When to Call Bullshit on Paul Graham?

“You should call it 360scope. And get rid of the little bug guy” was PG’s advice, explained reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian. “But reddit turned out to be a great name, and ‘the little bug guy’ has turned into one of the most iconic parts of the reddit community.

“Sometimes your investors know best. Sometimes they don’t. Even Paul Graham is wrong sometimes.”

Todd Bishop and Alexis Ohanian

Todd Bishop and Alexis Ohanian

Alexis is on a 175 stop tour for his new book, Without Their Permission. On Monday night he stopped by Seattle’s Town Hall to be interviewed by Geekwire’s Todd Bishop. Topics ranged from the silly – alternative names for reddit (Ooglyaboo) and his favorite Star Trek captain (Picard, no hesitation) – to the more serious topics of his book – entrepreneurship and politics.

There was a lot of great advice for entrepreneurs from his time running reddit, Hipmunk, and Breadpig, his interactions with Paul Graham and YCombinator, and his time as an investor and advisor to over 60 companies.

One of the most valuable themes Alexis touched on is calling bullshit on some advice – even when it’s from someone like Paul Graham. “You’re going to know your users better than an investor or an advisor. They don’t spend all day, every day, thinking about your customers – but you do.”

I’ve seen a lot of interactions between early stage startups and mentors. Whether it’s at a Startup Weekend I’m facilitating or with a TechStars team I’m talking to, mentor whiplash can be a huge problem. One mentor tells you to focus on revenue, then an advisor tells you to focus on press, then an investor tells you to focus on number of users. All their advice seems good, but you only have the bandwidth to do one. Who’s right?

Sometimes, the answer is none of them. People will say things like “I think users will be turned off by the cute bug mascot” or “360scope would make sense because the scope of your news is everything, like every direction in a circle, and there are 360 degrees in a circle.”

The key words there are “I think that…” and “this would make sense…”

If you want to know how to effectively call bullshit on advice, cite your customers to back up why you think your advisor is wrong.

“Well, I showed 37 people the reddit alien, and the universal reaction was ‘awwwwww I love it!’”

“We interviewed 53 attendees at the conference this weekend, and the biggest complaint 50 of them had was not being able to find a place to stay. 43 of them even ended up crashing with strangers they met at the conference.” (Sounds like something the founders of Airbnb could have said to an advisor who challenged the premise of the company.)

Investors are an invaluable resource for insights and advice, but it’s critical to remember that you live and breathe your customers. If an advisor ever tries to predict what your customers will do based on gut instinct… get out there, interview some, and then maybe you can say “Bullshit. We have stories from a ton of people indicating otherwise.” Stories and proof trump gut instinct.

Even if that advisor is Alexis Ohanian.

Without Their Permission is available now, and check out Alexis’s tour dates to see if he’s coming to a city or University near you. It was a fantastic event, he is a great speaker, and it’s worth going out of your way to attend.

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2 thoughts on “When to Call Bullshit on Paul Graham?

  1. Pingback: “Sometimes your investors know best. Sometimes they don’t” | Enjoying The Moment

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