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Advice to entrepreneurs, FREE or not?

Jonathan Gold

26 Jan 2014

Over the last few weeks there has been a lot of advice flying around about advice. I'm taking about advice for entrepreneurs.

Many business people and wealthy entrepreneurs who have already made it in life and business are willing to "give something back..." by mentoring and providing free advice to new or wannabe entrepreneur starting out. That's great!

There are also professionals, lawyers, accountants, venture capitalists (me) and bloggers and academics who will give of their time and expertise for free. Also good. There are still free government advice centres, websites and business support organisations, incubators, bootcamps and clubs, too many to mention here.

One or two of my consultant and professional friends complain that many out there give free advice and in so doing de-value the paid sort. Some professional make a living from giving advice that is not free and there is nothing wrong with that, free world after all, well almost.

So far so good but turn this around and become the entrepreneur starting out, perhaps planning their business, starting to actually trade or even looking to raise cash, capital or loan investment. What advice to I take, who do I listen too, should I pay what is right or wrong? ...help... I need advice!

Well perhaps this short list of "advice" might help, and errr... no charge!

1.  Do take free advice when you can get it, silly to turn away friendly entrepreneurs and business people they are usually quite genuine.

2.  However, you will get contradictory advice and like all things in life someone's advice is coloured by their personal experiences and biases, filtered if you prefer. So that is what you should do and perhaps even log the advice you get from someone to compare it with other advice.

3.  Successful entrepreneurs can be very focussed on "this is how I did it and its the only way...". Well I exaggerate but it happens. True some take courses in coaching or mentoring and are more helpful at bringing you round to your own conclusions, a great mentor will do this and its very valuable (whether you pay or not).

4.  A short note here: I'm not getting into an academic debate about the difference between "coaching", "mentoring" and advice... there are miles written on that one...

5.  Remember the motivation of your "advisor" is important, some may be looking for a fee later down the line, and that's fine. In fact many lawyers and accountants will give excellent free advice but want paying for their "professional services" at some point. Take the advice if you like them and then DO use them and pay when it comes to it, its only fair. You don't want a reputation for being a scrounger before you even start.

6.  One way of avoiding the "I did it this way" bias is to also talk to lawyers and venture and other investors as we see many different success and failures and tend to draw on the experience of the wider pool of business.

7.  Do test the advisor and ask "who are you to advise me?". Experience based on track record is what you want so don't be afraid to ask first. There are some people out there who advise on business and raising capital when they have never done either themselves. Your time is valuable too don't waste it...

8.  There is also a difference between "professional" advice from a law or accounting practitioner and general business advice.

9.  Too many entrepreneurs I meet think they don't need the professional advice and it should all be free. I know its hard on a small budget when starting out but some things just do need a proper professional advisor, committed to you and paid under contract.

10.  One such problem area is investment from VC's and others. Legal investment agreements are complicated and you do need to understand them or you may end up with major problems down the line.

11.  Investors themselves, the better ones will explain a lot but although the best of us want to be helpful we are not on your side. At least not until after the investment and even then we have our investor interests to protect too. You don't need a top price lawyer but do find one with the right experience if you are at all unsure of yourself and remember the other points in this list apply.

12.  If someone wants paying don't turn them away just because of that, think about it. The business world costs money to live in and, especially the professional (law, accounts, health and safety, Intellectual Property, investment...) is worth the price.

13.  General business advice and courses can be free but you should not avoid ones that charge as the quality may be better and it costs money to get goo people.

14.  If you are still not sure ask others who is a good "advisor" or ask the advisor themselves to provide a reference or two and talk to them.

15.  Back to motives and motivation. Advice, free or paid for may be good or bad but only you have to live with the consequences of your actions. Sometimes its better to have that experience in your team and business so the advice can't walk away when it gets tough and they share your success or failure.  Hire good people, build a team and include some grey hair.

16.  Fellow directors or even motivated Non-Executive directors are essential as your business grows. Just don't give shares away at the drop of the hat, look at bonuses and options but then that's a whole other area of advice!

Now, just remember that most advice also comes with a disclaimer (see point 5, 14 and 15 above) so here is mine "I can not be held responsible for the contents of this article or the use to which you may put the advice, further I do not warrant or guarantee it in any way"... at the end of the day its your business to succeed with or fail not mine or my responsibility !


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