Start-Up Black Ops
Jonathan Wang penned the Start-Up Black Ops creed, a website started on the belief:
“Every entrepreneur will, at some point along their journey, find themselves at the bottom of a big, dark pit–seemingly alone, surrounded by nothing, and without a way out. That is the unavoidable norm when it comes to starting and running your own business. It is only at the bottom of this hole where you can learn and develop the skills to get out…and in doing so, you learn just how difficult entrepreneurship is and what it requires of your will and patience to succeed.”
Wang offers four principles
1. You are not alone – the process is equally difficult and sucks just as much to the next person.
I think it’s very important to network, to reach out for advice and assistance, and to understand that bringing something new into the world is always a challenge.
2. You can be creative – desperation will force you to try things you have never done before.
In “Innovation Needs Starvation, Pressure, and a New Perspective” I explored Dave Snowden’s perspective on Culture and Innovation; he identified three necessary, but not sufficient conditions for innovation to take place:
- Starvation of familiar resource, forcing you to find new approaches, doing things in a different way;
- Pressure that forces you to engage in the problem;
- Perspective Shift to allow different patterns and ideas to be brought into play.
Of these, I think “a shift in perspective” is the most important. At a certain point pressure enables a shift, but as it continues to build it can extinguish creativity.
3. You don’t give up – you always ensure yourself a fighting chance when you at least try.
Not giving up is not the same thing as doing the same thing over and over without variation. “Try try again” is good advice only if you vary your approach. One way to avoid giving up is to develop a plan for alternative approaches before “Plan A” fails. You can always update it based on what has not worked, but having a backup plan (and a backup for your backup) allows you to avoid the problem of “I cannot think of what to do next” when you are under the most pressure. In “Customer Development and its Discontents” I covered three common failure modes for engineering-driven companies as they approach the challenge of marketing and selling their product:
- Get out of the BatCave: don’t try and figure it out without talking to prospects and your current customers
- Test and measure: don’t rely just on your intuition, form falsifiable hypotheses
- Iterate frequently: update your plans based on results to date, don’t be guided by the “Little Engine That Could” and keep trying the same thing hoping for a different result.
4. You will fail (not once, but many times) – you are better for it and will emerge smarter and stronger
For this to happen you need to conduct both pre-mortems, anticipating problems in advance, and periodic after actions (also called post mortems, retrospectives, or lessons learned). This also informs your customer’s perspective, as I noted in “The Technology is Nothing Without the Team”
Most bootstrapping firms start out by delivering a service, or at least wrapping their product in a thick protective blanket of consulting to protect their customers from any sharp unfinished edges. And if you have ever used a product too early you know that the jagged edges of tomorrow can scratch some pretty deep wounds that are slow to heal and may leave impressive scars on what was once a promising career.
This is why early customers look hard at the people in your startup: they know that the technology cannot be divorced from the team and that how you respond when your product is producing unsatisfactory results is the most important question they have to answer. Because, as Gerald Weinberg advises, “nothing new ever works ” and sooner or later you will have to respond.