Great Advice, Wrong Situation

Beware ill-fitting advice. Especially advice that comes from people with elite accomplishments. What worked for them might not work for you. Case in point, I read Venture Capitalist Peter Thiel's new book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. It's a brilliant book, filled with many of the strategies Peter and his peers (collectively known as the PayPal Mafia) have used to build multiple billion dollar startups like PayPal, Tesla, LinkedIn and YouTube.

But you'd be a fool to follow much of the advice. Or, at least, most of us would be fools to follow it.

Here's the thing. There are major differences between ideas and strategies that can lead to billion-dollar startups, and the ideas and strategies you or I might use to to build a useful, fulfilling, and manageable business that can support us and the lifestyles we want to live.

For example, Thiel asks us as entrepreneurs to ask ourselves this question: "what valuable company is nobody building?" Much of his thesis in the book is about avoiding competition.

This makes sense if you're a venture capitalist, and you get to bet on dozens or hundreds of companies. Find the entrepreneurs working on promising but unproven ideas. If one out of twenty pays off, you'll still earn a great rate of return.

But if you're just one person, an entrepreneur with limited opportunities and immediate needs, how many bets can you afford to lose?

New ideas aren't always what they seem. What you think is new uncharted territory, might actually have been explored by dozens of other failed companies that couldn't crack the code for this cutting-edge idea. Or, the idea could have been avoided by dozens of other entrepreneurs for some good reason that might eventually take you down.

This isn't to say you shouldn't play the lottery once or twice in life. If you win, more power to you. I built a venture capital backed startup for three years, and even had the chance to pitch Peter Thiel directly. The startup failed, despite raising money from top tier investors (Peter passed, for many of the reasons he mentions in his book).

You could argue this is sour grapes talking. Who knows, maybe if I had followed his advice back then, I might be advocating the opposite of what I'm telling you now.

But the numbers speak for themselves. 53 million Americans support themselves working independently. How many billion-dollar startups have there been in the past decade? 20? 30?

Building a business isn't complicated. Make something people want. Charge a fair price for it. Competition is rarely something you can avoid, but at least it proves your idea can work. It hedges your bet

When you can only make a handful of big bets, it might be best to hedge at least one of them. Money isn't the point anyway.

And when you read some piece of brilliant advice from an uber-successful person, try to see the differences between his or her situation and your goals.

How about you? Have you come across any ill-fitting advice lately? Share in the comments, this seems like a good topic for conversation.

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Hi, I’m Corbett Barr. I’ve been writing here since 2009. Join my email list for new articles about supporting yourself doing something you love: