Listen…until it’s time not to listen

"I want you to be nice until it’s time to not be nice."

-  Patrick Swayze as Dalton in Road House

you hear it so often that it has become cliche.  to be an entrepreneur you have to listen.  listen to your customers.  listen to your employees.  listen to investors. listen to the experts.  and of course, it is the right thing to do.  first, its just good manners.  second, when you listen to different perspectives you tend to learn things.  and learning things makes you a better entrepreneur.  so its that simple right?  listen to everyone and you will succeed.  short post.  

not so fast.  listening to all these constituents is the right thing to do, until it isn’t.

try to reconcile all this advice about listening to everyone with some of our favorite success stories of the last decade:

google launched their search engine when everyone else was writing off search as a lousy business.  they didn’t have a revenue model.  how many people do you think were telling those guys to drive forward, don’t worry about revenue or the lack of interest in search.  not many.  some of those that did are very wealthy (and maybe a little smug) today.

facebook turned down multi-billion dollar acquisition offers for years.  Most thought they were crazy.  what kind of twenty-something year old ceo flaunts the billions of established giants?  (i guess the kind who takes the company public a few short years later at a projected valuation approaching 100 billion dollars).

twitter.  what, are you joking?  how can 140 characters be a business?  who cares what i had for breakfast, or what kind of underwear i put on today?

its fair to bet that the a ton of the advice these companies got from the experts, markets, investors, parents and friends ran counter to the decisions that set the companies on the trajectories they have enjoyed.  

My own much humbler success story has some similarities.  When we first launched the Right Media Exchange, most of our  potential customers thought we were crazy.  Ad networks didn’t want to partner with their “competition”.  agencies resisted mightily our attempts to “dis-intermediate” them and publishers felt we were attempting to commoditize their content (a cardinal sin in publishing).  obviously, there were outliers, but the majority of the feedback we got was to try something else.  ad exchanges had been tried before…and failed.  we rather stubbornly drove forward, and turns out we were more right than wrong.

of course, for each success story above, there are probably hundreds where the entrepreneur wishes they had listened a little more to the naysayers.  don’t misunderstand.  i am not saying if you’re hearing your idea is stupid it’s probably brilliant.  odds are, if everyone is telling you it’s a bad idea…its a bad idea. but it could be brilliant.  if you’re not prepared to deal with that kind of uncertainty, you’ve chosen the wrong path. 

it is not easy to decide to do something in the face of a lot of advice not to.  if the idea of failure isn’t intimidating enough, imagine all the people who will be waiting to say “i told you so”.

all too often, as entrepreneurs we remember to listen, but forget to make the hard decision to disregard the conventional wisdom.  

you probably hear a lot about how great entrepreneurs get comfortable making decisions with limited data.  its cliche, but like most cliches it is true.   

Listening is just another form of gathering data.  as entrepreneurs we need to gather lots of data, and then we need to decide, applying our instinct to all the data, and then sweating it out.  sometimes, the data (advice) conflicts with our opinion.  that’s either because we have a new, disruptive and massively valuable way of approaching a market.  or it’s because we’re dead wrong.  the only really bad decision is to do nothing, in which case we neither succeed nor learn anything.

so listen…until it’s time not to listen anymore.