Here are quotes for entrepreneurs I collected in August 2020. My focus this month is on evidence based diagnosis and decision making.

Quotes for Entrepreneurs collected August 2020

I collect these quotes for entrepreneurs from a variety of sources and tweet them on @skmurphy about once a day where you can get them hot off the mojo wire. At the end of each month I curate them in a blog post that adds commentary and may contain a longer passage from the same source for context. Please enter your E-mail address if you would like to have new blog posts sent to you.


My focus this month is on evidence-based diagnosis and decision making.

+ + +

Evidence based diagnosis and decision making

Occam’s Razor: “Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.”

Pick the viable explanation that makes the fewest assumptions. This parallels a medical aphorism:

“When you hear hoof beats think of horses, not of zebras.”
Dr. Theodore Woodward

Bearing in mind two other rules of thumb:

“Patients can have as many diseases as they damn well please.”
Hickam’s Dictum

“No set of mutually inconsistent observations can exist for which some human intellect cannot conceive a coherent explanation, however complicated.”
Crabtree’s bludgeon

Allow for multiple hypothesis, competing and complementary, as you peel back the layers and look at adjacent areas: you must search wide and deep for real explanations. Real life is complicated and problems rarely have a single cause (or a single solution).  See also “Three Wise Men on Diagnosis

+ + +

“I want a girl with a mind like a diamond
I want a girl who knows what’s best
Who uses a machete to cut through red tape
She is fast, thorough, and sharp as a tack
She’s touring the facilities and picking up slack”
Cake “Short Skirt, Long Jacket”

An antidote for these recessionary times. The phrase is normally “pick up the slack” meaning to do work which needs to be done but may have too few or no one addressing. Slack in general referrals to margin, as in margin for error or delay, “how much slack do we have on this project?” The other slack related maxim I like is “negative slack accumulates.” We don’t have any margin and it’s getting worse (e.g. late and getting later, too many mistakes and  no efforts to correct process that generating them, too few resources and those we have are getting redeployed).

+ + +

2020 may make “distance learning” a pleonasm.
Horseless Carriage -> Car (first industry trade journal was called “Horseless Age”).

Other examples:
Filmless camera -> digital camera -> camera
cellphone / smart phone -> phone

Sean Murphy

I tweeted this in response to an old advertisement for “distance learning.”

+ + +

“I don’t think information overload is a function of the volume of information. It’s a derivative of the volume of information plus the sense-making tools you have.”
Paul Saffo “On the Record” (February 2006)

I think this is a more useful perspective than Clay Shirky’s “It’s Not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure” which focuses on spam due to the shifting economics of production.

It was Alvin Toffler who popularized the concept of “information overload” in “Future Shock”

“Information overload occurs when the input quantity of a system exceeds its processing capacity. Decision makers have a fairly limited cognitive processing capacity. Therefore, if information overload occurs, it is likely that a decrease in decision quality will occur.”
Alvin Toffler “Future Shock” (1970)

This is why analytics and intelligence augmentation are increasing important as sense-making tools. The world is more connected.

+ + +

“A good rule of thumb is don’t be in a mob.”
Mason Hartman (@webdevMason)

+ + +

“Sometimes I wonder if this pressure to constantly respond begins to look like a disease-state. We’ve become more and more interrupt-driven. If you have six tasks to do in an hour, you can’t just take 60 minutes and divide and have 10 minutes per task. You have 10 minutes per task minus the time required for context-shifting. That will be the next big challenge: figuring out how to fight the distraction-driven mode we’re in and stay focused on one thing long enough to get it done.”
Paul Saffo “On the Record” (February 2006)

+ + +

“The ‘kingdom of heaven is within,’ indeed, but we must also create one without, because we are intended to act upon our circumstances.”
Florence Nightingale

+ + +

“Engineers are not superhuman. They make mistakes in their assumptions, in their calculations, in their conclusions. That they make mistakes is forgivable; that they catch them is imperative. Thus it is the essence of modern engineering not only to be able to check one’s own work but also to have one’s work checked and to be able to check the work of others.”

Henry Petroski in “To Engineer is Human

I used this in A Practical Introduction to Intellectual Capital For Bootstrappers to point out the value of comparing notes with other  who will critique and provide constructive suggestions for your business model and product ideas.

+ + +

quotes for entrepreneurs: Fight for your right to pour tea

Fight For Your Right To Pour Tea

The image on the left is offered by “Very British Problems Shirts” as a t-shirt and wood block poster. For my readers who are unfamiliar with the Beastie Boys, it’s a riff on one of their hits, “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)Very British Problems started out as a book by Rob Temple, then a series of books, adding a twitter account (@SoVeryBritish) and now a merchandising outlet. In my dreams, my “Quotes for Entrepreneurs” swells into a similar empire: I want to be him when I grow up

Despite our “cup of coffee” logo, tea drinkers are as welcome at the Bootstrapper Breakfasts as coffee drinkers–as are those who eschew caffeinated drinks–provided they are bootstrappers or considering bootstrapping a business.

+ + +

“Ascending to theater command had never been his ambition, for ambitions, he felt, were meant not for personal gain but to pursue common goals within the established order of a group.”
James Hornfischer’s description of Chester Nimitz in Neptune’s Inferno

I like this description of ambition as a model for leadership: “pursue common goals within the established order of a group.” I think it’s a good one for startup CEO’s as much as any other leader.

+ + +

“There are no solutions, only trade offs. Resources spent on one risk are not spent on another risk.”
John D Cook (@JohnDCook)

Cook tweeted this in response to headline: “As the coronavirus pandemic spreads around the world, consuming global health resources, H.I.V., tuberculosis and malaria are making a comeback.”

+ + +

“You cannot seize an opportunity in a defensive crouch”
Sean Murphy

I woke up with this thought today: you cannot seize an opportunity and remain in a defensive crouch. Risk and gain are always linked.

+ + +

If you shut the door to all errors truth will be shut out.”
Rabindranath Tagore

+ + +

“Start research with team members. To what extent do they have different product visions in their heads, different goals, strategies, ideas of who the ideal customers are, and so forth?
Charles Lambdin

This is getting a working consensus on the team’s Bayesian prior. And essential to laying the groundwork for research–or the first step in research. We also like to go back and determine the origin story for a new product or feature, this can shed more light on the baseline.

+ + +

“Human felicity is produced not as much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day.”
Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography

I think improvements occur in a power low distribution with many small and a few major ones for every breakthrough. It’s a mistake to focus all of your efforts on a major breakthrough and not to make frequent small improvements where you can.

+ + +

“The idea that we must set personal goals and work relentlessly to achieve them, bothers me. There’s an implicit valuing of perseverance over flexibility, adaptability, ingenuity. Sort of like following the plan–no matter what!–rather than adapting to change.”
Esther Derby in “Adapting to Change

This is a very good insight, intermediate results offer additional evidence on the efficacy of our methods and viability of our targets. We set our goals and make our plans when we have the least information about ourselves, the environment(s) we will need to navigate, and the real impact of achieving our goals. It makes sense to change methods in response to both setbacks and successes, and to adjust our intermediate and final goals.Chris Argyris defined the ability to adjust your goals as well as methods as “double loop learning.”

+ + +

“No one gets anywhere until he gets rid of the idea that his first effort is going to startle the world.  The way to get ahead is to start now. If you start now, you will know a lot next year that you don’t know now and that you wouldn’t know next year if you had waited.”
William Feather in “Perseverance Rewarded

Besides his point about avoiding perfectionism, there is an equally important insight that entering the arena and acting gives you knowledge you will never gain in the stands.

+ + +

“A man is what he does with his attention.”
John Ciardi

I think mindfulness is awareness where your attention is focused without losing your focus. It allows you to avoid having your attention hijacked by trivia (and tribalism). This quote reminds me of a related one by Ortega y Gasset:

“Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.”
Jose Ortega y Gasset in “Man and Crisis

+ + +

“When you really need something good to happen remember that good things come from the Universe on their own schedule, based on the complexity of the situation. Our role is to invest in productive actions that engender the overall circumstances that will create the outcome we seek. Patience is often a virtue in that regard.”

Howard Dernehl

I like his suggestion to do what you can and let the situation ripen. Sometimes taking small steps that are productive can unlock significant new insights: it’s not so much that the situation changes as you gain a new perspective. I think the patience to let a situation ripen, taking positive action in the interim, is critical to scaling up a startup.

+ + +

quotes for entrepreneurs: Frequent False Agile assumptions about learning, discovery, and trust.

Frequent FALSE implications of Agile

  • “You must build the product to get feedback on the product”
  • “You must wait until after you’ve built the product to learn about users”
  • “Building a product is the only way to achieve outcomes.”
  • “Building a shippable product is always the best way to do discovery work.”
  • “Someone upstream of the team always knows the right thing to do.”
  • “Letting users down with early releases won’t come back to bite you.”

Charles Lambin in “Design Thinking as Decision Framing”

I think the Lean Startup Build-Measure-Learn Loop encourages this “build first then learn” model which is unfortunately vastly inferior to a measure-learn-build model where you first take stock of the situation and see what you can learn from careful observation and measurement before learning.

+ + +

“Truth is meant to save you first, and the comfort comes afterward.”
Georges Bernanos

+ + +

“Reflect, and you will find that the foundations are sand. You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.”
John Buchan in “The Power House” (1916)

The Power House” was originally written in 1913 and serialized in Blackwoods magazine before being published in book form in 1916. It’s a thriller about a conspiracy of anarchists to destroy civilization.

+ + +

“An innovation plan often underestimates the resources and time required. We can easily visualize–and therefore estimate–the case where everything goes well. It’s harder to anticipate what problems we might encounter and how they may affect the schedule.”
Ed Ipser in “Conquering Innovation” (forthcoming in 2020)

+ + +

How to add appropriately semi-quantitative “thinking tools” to the analytic arsenal? What components are most vital? Three candidates:

  1. to Analyze with correct confidence & certainty: Bayesian Thinking (proper updating of beliefs, in the presence of incomplete information and noise)
  2. to Assess despite chaos & complexity: Systems Thinking (proper use of mental models, with feedback loops and time delays, in constantly-changing situations)
  3. to Act amidst conflict & cooperation: Game-theoretic Thinking (proper understanding of adversaries and allies, with divergent values, diverse goals, and deceptive strategies)

Mark Zimmerman in “Think Better–Three Keys

Zimmerman offers a succinct encapsulation of Bayesian thinking:

“Beliefs are knobs, not switches! The natural human tendency to imagine that beliefs are true or false. This is (almost always) wrong. There are degrees of certainty, odds and likelihoods, ranges of numbers rather than specific answers, errors distributed across a zone, a universe of multiple possibilities. When new information comes in — evidence — it’s vital to update beliefs rather than throw them away. “Turn the Knob”, more or less, based on the balance between the weight of prior knowledge and the strength of new data. That’s Bayes Theorem, in a qualitative nutshell.

Don’t be too sure!

  • Estimate prior odds for each outcome
  • Adjust the odds as new evidence comes in

Mark Zimmerman in “Beliefs are Knobs, Not Switches” (last two bullets added from his “Be A Bayesian“)

+ ++

“A man must do the work with that faculty he has now. Bu that faculty is the accumulation of past days. […] What you have learned is safe and fruitful. Work and learn in evil days, in insulted days, in days of debt and depression and calamity. Fight best in the shade of the cloud of arrows.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Fight best in the shade of the cloud of arrows” is an allusion to a quip by Dienekes, one of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. The Persians taunted Dienekes that they had so many archers that a volley of their arrows would blot out the sun. Dienekes replied, ‘Good, we can fight in the shade.” Good advice for startups, who often find themselves badly outnumbered and must learn faster than their opponents, all the while “fighting in the shade.”

+ + +

“Let me make an arbitrary distinction between science and engineering by saying that science is concerned with what is possible while engineering is concerned with choosing, from among the many possible ways, one that meets a number of often poorly stated economic and practical objectives.
Richard Hamming in ‘One Man’s View of Computer Science‘ Turing Award lecture (1968)

Many people who quote this leave off the “Let me make an arbitrary distinction between science and engineering by saying that..” from the beginning of the first sentence. The link to the paper comes from a library of good papers at http://worrydream.com/refs/

+ + +

A hard thing about trying to learn from successful businesses is that the same traits necessary for outlier success are often the same traits that increase the odds of failure. The line between “bold” and “reckless” can be thin. Same for investors.
Morgan Housel (@morganhousel)

I think it’s like allometric scaling, initially certain traits are critical for success, later other traits become proportionately much more important. Compare growth of legs to growth of arms from infancy to four years old. Micromanaging is critical early, crippling later.

+ + +

“Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres. […] We live with a deathly backlog. In February 2020, Nature Sustainability published this terrifying conclusion: California would need to burn 20 million acres–an area about the size of Maine–to restabilize in terms of fire. […]  We dug ourselves into a deep, dangerous fuel imbalance due to one simple fact. We live in a Mediterranean climate that’s designed to burn, and we’ve prevented it from burning anywhere close to enough for well over a hundred years. Now climate change has made it hotter and drier than ever before, and the fire we’ve been forestalling is going to happen, fast, whether we plan for it or not.”

Elizabeth Weil in “They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won’t Anybody Listen?

One thing I have learned in 2020 is that the lesson I took from the movie Bambi as a child is completely wrong. Fire is a natural part of the forest.  Even when man is not intruding in the forest lightning will start fires. Weil documents how we have created a fire fighting industrial complex that is paid to put out fires that should burn. Forest managers are afraid to start controlled burns because they face liability if they get out of control but are not liable to large fires that will occur later due to an excess of dead wood in the forest.

+ + +

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”
Arthur Conan Doyle in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”

+ + +

“A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”
David Hume in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

More context:

“A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: He weighs the opposite experiments: He considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines, with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the superiority. A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance. In all cases, we must balance the opposite experiments, where they are opposite, and deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.”

David Hume in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding