4 Pieces of Unconventional Business Advice

Unconventional advice has a special place in my heart. It seems more genuine. I feel like unconventional advice is born out of experience — often difficult experiences. Conventional advice on the other hand is easily echoed. Too often conventional advice isn’t well thought out but rather repeated because many other smart people have shared this advice in the past.

So with that I give you four pieces of unconventional business advice. Words from some of the brightest minds of the past and present.

4 Pieces of Unconventional Business Advice

What you need to know

  • Don’t save your money. Invest in yourself.
  • Build a company, not a product.
  • Do things that can’t possibly scale.
  • Be inconsistent when leading.

Don’t make saving money a priority when you’re young.

Old men are always advising young men to save money. That is bad advice. Don’t save every nickel. Invest in yourself. I never saved a dollar until I was 40 years old. – Henry Ford, Ford Motor Company

Starting saving while you’re young is common advice, especially from parents and grandparents. Even Forbes published an article about how important it is to learn how to save your money and actually do it at a young age. Powerful mechanisms for wealth generation such as “compound interest” make a strong argument for saving and investing a lot money as early as possible.

So, what is Henry Ford getting at here?

Well, he certainly isn’t suggesting you just spend what you make on entertainment and consumer goods until life gets serious. Instead, he is saying that when you are young, thirsty for knowledge and world domination, and naive enough to think you can do and be anything — you’re best to use your funds to invest in yourself.

Get more education. Do that part-time MBA in the evenings you’ve been wanting to do but haven’t because of the cost.

Travel to far away countries to broaden horizons and your knowledge of what the world around doesn’t have but may need.

Take a risk, or many risks, and invent something or start a business that might fail. If you fail intelligently, you will have learned a lot and you’ll do better next time.

You get the idea. The thought is that you stand to gain more in terms of wealth and fulfillment in life by developing yourself into a knowledgeable, experienced, confident, and agile individual. You will put yourself into a position to demand a much higher salary or to create wealth yourself through business. You will enjoy what you do and will be in a position to do something else if you stop enjoying it.

Build a company not a product

Build a company, not necessarily a product you are passionate about. I’ve never been interested in shoes. My passion has always been customer service, company culture, and community. - Tony Hsieh, Zappos

Zappos is the king of online shoe retail therapy and Tony Hsieh started the company. Guess what? He has never cared much for shoes. He started Zappos because of a poor offline experience trying to find a particular pair of shoes in a particular size. If he were looking for a jacket, umbrella, or something else entirely — Zappos would have dominated those markets instead. The goal was never to create a product he loved, but to deliver that product in a way that pleases customers and is enjoyable for employees.

A look at their famous shipping and return policy illustrates his determination to put an end to poor customer experience when shopping for shoes. They offer lightening fast and free delivery for all domestic orders both ways. Don’t like a product? Just send it on back. In fact, Zappos encourages you to order a bunch of stuff, keep what you like, and send the rest back to Zappos on their dime. Also, forget the pain that is minimum order sizes!

He has also said that he began spending 10% of his time studying happiness. He did this because he wanted to create a company where employees genuinely enjoyed their Zappos experience no matter what their job was.

If you work in the mail room, Zappos was going to make their mail room the best damn mail room you could dream of working in.

He brought out of town job candidates into the offices for a tour so that they knew exactly what they were in for should they get the job offer. If you get the job and don’t like it, they pay you up to $4000 during your training to quit. This is all in an effort to ensure that everyone who works at Zappos fits in, enjoys their work and the people they work with, and isn’t there to collect a paycheque. I highly recommend this KISSmetrics article on Tony Hsieh and creating a great company culture.

Do things that don’t scale

One of the most common pieces of advice we give at Y Combinator is to do things that don’t scale - Paul Graham

The common goal shared by most startups is to build something that scales. That is, build something in such a way that it can serve millions of people just as easily as it serves hundreds or thousands. It’s having a degree of automation built into your processes because servicing millions of users manually would take an army of employees that would make your venture an economic catastrophe.

Paul Graham advocates for doing things that don’t scale primarily out of necessity. You don’t have the resources to attract millions by offering a crisp user experience and robust product free of major bugs.

So what kinds of unscalable things does Paul Graham suggest every startup founder do?

Manually recruit your first users

He stresses the importance of going out and recruiting your early users manually. Prepare to face a lot of rejection and spend a lot of time per acquired user in the beginning. If you succeed, you will be spending numerous hours to acquire tens or maybe hundreds of users — not the millions you are after.

You do this because you probably have to. Even though your product will be amazing one day, people aren’t knocking down your door to pay for potential. It takes some convincing to get people to try an early iteration of your product. It takes even more convincing to get people to part with their hard earned cash for your shell of a product.

Go out of your way to delight early users

When your company is dominating the world, sending a handwritten note from the CEO is no longer feasible. However, a great way to accelerate your path to world domination is to buckle down and write those notes to your early users. Our friends at Wufoo did this and that led to rapid user acquisition and a sale to SurveyMonkey for a cool $35 million. It doesn’t have to be handwritten notes. Just do something that shows the users that are willing to put up with your piece of buggy junk that they are valued and part of something special.

You should also engage with your early users too often and listen to them too closely. Sit down and have long conversations with them. Get to know them by name.

User experience matters. When your product is a minimally viable product (MVP), their experience of your product will be nearly unbearable. Make up for this by making the experience of being your early user delightful.

Use your product for your customers

In the beginning, your creation might not be the intuitive masterpiece you envisioned. In order to get your potential users actually using your product, you might have to do a lot of the set up work for them. I know this isn’t the startup life you envisioned. However, where there are gaps in your user experience exists an obligation to manually fill those gaps yourselves.

An even more extreme version is when you can’t even build the product you are selling yet! In this case, you create the illusion of working software by manually carrying out what your user expects from your product.

Paul Graham mentions one of their most successful YC startups, Stripe, as being a prime example of doing the work manually. In the beginning, Stripe provided instant merchant accounts by signing up for merchant accounts on behalf of their early users!

Be inconsistent

People who are right a lot of the time often change their minds. – Jeff Bezos, Amazon

Jeff Bezos, arguably one of the most successful and famous entrepreneurs of our time, would attribute much of Amazon’s success to his knack for being inconsistent. This is certainly unconventional advice coming from the Founder and CEO of Amazon, a most consistent company!

He isn’t suggesting you be unstable or indecisive. So what is he suggesting?

He’s suggesting that great leaders can quickly abandon their ideas, ways of thinking, and ways of doing things when new information comes to light. Great leaders are experts at creating a starting point and then guiding their team to a successful finish by changing course whenever credible information is presented that suggests doing so is best. It’s finding that balance between going with the flow and being determined to head full force against the wind.

We often think of great leaders as being those who know their stuff and always stick to their guns. It’s their way or the highway. Bezos would say this mantra is fine so long as your “way” changes as new information becomes available.

What do you think?

What are your favourite pieces of unconventional business advice? Any pieces here that you strongly disagree with?

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