Editor’s note: Joe Procopio, who writes a weekly column for WRAL TechWire about building startups, is the Chief Product Officer at Get Spiffy and the founder of teachingstartup.com. Joe has a long entrepreneurial history in the Triangle that includes Automated Insights, ExitEvent, and Intrepid Media. His TechWire columns appear on Tuesdays.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Let’s talk about how to take back all the time we waste chasing the wrong kind of help.

It’s easy for an entrepreneur, new or experienced, to fall into a loop where we freeze on decisions, second-guess ourselves, and get overwhelmed trying to map out the next steps of our company’s progress. At these points, we need help, experienced help, and we’re not sure where to turn.

I’ve been advising startups for about 15 years now, and I also get tons of inbound requests for help from entrepreneurs via my website. In almost every scenario, I’ve found that a startup gets stuck because they’re chasing the help they want instead of focusing on the help they really need.

Joe Procopio (Photo courtesy of Joe Procopio)

So how do we stop that?

First: Steer Clear of Word Salad

There’s a lot of startup advice out there, and to be totally honest with you, a lot of it is garbage. I won’t argue percentages.

The worst of it is Word Salad, a bunch of familiar words jumbled together that, when you read it a second time, you realize it doesn’t really mean anything significant. I’m not here to judge, I just want to warn you that if the advice you’re getting sounds like something better suited for a Successory wall poster, a fortune cookie, or something Yoda might say to an executive retreat, walk away politely.

There are times when cliches and metaphors are called for, but they should only be used as explanatory devices, not as the advice itself.

Instead, the advice you seek should be coming from someone who is working on something similar to what you’re trying to do. The advice itself should be rooted in the actual — “I solved this problem this way.”

Oh, also watch out for Jargon Salad, a version of Word Salad, dressed up with a lot of insider terms from your industry. The person who gives you Jargon Salad is just trying to get rid of you.

Reaching Out? Ditch the Meeting Ask

The absolute best way we can help someone help us is to get to the point. Immediately.

Usually when we reach out for help, it’s about a specific issue. If we want the right answer, we need to provide context, and usually, the bigger the issue, the longer it takes to communicate the context.

So the standard play is to ask for 15 minutes, 30 minutes, a phone call, a coffee, a beer, a lunch, whatever it may be. But a blind advice meeting opens up a huge window for disappointment— because we’re not sure what we need, so we haven’t communicated what we need, so they don’t know if they can help us.

Instead, this is the one time I’d go against my instincts and tell you to be wordy as hell. Lay out all the detail of a specific issue and all the related context and slam it into an email. Chances are you don’t even need a meeting to get the advice, but let that be up to the person you’re reaching out to. If they’re good and they think they can help and they need more information, they’ll suggest the meeting.

Decide If You Need Advice or Help

If we don’t have a specific question, and I know that happens a lot, we’re probably not looking for advice. We’re looking for help on how to get from point A to point B. This can’t be done over a single email or phone call or meeting. It just can’t.

Instead, we need a resource. And we probably need to pay for it.

But first, let’s take a breath. Sometimes all we need to do is immerse ourselves among like-minded thinkers and take in information and strategy we might not have thought of.

You’re reading this, so you’re already kind of halfway there.

Posts like these are the top of the information stack (provided they’re not full of Word Salad). The next level down is a support organization, either local or online, where entrepreneurs come together under the flag of startup community or ecosystem or hub or some other noun that implies “getting from point A to point B.” I started Teaching Startup because most of the time all an entrepreneur needs is an answer to a question that’s already been asked.

Now, if we find that our questions or problems or issues are becoming more specific to our company, we go to the next level down on the information stack.

Enlist an Advisor and a Mentor

When we need one-on-one help that’s not hands on help, we need an advisor or mentor. And there’s a difference.

If the questions are about you — the person, the leader, the worker — then you’re looking for a mentor. This is a person you should already have a relationship with or are on your way to one. They should be successful, but not necessarily in your business or market or industry. This is usually not a paid position, it’s giving back or paying forward.

If the questions are about the company — point A to point B — then you’re looking for an advisor. This is a person who is working in your business, market, or industry, and has not only been successful, but has been through the ringer enough times to have been both a success and a failure. This is a paid position, either with equity or cash or both.

You don’t need Mark Cuban on your advisory board. Instead, find someone who is actively working or at least participating in what you do, and can bring real-time or recent examples of “I solved this problem this way.”

Add Utility Resources

The final level of the information stack is actual hands-on help. This is usually about growth, scaling the company from point A to point B by adding focus on leadership, product, market, or finance. The startup doesn’t need advice, they need someone to come in and execute:

  • A CEO to help raise money, outline the vision of the company, streamline the operations, etc.
  • A sales leader to devise a strategic plan, to make connections, to move product, etc.
  • A marketing leader to get the messaging right, to define and find customers, to build the brand, etc.

We can hire these folks fractionally but this can be difficult. Usually, the best people here are booked or overbooked.

Instead, I often advise startups that are looking to scale to bring on a product engineer. This is a person who is versed in product development, technology, and leadership, someone who can lean on data and science to grow the company from the product outward.

In cases where the need is to scale by building out the tech stack, I also recommend bringing on a technical consultant. This is not a CTO, this is someone who can guide the startup’s technical buildout strategy and lead an internal or external team until the revenue justifies a full time CTO.

We Don’t Need a Savior, We Need a Network

There’s a common thread to finding any and all of this startup help. Whether we need advice, point-A-to-point-B, or hands-on execution, none of this comes through a single person. We need to build out our personal network.

When we reach out to anyone, we should offer to add the person to our monthly progress email. This allows us to build out a network of people who will learn more about us and keep tabs on us until they find the right entry point to give us the help we need.

Which might be a complete departure from the help we want.

Hey! If you found this post actionable or insightful, please consider signing up for my weekly newsletter at joeprocopio.com so you don’t miss any new posts. It’s short and to the point.