fogies who’ve been in the business a long time. It’s time for disruption, right? Well, yes and no. The realities of an industry don’t go away overnight. You can learn a lot from those who’ve been in an industry even if you don’t follow their advice exactly.
You better be listening to your customers, because they’re the ones who determine whether you stay in business. It’s tempting to dismiss the advice of customers because it often comes in the form of complaints. Instead, look for ways to gather as much insight and suggestions from customers in positive situations. Ask for feedback.
Your employees can be a rich vein of insight and advice for your company. Seek it out, listen to it carefully, and use it when you can. Obviously, not every suggestion can be implemented and some suggestions are self-serving rather than aimed at helping you grow your company. But employees often know the ins and outs of some aspects of a business better than the owner.
Your investors are, in essence, your partners, so you’re going to have to give some heed to their advice. They won’t always understand the ins-and-outs of your small business, and they may be more worried about getting their money out safely than helping you achieve your goals. It’s part of your job to help your investors know enough about your business so that when they give you suggestions, it can be informed and well-reasoned.
5. Professional advisors
Lawyers, accountants, human resource personnel, marketing consultants, other consultants. You’re paying them because you need their help, but you also need their good counsel, even (or especially) when they disagree with you. A smart lawyer and a competent CPA are two of the most important advisors any small business can have.
6. Board and Advisory Committee members
Most small businesses don’t have such advisory committees, but if you’re smart enough to form one, use them. You asked for their help because you respect them, so give them their due. Of course, Board members (of corporations) have legal authority, so Board members must be listened to.
Your spouse’s support is often essential for major business decisions, especially financial ones. If you’re taking out a home-equity loan to help fund your business, for instance, you must have your spouse’s approval. In which case, they have a right to have their suggestions listened to with respect. Do remember, however, people close to you have their own motivations coloring their advice. When your spouse suggests you’d be a lot more productive if you didn’t work in the living room, they may just want to get your stuff out of their way.
Those are people to listen to, so whose advice can you ignore? Social media trolls. Television business ‘gurus.’ Brand-new MBAs who’ve never worked in a real business. Your brother-in-law Sheldon.
One way to reduce unsolicited advice is to avoid talking about business in social settings. When you start complaining about the problems you’re having with your distributor or employees, you’re inviting Sheldon to give his unwanted advice. When he does, just change the conversation – stick to sports or the weather.
Copyright, Rhonda Abrams, 2016
This article originally ran in USA Today on June 10, 2016