How to handle unsolicited startup advice

Much of my time is consumed by writing my next book, Get Your First 100 Customers by Being Helpful (Download a free sample). In one chapter I talk about the importance of the first 100 customers – for validation, keeping our momentum and teaching us what we really need to do.

I want to talk a bit about this last point, particularly as it relates to unsolicited advice.

Why we get unsolicited advice

Starting a business is a daily battle for all of us. Everyone – parents, mentors, investors, advisers, friends, colleagues, family members, service providers, employees – sees us struggling and many will offer unsolicited “advice”. Unfortunately most unsolicited advice doesn’t help because our challenges are more complex then they appear.

Why do people give us unsolicited advice? Most people genuinely care about us and want to help – they just don’t know how. Some people just love talking about startups and want to be a part of the conversation. Some people have a self-serving agenda – investors who tell us to raise money, lawyers who try to scare us, etc.

And unfortunately some people actually want us to fail – they find radical ideas scary or resent us for doing what they don’t have the courage to do. “Advice” from them is usually just criticism.

The wrong way to handle unsolicited advice

A few months after I launched the SoHelpful MVP a friend-of-a-friend asked me to lunch to talk about it. 1 minute into the conversation he started giving me prescriptive advice about the business model, features – everything.

You need to raise money fast or … you should change X feature to make it more viral …” on and on he went. I suddenly started feeling unsure of myself. “Jeez”, I thought, “am I really this far off track?” I’m vulnerable to criticism after launching a new product because so much is uncertain.

Then the absurdity of the situation hit me. I had done 6 months of Customer Development and had happy paying customers who were helping me validate the assumptions. He is 20 years younger than me and has never started a company! My feelings doubt turned into annoyance.

So how did I handle it? Badly. I politely said, “Look, I appreciate that you’re trying to help, but I’ve interviewed hundreds of potential customers and have a plan. And I’ve been selling stuff on the web since 1998.”

As you can probably imagine, our lunch meeting wasn’t terribly pleasant after I basically told him to “shut up”. I’ll blame it on hunger and lack of sleep.

The right way to handle it? Ask WHY

I made 2 mistakes. First, I took the feedback personally. Sure, he was annoying but not trying to hurt me. Second, I lost an opportunity to actually learn something.

The right way to handle unsolicited advice is to put the question back to the person offering it. Dig deeper, get them to defend their position. Try to figure out if they’re actually saying something you can learn from.

Them: “You should make people register on SoHelpful before scheduling a call for help.”

Me: “Why?”

Them: “So you can get more users on the platform. It can be your viral growth strategy.”

Me: “Do you think it will be a more effective growth strategy than our current plan …”

Them: “Um, I don’t know, but it seems easier.”

Me: “Possibly. But given that our customers tell us that ‘no logins’ for callers is a must-have, do you think it is worth it?”

Them: “Oh. Yeah, maybe not …”

You’re under no obligation to defend yourself

Unless you’re asking for time or money you’re under no obligation to answer anyone who challenges what you’re doing.

Them: “How is your idea different from X?”

You: “Why do you think it is similar to X? Do you use X?”

Start asking questions like this and you’ll soon discover how little other people know.

The importance of the first 100 customers

I’ve found that conversations change after we get 100 customers. People realize we’re on to something and will try to learn more before challenging us. 100 customers is enough to have real data on who is paying and why. Nothing settles a debate as quickly as money.

Only one group can tell us what we need to do: our customers. What is our solution worth? What features should we build? Which customer segments will actually pay? Where can I find customers? Only customers have these answers.

When you have 100 customers you don’t need much advice. You just have to figure out who your customers are, why they’re buying and go out and get more of them.


p.s. Don’t have 100 customers? Never fear, I’ve got a plan for you. Download a free sample of my new book.


Photo credit: 8#X


  1. biatha February 22, 2016 at 7:48 pm #

    Kevin, this seemed like an oddly fitting post to say this: Would you consider adding a search bar to your blog? Maybe I missed it, but right now I’m reading a few blogs on specific ideas. I just found your pricing article but doesn’t seem like I can find other pricing articles without going page by page.

  2. Kim June 12, 2016 at 4:00 pm #

    Boy oh boy did I need to hear this. I’ve read other articles on this but your advice to ask questions is genius. Can’t wait to use this.

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