Seemingly “innocent” or “optimistic” people can wreak havoc on your entrepreneurial progress if you let them.

Photo by Christian Battaglia on Unsplash

By Rachel Greenberg

When I think of toxic people to expel from my life, my mind immediately darts to the investment banking VP who cursed at me in front of our entire office, after I pulled an all-nighter compiling research he very publicly tossed into the shredding bin. Or the ex who asked me to turn down an offer from Goldman Sachs so he could stand a chance at getting the job.

Those overt types of toxic behavior make a person pretty unforgettable for all the wrong reasons, and thus, much easier to actively remove from your life or business. What I didn’t realize until much later in my personal and professional life is the importance of expelling the more covertly toxic people from your entrepreneurial journey before they dig their claws in and derail your success.

1. The life of the party
If you work a standard 9 to 5, with money to blow and time to kill, perhaps you can afford the distraction (and expense) of fun-loving friends, late-night parties, and weekend festivals. When you’re all-in on the startup journey and every minute (and dollar) spent counts, you probably aren’t in the best position to devote significant time or energy to such negative ROI distractions.

You don’t necessarily have to cut off those party-throwing, party-going friends forever, but you may be well-served by distancing yourself until you get a better handle on your entrepreneurial progress. A monthly meet-up might suffice to keep the friendship alive while safeguarding the other 30 days of the month for more productive activities.

2. The idea junkies
These people may be the most deceptive of the bunch. They weasel their way in with a wholesome, helpful offering: free ideas — lots of them!

The problem with these seemingly altruistic and motivating idea junkies is twofold:

They’re oftentimes uninformed about the ideas they suggest
They aimlessly chase after shiny objects, with little regard for a cohesive vision.

I know many founders who shut them out completely, but I typically take a different approach: I entertain every idea or suggestion thrown my way, no matter who it comes from. That said, after a bit of thought or research, I’m quick to nix an idea if it doesn’t fit with my company’s long-term vision.

3. The cheerful groupies
We can all appreciate a nice ego stroke from an endlessly optimistic cheerleader — it feels like an undeserved affirmation of our impending success. Nonetheless, it is just that: undeserved. Whether it’s coming from your mom, your friend, your spouse, or your assistant, a biased groupie who acts as a constant “yes” person isn’t doing you any favors. In fact, they’re doing just the opposite: instilling a false sense of security and accomplishment when, perhaps, you haven’t earned it.

I take most compliments with a few cups of salt and pepper — especially if they’re coming from biased people in my circle who rarely offer a challenging or dissenting viewpoint. A compliment from a customer or beta user is a lot more meaningful than a round of applause from my BFF.

4. The short-winded critics
On the flip side of the “yes” people, there are the knee-jerking critics who are quick to say “nay”, but slow to say “why”. I believe critics can be some of the most valuable voices around — if they can expound upon the “what” and the “why” with which they take issue. Further, a more valuable critic will go so far as to offer helpful, thoughtful feedback in the form of solutions or suggestions to combat the issues they’ve identified.

Those who are simply pessimistic for the sake of being contrarian may not deserve a spot in your circle until or unless they start offering up some solutions to counter their objections.

5. The little engine that can’t deliver
These people are by far the most disappointing. These are the would-be partners who are always a few steps away from having a great, synergistic product, platform, or service with which to join forces. Unfortunately, they rarely live up to the expectations they’ve set and end up delaying your entrepreneurial journey to accommodate their snail-paced progress.

The problem with these little engines that can’t deliver is that surrounding founders get their hopes up, banking far too heavily on promising, but unproven partnerships, and abandon their prior plans to plow ahead and achieve success all on their own.

6. The sleuth competitors
The most dangerous competitors may not define themselves as competitors at all — and that’s what makes them all the more frightening. If you have a group of entrepreneurial friends or peers in your space, you may be walking a fine line between shooting the breeze about your business and revealing proprietary trade secrets and information that could be used against you.

While you may not perceive someone to be a current competitor or threat, that doesn’t mean you aren’t handing them the keys to do just that by innocently offering detailed access into your business over casual conversations. If a fellow entrepreneur is encroaching on your space and getting a little too cozy asking hyper-specific questions about your business, technology, marketing, financials, etc., that may be a red flag. Don’t be afraid to put up a wall (or an NDA or non-compete) if you’re worried about the ulterior motives your friend may harbor.

7. The judgment-wielding ghosts from your past
If you left your prior corporate life with a handful of colleagues-turned-friends, you’re welcome to maintain those ties. However, the second you start detecting demotivating judgment from those who don’t understand your journey or purpose, it may be time to cut them loose.

I don’t believe in burning bridges entirely, but I do believe in protecting your venture from outside, uninformed judgment. Your former colleagues’ misunderstanding of your startup mission shouldn’t be the critique putting doubt in your mind, and you definitely shouldn’t allow fear of that judgment to impact the decisions you make or the risks you take.

8. The Kens & Barbies
My neighbors have some best friends who live down the street — they’re the picture of marital, family, and corporate perfection. They have triplets, a live-in nanny, own multiple homes on both coasts, and are corporate enthusiasts who love the companies they work for. Considering they’re in their mid-thirties, they’re doing pretty darn well. However, given their positive experience in the traditional 9 to 5 environment, they’re not the biggest fans of entrepreneurship, startups, or anything off the beaten path.
Seeing the happiness and success they’ve attained on the traditional career route and listening to their anti-entrepreneurship rhetoric could make a person second-guess the startup journey. If Ken, Barbie, their three kids, and four houses paint a picture of perfection that was obtained the old-fashioned way, maybe this entrepreneurship path isn’t the best idea…

If you have friends who make you rethink your startup journey, it may be time to ditch those irrelevant influences and strengthen the “why” behind your choices.

9. The perilous Penelopes
If you’ve ever seen Kristin Wiig’s portrayal of Penelope on SNL, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Penelope is a nervous wreck, a one-upper, and an exaggerator who can’t help but outdo her friends in every conversation. When your startup bags a win, Penelope will be right there to boast about her much more significant business success. When you face a concerning issue, Penelope will swoop in with a greater problem of her own, quickly diverting the focus from your business to hers.

Penelopes are everywhere to some degree, but the ones who take the wind out of your sails each time you discuss your entrepreneurial journey are the last thing you need as an early-stage founder.

Build a diverse circle, not a sterile bubble.

Jim Rohn’s quote “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with” may not be scientifically backed, but it makes a lot of common sense. Since building a startup can be a vulnerable, impressionable time in a founder’s life — especially if it’s their first venture into entrepreneurship — it’s worth putting a little extra thought and caution into your chosen circle.
Just make sure not to cut off all outside opinions and objective critiques in the hopes of building a positive bubble around your burgeoning business. I’d take a negative Nancy over a “yes” person any day.