By Tom Frank, CFE Executive Director

158065aTFrankA very important part of my day is meeting with students and entrepreneurs who are seeking guidance or advice. Arguably, this is my favorite responsibility in running the Center for Entrepreneurship.

Recently, I was judging a student presentation which was going fairly smoothly…up until the moment when the presenter started talking about her business model. I stopped her: “I’m sorry, but would you mind telling me where you have been getting help with developing your business model?” I asked politely.

She answered me with confidence and enthusiasm. And I winced.

I winced because I knew the individual who had been advising her. I winced because the source of her business advice was spectacularly unqualified to give such advice. This individual had never started a successful business, nor built a successful business, nor even worked for one. No wonder her business model sucked!

Shortly thereafter, I was in a different (but similar) advising situation with a group of coaches and mentors. The team we were focused on helping was struggling with a problem around the distribution of their product. The advisor sitting next to me said “Well, when I had my company I solved that problem this way.” Okay. That sounds helpful, right? The problem in this case was the fact that said advisor’s “company” existed primarily as a powerpoint presentation designed to win pitch competitions. He didn’t bring any product to market. He didn’t raise any capital. He didn’t hire or fire employees. His “company” was ultimately an aspirational notion.

These examples highlight an important potential pitfall in the emerging area of entrepreneurial education. These days, just about anyone can claim to be an entrepreneur and just about anyone seems to feel comfortable enough within the construct of offering advice in areas outside of their experience and expertise. Entrepreneurs don’t have a union, a guild, or a regulatory board.

I am often asked for advice in areas outside of my expertise. It is imperative that I not offer advice for these questions. I would feel negligent if I did answer these questions. Instead, I find a credible source to refer the student or entrepreneur. That’s just common sense to me. If I went to a doctor with a headache, but later found out he was a proctologist, I hope he would refer me to a neurologist. Unfortunately, this common sense approach doesn’t seem to apply to the area of entrepreneurship advising. Literally everyone is an expert and no credentials are required. Opinion seems to replace experience or qualifications.

So how in the hell can students determine if they are getting credible, qualified advice? I am going to offer a few suggestions to those looking for help:

  1. When you seek advice, quickly assess the following; can I trust this person? Do they seem smart? [A recent study from Harvard suggests most people do this within the first 2 minutes of interaction with someone new].
  2. Find out what the advisor’s area of expertise is, and whether or not it is relevant to your question or concern. If it’s not, ask for a referral.
  3. Ask for context when advice is offered- “Can you tell me more about a time you handled a similar situation?”
  4. Ask more than one person. Keep a log (or a spreadsheet) of the advice you receive and look for trends. Look to see if the people who you were most impressed by gave similar advice.
  5. See if the advisor qualifies his or her answer. Why? Because there are not many “absolutes” in the wild west of entrepreneurship. If the advisor uses phrases like “you must” …then I say you must keep walking.
  6. Don’t be afraid to challenge advice. Knowledgeable people can support their opinions with data, facts, and direct experience.

Bottom line: Don’t go to a proctologist for a headache unless of course your head is…oh never mind.