In this episode, we review some startup posters, discussing where they make sense, what’s good about them, and potential drawbacks: While these startup posters often contain valuable insights and advice, it’s essential to strike a balance and not carry them to extreme interpretations.
Edited Transcript: Startup Posters: Useful or Misleading?
Étienne Garbugli: Hello, Sean. Today we wanted to do something a little bit different. So I’m sure you’ve seen some of these quotes that get passed around, that people talk about. We wanted to review four startup posters and what they say about entrepreneurship. Where should we start?
Fake it until you make it
Sean K. Murphy: One that I see a lot is “fake it until you make it.”
All of these startup posters contain at least a kernel of insight and good advice, but there are risks in carrying them too far. And that’s the case here.
Étienne Garbugli: That confidence can become problematic.
Sean K. Murphy: You must separate your internal fears from the need to project at least a minimum of confidence in presentations or negotiations. We can all list a hundred reasons why what we’re doing won’t succeed, why a deal we are chasing won’t close, or why a new hire won’t work out.
But as founders, we have to demonstrate confidence to inspire others.
The risk is a lack of necessary candor, that we are not forthcoming and withhold information that others learn about later and view as material to the decision or commitment you asked them to make. Now you have a problem because you are viewed as untrustworthy or dishonest.
Sometimes you tell people what you believe will happen or that your team will be able to accomplish and you are incorrect. It’s a problem any time you don’t meet your commitments because people don’t always tell you when they have stopped trusting you.
Étienne Garbugli: How do you relate that to the natural optimism of many entrepreneurs? Many entrepreneurs are extremely optimistic, so they may actually believe that things will work out the way they expect.
When does optimism or confidence become excessive or problematic? Where do you draw the line?
Sean K. Murphy: What I have noticed about experts is they often proceed with confidence in their ability to solve a problem, even though they don’t see the exact path to a solution at the moment. They keep track of other problems they’ve solved–and failed to solve–and maintain a reasonably objective view of their capabilities.
They also try to view the current situation as part of a category of similar challenges. They reduce their optimism if they don’t have something in their bag of tricks that has solved a similar problem. But if this situation seems to fit a pattern they understand, if it rhymes with earlier ones, their estimates grow more confident.
Étienne Garbugli: Then there are other people who will have difficulty saying things that have not been validated in five different ways. They are committed to telling only the absolute truth entirely accurately. There is a line between those two groups, but it can move a little based on your predisposition–and your desperation to some extent.
I agree some people second-guess themselves and see all the things that can go wrong. I tend to do that: I will look at all the contingencies and think through these different options. Sometimes you can be too conservative and scare yourself that a plan won’t work.
Sometimes you must proceed despite your fears and try to engage with customers and get things done. Close the sale. But I feel the quote is primarily positive because it encourages you to try, explore, and move forward. I think this is a very good thing for entrepreneurs to do.
Sean K. Murphy: What’s also misleading here is that there is no “make it.” As you succeed it gets harder not easier. There is no “flaming threshold of certification” you pass through and now you’ve arrived. You “level up” and there are new challenges from stronger competitors who have gone to school on your success.
Étienne Garbugli: This feels more like an early-stage motto for when you start to get customers. There was a temptation to lie to them about what you can do and now you follow this advice and tell them “we are working on that” when you are not. At some point you get caught and telling stories no longer works.
Sean K. Murphy: Yeah, it can definitely go bad.
Move fast and break things
Étienne Garbugli: One I like is “Move fast and break things.” It’s often credited to Mark Zuckerberg. I feel it’s interesting because it epitomizes one view we have of startups: they are very gritty, just building and shipping, and it’s fine if things break along the way because they are hustling to get things done.
So it does capture that ethos of startups where you are striving. Shipping, and the velocity at which you ship, are more important than the stability or solidity of what you’re putting together. There is a motivational aspect here that’s really interesting.
It is true that moving fast is critical for startups, especially when you’re just starting and have a lot of ground to cover. I am not as sure about “break things” because that could mean a lot of things.
These motivational poster sayings are all short and simple because that’s the format, but the idea of moving fast is not just about motion. And breaking things can create permanent issues with B2B customers. The B2B markets are often smaller, especially early on if you’re targeting a niche, and the customers can be quite chatty and lock you out if you break too much.
There’s a trade-off between what startups aspire to and the reality of what they need to do to succeed in B2B markets working with organizations.
Sean K. Murphy: I think this phrase is more popular with startups that develop web apps than those that design medical implant devices or airplanes where the stakes for failure are much higher.
This also ignores a principle that’s called Chesterton’s Fence: before you tear something down you should talk to the guy that put it up and understand all the reasons why it’s there. It may seem like it’s obsolete, but often you don’t see the problems it’s preventing.
I think traditions are solutions to problems we forgot we had. You have to be careful that you don’t reintroduce problems that your traditions have solved.
On the other hand, some vascular surgery techniques were developed in Korean War MASH units–the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital units. They were close to the front lines, and soldiers were brought in with serious injuries. If they delayed surgery until after a long helicopter ride back to a rear area hospital, the soldier might lose a limb or even their life.
They were faced with some terrible choices, but due to the patient’s situation, they would often run the risk. So you have to recognize how serious the risks are that you’re facing, and sometimes you do have to move fast.
Also, when things are deteriorating rapidly, you can’t sit still. But the downside is that it sometimes encourages arsonists to create the quote “burning platform.”
Étienne Garbugli: But doesn’t that capture the importance of a quote like this? Sometimes we let the negative outcomes of experimentation seep into our willingness to solve significant problems. I see the need to minimize potential downsides but still find ways to run experiments quickly and apply fresh thinking and new approaches. This quote may be more about encouraging a mindset that breaks constraints than about implementation risks. That does feel more like the thinking you need in early-stage startups where you are experimenting but need to broaden your search.
Sean K. Murphy: One model I like a little better is Dave Snowden’s Safe-Fail Probes. So the idea is you try something that’s got upside, but not much downside.
You want things that may fail, but fail safely. You don’t want something where the downside is large and the upside is small.
Étienne Garbugli: The key is to take the right amount of risk when you’re placing your bets so that you don’t get trapped taking minor incremental steps. You want to swing for the fence but in a way that does not destroy the fence.
The founder of Spotify has talked about the need to accelerate testing in the medical space the way we have been able to accelerate testing in software. I see the need to be more agile, and perhaps do better simulations or find ways to create testing environments that don’t harm humans or animals.
Do you have another quote you’d like to discuss?
“Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it is now.” – Wayne Gretzky
Sean K. Murphy: You’re a hockey player. Let’s talk about Wayne Gretzky’s suggestion to “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it is now.”
Étienne Garbugli: Wayne Gretzky was a great hockey player, it’s not his fault that this quote has been misapplied in many different ways. I see it used to hide reasoning or analysis and jump to “I can tell where the future will be because I have the necessary vision and insights.”
Entrepreneurs can become excited by the possibility of being viewed as a visionary or having a product vision.
I view it as rejecting the more scientific approach involving analysis, testing, and experimentation. I think the pendulum is swinging back to more interest in vision: quotes like this can be used to hide a lack of research and analysis. I skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.
Maybe you have more foresight than other people, and maybe you don’t. It’s easy to frame yourself as a visionary able to predict the future–at least until events prove you wrong. I think this is a convenient phrase to hide a lack of proper analysis.
Sean K. Murphy: I agree. I have a couple of thoughts. In many situations, if you can determine where the puck is, you can predict where it will be. For example, if we know the number of five-year-olds in a country today, we have a pretty good idea of how many 60-year-olds will be there in 55 years because a five-year-old is a fact we can reason from.
Russell Ackoff, in his idealized design model, says you should design for the current requirements because that’s what you know are the facts. This approach avoids a shared consensual illusion about the future.
When entrepreneurs accept common knowledge–facts that “everybody knows” but no one verifies–they run with the herd and find it hard to make money. They make money when they figure out that a critical piece of common knowledge is wrong. Ground truth is valuable when few have taken the time to “go and see.”
Étienne Garbugli: Predictions are difficult: technology is very hard to predict and tends to act as a multiplier on other changes. Take life before gene modification technologies like CRISPR, compared to now, compared to the next breakthrough that may transform things unrecognizably.
I like Principles by Ray Dalio because it offers some techniques for minimizing your own blind spots and biases introduced by other peoples egos. If you are not careful these biases can reinforce each other and cascade, especially in larger companies, so that more collective blind spots get created.
Important events, potential opportunities, and possible risks are not considered, discussed, or investigated.
I assume that most “visionaries” are guessing, especially when they don’t offer their analysis or research.
If I had asked people what they wanted,
they would have said faster horses.
Sean K. Murphy: Let’s do one more. Maybe the famous Henry Ford quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would’ve said faster horses.”
First of all, it’s very unlikely he ever said it. In his autobiography, he points out that the idea of an automobile was widely visualized. Second, he didn’t make his money inventing the automobile. He was successful for the way that he built the automobile, for inventing the assembly line and a system of mass production. So I think there are multiple layers of misunderstanding. And this one also gets used by self-declared visionaries who don’t want to listen to customers.
Étienne Garbugli: This one is very difficult to trace to its origins, which is interesting given its popularity. I agree that it gets used as a trump card in discussions. Along with Steve Jobs’s famous dislike of research.
It seems that the longer a product discussion goes on the more likely Steve Jobs will get mentioned.
I have a background in UX research, and many people in the field have told me they have heard this quote as an excuse to avoid analysis. A decision maker will offer it to avoid the argument that they don’t believe your data.
When the highest-paid person in the room trots out a Steve Jobs quote about no need to listen to customers, they are telling the team, “I am in charge, so you only need to understand my opinion to move forward.
But the perception that Apple does not do customer research is false. They have their own approach, but they do customer research.
When people inside an organization quote Jobs as an advocate for “no need for user research,” I see it as a warning sign.
Sean K. Murphy: I agree: it’s a serious red flag when someone uses this quote as an excuse to avoid listening to customers.
Étienne Garbugli: In my book Solving Product, I offered a framework for evaluating how customer-centric an organization is. When you hear product managers or designers expressing frustration in interviews that their efforts to analyze customer data are sidetracked or ignored in favor of internal opinions or judgment, you know there is a problem.
Sean K. Murphy: I find it interesting that of the four poster quotes we looked at today it was really only the “faster horses’ that gave us real heartburn.
Don’t let a self-appointed visionary drown out other insights.
On the Gretzky quote, if the puck is sitting on the ice, stopped, you should skate to where it is. If it’s moving then it’s trajectory is probably more predictable than other complex systems,
Étienne Garbugli: It’s like a hunter who aims his shot to intercept a bird’s flightpath. He should not shoot at its current location when it’s on the wing. But I don’t think Gretzky expected people to try to apply his very practical advice about a simple physics problem to a startup.
Sean K. Murphy: A bird on the wing or a puck sliding on the ice are both moving much faster than most social technical systems. If you believe an organization is going to adopt a new technology and leverage it to improve their operation, that’s normally going to be measured in seasons or even a year or two. It’s normally a slow moving transformation, with people in the organization adopting and changing at different rates. It looks more like a marathon where the runners start bunched at the gate and are spread out over miles when they cross the finish line.
Summary / Recap
Étienne Garbugli: So now that we have done our little exercise, what do you think of startup posters?
Sean K. Murphy: Well, I collect a lot of “quotes for entrepreneurs,” so I am always on the lookout for ones that I think will be of interest or use to entrepreneurs. I like to verify the source so that I can get more context. Often a quote gets slimmed down and only used in a certain way. Sometimes I can uncover the real context and get a lot more out of it.
Startup posters persist because most of them have a useful truth or insight at their core. You don’t see posters that say, “just be a jerk.” Although “Just Do It” is open to some interpretation.
Étienne Garbugli: That’s exactly the one I was thinking of.
Sean K. Murphy: For me, “Just do it” is about overcoming your fears by not overthinking them.
Étienne Garbugli: Short simple ideas are easier to transmit. Except for the “faster horses” quote, I thought all of the others had some inherent value. Many of the quotes that I’ve seen on your website are highly valuable. There is a fine balance between simple and simplistic. Some of it is a function of where we are today, where there’s more emphasis on shorter content and shorter opinions.
But I do feel there’s still value in some of these, these ideas. You just need to pick the right ones.
Sean K. Murphy: So, this has been a different thing for us. Please contact us and propose other startup posters you’ve either found helpful or think are misleading.. We may analyze a few more in a future episode.
Étienne Garbugli: Awesome. Just reach out on Twitter to Sean at @skmurphy or me at @egarbugli. And we’ll see you in a future episode.
Any feedback? Have a startup poster we should review?
Time to Market Podcast Series
Related Blog Posts
Fake It Until You Make It
- Orienting, Observing, Doing Homework, and Paying Dues
- A Conversation with Mark Tweddle on Imposter Syndrome
- Listen to the Quiet Ones
Skate to Where the Puck Will Be
- Quotes for Entrepreneurs Curated in June 2023 I highlighted the “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it is.” quote by Wayne Gretzky. Corporations are socio-technical systems that move much more slowly than pucks: “too early” can be an excruciating position to seize. You can prosper in a niche market that’s buying now. It’s much harder to survive in a market that won’t arrive for a few quarters, a few years, or never.
- A Summary of Max Gunther’s “The Zurich Axioms” for Entrepreneurs
“Axiom 12: Be cautious about long range plans. Planning is useful but you must adjust as you go. Periodically evaluate all that you have invested in.” I think you can have a clear view at the beginning that is very helpful to write down. As you lose your “newcomer’s eyes” and become mired in the details it’s easy to lose perspective. I would interpret Axiom 12 in the same way Eisenhower talked about plans: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.
- Paul Saffo “Best Strategy is Ready, Fire, Steer”
“The lessons that we constantly forget when it comes to new technologies is: you should never mistake a clear view for a short distance. It’s that sense of standing on a ridge, looking out across a great forest at a distant mountain goal. The peak is so close it seems you could reach out and touch it. That is, until you get in among the trees and start beating your way to the mountain. This is, by the way, the mortal sin of not only entrepreneurs, but people in my profession, forecasting.”
Paul Saffo and “The 30 Year Rule” in Design World Number 24 (1992)
Faster Horses: Some context on why I feel the quote is unlikely to have been voiced by Ford. Here is a long paragraph from his “My Life and Work’ with a key excerpt bolded (not bold in original):
Even before that time I had the idea of making some kind of a light steam car that would take the place of horses–more especially, however, as a tractor to attend to the excessively hard labor of ploughing. It occurred to me, as I remember somewhat vaguely, that precisely the same idea might be applied to a carriage or a wagon on the road. A horseless carriage was a common idea. People had been talking about carriages without horses for many years back–in fact, ever since the steam engine was invented–but the idea of the carriage at first did not seem so practical to me as the idea of an engine to do the harder farm work, and of all the work on the farm ploughing was the hardest. Our roads were poor and we had not the habit of getting around. One of the most remarkable features of the automobile on the farm is the way that it has broadened the farmer’s life. We simply took for granted that unless the errand were urgent we would not go to town, and I think we rarely made more than a trip a week. In bad weather we did not go even that often.
Henry Ford in “My Life and Work“
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- Saeed Kahn: Why I Hate That Henry Ford Quote
- Quote Investigator : “My Customer Would Have Asked For A Faster Horse“
Concludes “QI has not yet located compelling evidence that Henry Ford is responsible for this quotation.”