I’ve been collecting techniques from Europe’s best-respected startup mentors, and creating a package of best practices called Mentor Impact. One of the biggest problems raised so far is the Halo Effect.
The halo effect is where one's judgments of a person’s character [or advice] can be influenced by one's overall impression of him or her. It can be found in a range of situations from the courtroom to the classroom. - WikipediaOften, startup mentors and thought-leaders inherit a misplaced position of authority. For example, a lot of startup mentors' authority is based on their accomplishments outside of startups. This creates a halo where their startup advice is accepted with the same authority, and the founders don't realise that the advice is not relevant to their context.
Compounding this, mentors and thought-leaders want to help, often trying to answer questions that are not within their domain. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. If you wear a halo, it’s more like a bullet train.
There are a few ways this happens - taking advice from those without actual accomplishment, or without relevant experience, or advice that doesn’t fit your current constraints or stage. Can you spot them in your own thinking?
Startups have a strong celebrity culture, and it’s full of Kim Kardashians - famous for being famous. Tech PRs are notorious for this - just because they get eyeballs doesn’t mean they know how to get a startup off the ground.
I’m holding my hands up here too. Creating Leancamp gave me a lot of amazing second-hand knowledge - and with that came invitations to speak. Only after setting up Founder Centric and helping hundreds of founders with Lean Startup and business models do I have relevant and direct experience with this.
It’s this accomplishment that gives me real authority. Sadly, that’s not a distinction most people consider.
When it comes to startups, a lot of subjects are colonised by foreign experts, spouting bad advice to do with topics in which they are neither qualified, nor have relevent endorsements. For example, recently startup experts have been offering unqualified advice on scientific methods, business models, and statistics.
Look at the rise of your favourite startup leaders. With many, you can spot how they reach a point where they over-extend their advice. In most cases, they’re just trying to be helpful, but when they’re wrong, the consequences are ours to bear, not theirs.
In almost every accelerator, we’ve seen a great B2B startup with a sales cycle longer than their runway. Even if they close every deal perfectly, the sales process takes too long so they’ll go bankrupt before they receive their first cheque. When sales directors give them advice to close more deals, they waste their time applying it rather than looking for a customer acquisition channel that’s short enough to stay in business.
The failure to recognise startup constraints kills.
Great advice for technical scaling to millions of users? I’ve seen that distract teams from acquiring their first 10 customers. Great advice on conversion optimisation? I’ve seen that make more people click, but got the founders no closer to understanding what to build.
Advice for the wrong stage is common in analytics blogs. While some of advice is great for startups, a lot of it is only appropriate for later stages, leading to premature scale.
“Asking Socratic questions just doesn’t work for me. I decide in advance what are the top 3 ways my experience can help them. I’m brutally direct about those things, but I don’t answer questions that don’t fall in my Top 3.”
Stephen’s Top 3 approach resonates with others, like Andreas Klinger, a fellow Seedcamper who recommends, “You are not there to answer all questions, you are there to answer a few questions really well.”
Very useful to avoid giving yourself a halo.
I’m a new parent, and prioritising my attention on our new rhythms as a family.
Work-wise, I’m trekking along at a cozy pace, doing stuff that doesn’t require meetings :)
I have a few non-exec/advisory roles for engineering edu programs. I’m also having fun making a few apps, going deep with zero-knowledge cryptography, and have learned to be a pretty good LLM prompt engineer.
In the past, I've designed peer-learning programs for Oxford, UCL, Techstars, Microsoft Ventures, The Royal Academy Of Engineering, and Kernel, careering from startups to humanitech and engineering. I also played a role in starting the Lean Startup methodology, and the European startup ecosystem. You can read about this here.
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