Advice on getting advice

By Ray DePaul

I have access to some pretty cool people. Between my role at Mount Royal University, my involvement in the Calgary startup community, and as a member of the A100, I get to meet dozens of young and not-so-young entrepreneurs. Many are actually wantrepreneurs. They haven’t made the leap yet, but have taken the important step of talking to people about their ideas. While I respect anyone who is entrepreneurial, I am thoroughly impressed with some of these individuals who seek out advice. Here are a few common attributes of early entrepreneurs that I have found impressive.

1. They have done their homework

They have thoughtful answers to the obvious questions:

1. Who are your target customers

2. Why do they care

3. Who or what are you competing with

4. Why are you the best person to make this happen

You wouldn’t believe how many times I can simply google the description of the product while the person sits in front of me and within three minutes, I know more about the industry than they do. I’m always impressed when there has been some thought and effort put into the idea before our meeting.

2. They can articulate their idea

It’s impressive if it only takes a minute or two before I have a good grasp of what they are trying to do. Of course there will be layers of complexity in how they are going to do it, or the idiosyncrasies of the industry, but the impressive ones don’t get bogged down in that. They quickly, clearly and passionately share their vision. You can’t underestimate the value of this skill.

3. They don’t see entrepreneurship as a shortcut to wealth

If they are driven solely by money, they will rarely have the patience and perseverance to see their idea through to the end. Let’s face it, there are easier ways to make money. I’m impressed when it’s clear that a person wants to build something. They want to be the first to solve some critical problem.

4. They are confident but humble

An entrepreneur must have confidence in themselves in order to inspire the confidence of others. But when they also bring humility to the table, that’s impressive. They know that they don’t know everything. They acknowledge that they haven’t done much of this before. They are confident that they can learn, but freely admit that they have a lot to learn. Their goal isn’t to be the smartest person at the table but rather to be invited to a table with people smarter than themselves.

5. They listen

I’m impressed when an entrepreneur understands that every interaction with a mentor/advisor/coach/customer… is an opportunity to learn. You can’t learn if you don’t listen. I don’t mean that they take everything they hear as gospel and commit to following my advice. But they resist the temptation to constantly tell me that I’m wrong. Sure, they share a counterpoint to move a conversation forward, but they don’t shut me down. They keep me talking. They absorb as much as they can and then analyze it and cross-reference it with what others are saying.

6. They ask for help

This is a tough one, but it is so refreshing when I meet with someone who knows how I might be able to help them out. I would not have taken the meeting if I didn’t want to help, so the impressive ones ask for it directly. It might be a request to introduce them to someone in my network, or to review a slide deck, or to sit on an advisory board. We both feel like it was a productive meeting when there is a concrete next step. Now, I can’t promise I’ll commit to the next step, but if you’ve nailed the previous items in this list, I likely would. 

It’s not a secret that investors, advisors, and even early customers buy in to the founder, even more than the founder’s idea. Hopefully this advice will let you build a network of people that will help you get to where you want to go.