Asking for help/advice

by Scott Austin April 27, 2012

When I went to the Coast Guard Academy, they had a concept called 'boreass' which was essentially defined as:

Boreass - asking someone else (senior to you) a question that you could answer for yourself.  Regardless of how long it would take you to find the answer yourself.  And regardless of how easy/short it is for the other person to answer the question for you.

Now the great side of this concept is that you learn to answer questions and solve problems on your own.  But the downside to this concept is the time that it takes.  When I was on my first shipout of the Academy, my XO (boss) let me know that he believed in the boreass concept completely.  I still remember asking him a question in 1988.  It was a simple question that he could have answered in five seconds.  But his response was along the lines of 'great question, why don't research it, write a report on it and have it on my desk tomorrow.'

Can you imagine a startup working the same way?  Here, the speed at which we operate is the most important thing.  We look for ways to accelerate the learning process, not drag them out.  Shortcuts aren't just desired - they're required if we are to survive and succeed.

I have found the startup community to be very helpful and collaborative.  I'm amazed at some of the great conversations I've had with other entrepreneurs.  People that are busy running their own businesses but still willing to take time out of their day.  I was initially very hesitant to ask others (people in other companies) for their time.  I was fearful of 'wasting' their time.  For me, that would be disrespectful.  But the very positive experiences I've had have gotten me over that.

What I look for in many of these meetings is just feedback and accelerated learning.  If the goal of a startup is to learn, one of the quickest ways is by speaking to people who have expertise in your area.

Here's how I do it these days.  I identify someone that I want to talk to.  That could come in a recommendation from someone I'm talking to.  Something like 'you should talk to John from Acme Corp, he's had a lot of experience in the area of roadrunner capturing devices.'  Or I may just identify a company that I would like to learn from.  Then I go to Linked In and find the right people in the company and contact them.

I have found that most people are more than willing to give you their time to meet.  I prefer face-to-face meetings when we are in the same city.  My best practice is for me to do the traveling and meet them at their workplace or preferred meeting area.  Most meetings are simple conversations.  I explain what I'm trying to do with my company.  And they ask questions or provide insight.  And the conversation accelerates my company's momentum.

Here's a thing I've found.  Most entrepreneurs like doing many things at once.  They have opinions on everything.  That like new problems.  So if one of these people were to spend an hour learning about a new business and provide their opinions on paths forward and pitfalls to look out for, that person will find that an hour well spent and personally gratifying.

Here's an early interview with Steve Jobs where explains how he has always been willing to ask for help:

The startup community is highly collaborative and willing to share its knowledge.  Be sure to tap into that very valuable resource.  (And be part of that resource by helping others.)

Scott Austin
Scott Austin