A compass is not a map

An entrepreneur confided in me recently that he didn’t like Lean Startup; did I think that was OK? Or is he not cut out to build a startup?

A founder uses “37signals does it” to justify every decision, even if he can’t explain why, or why it applies to his situation, or whether 37signals did that when they were still his size.

A startup pitch-deck boasts about the mistakes they’ve made because of the lessons they’ve learned. But the lessons haven’t resulted in forward motion. Time to hang up the towel, or does this knowledge and introspection position them for rocketship growth?

It’s easy to confuse philosophy with dictum, musing with mandate.

A compass is not a map. A compass tells you which way is north, not whether you should be heading north.

There’s no map in startups. There’s examples, but for every startup that landed 300 customers from their TechCrunch launch article there’s another which got 0; for every startup that built loyalty on Twitter there’s one with 20% month-over-month revenue growth that has yet to reserve their Twitter handle; for every startup ascribing their success to spectacular design, there’s another successful one who has never hired a designer (and it shows).

The trouble with “rules” in startups, besides the inherent survivor bias, is that by definition the successful ones are anomalies. Statistics show trends, but trends don’t predict outliers.

What does predict an outlier? Nothing. A successful startup looks a lot like an unsuccessful startup at the start. Statistics can’t be used to determine the outcome of the individual case (not just in startups, but anywhere).

Don’t confuse dogma or startup frameworks with laws. You have to find your own way, using all this startup advice for sparks of inspiration, for brainstorming, as a candy store where every item has its own merits but you must pick and choose what to put into your basket.

There’s no map. That’s OK. Keep moving.

  • thomasbecker

    As the immortal Bob Dylan so aptly put it: “Don’t follow leaders, and watch your parking meters.”

    • That’s awesome!

    • I learned a similar principle growing up in the country. When running around with your friends, never follow in a line. The first one wakes up the rattle snake, the second one riles it up and the third or fourth gets bit.

    • Must link to the awesome video of that awesome song – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OwKXggW7naI

      “You don’t need the weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

  • I love the point you are making. What works for one company is probably not going to always work for another. The only time that would work is if you are copycatting, then you have already lost anyway.

  • Hey Jason,

    I feel like there has been a lot of good work in both the compass and map departments out of all the recent effort going into consumer and small business focused startups.

    It’s pretty easy to leverage Lean Startup methods or Paul Graham’s advice when you get $99/month per customer and your sales cycle is short. You have hard objective data that you can build sales quotas around or manage feature development, etc.

    Where do I find a compass, much less a map, when selling to large enterprises when my average sale is $60K/year and it takes six months to a year to close?

    The best thing I’ve done so far is to read everything that Ben Horowitz writes but, to follow your example, his stories are just news from a well-journeyed traveller — useful knowledge but not a directional tool to tell you if you are doing the right thing.


    • yes there has been some good content aimed at teaching how to have a better chance of survival.

      are you saying that you can’t use any lean techniques (learn by testing) because you don’t have enough frequency of opportunities to test?

      can you test one at a time, each interaction with a prospect, and use that as the stepping stone to get to the next test? I know a lot of lean startup techniques emphasize “throw it out and there and don’t care if it is not perfect”, but in your case you can’t afford to risk your limited pool of prospects when you have such a long lead time and high price point.

      so as Jason said, you can have startup educational content which describes what success may look like, but you won’t have a map that tells you how to get there. you must cut the path yourself, and be your own judge if you are doing it right. and you won’t ever know until it happens.

      but i think you can still build upon the lessons being shared about customer discovery and problem solving in any situation.

      maybe you can share some of your problems you are having in detail, and we can assist with some ideas?
      either share here in discus, or in the Google Group for lean startup, where there are many minds who can help you think things through and find a way out of despair.

      • Jason correctly pointing out that you shouldn’t be dogmatic about what advice you listen to. You can’t be good at math by memorizing formulas, either.

        What I am trying to find out is: who has distilled a lot of experience in the enterprise space into an accessible framework?

        I feel like it is working in physics before Newton. In the consumer space, we have some good guides. In the enterprise space, all I can find is a handful of blog articles.

        • Perhaps the knowledge gathered by people in the enterprise space is closely guarded, as it is a competitive advantage to keep it a secret and lock out competitors…

          • There’s no need for paranoia — how to build companies for Enterprise is no more important or secret than any other company.

            There are *far* fewer of them, by several orders of magnitude, which is reason alone to explain the difference. Also “books” and similar aren’t mass-market exactly because so few people take that route, so book publishers would (in general) not be interested.

            Knowing this, I’ll endeavor to write more about this subject. Remember though that Smart Bear was Enterprise and I wrote about that literally for years!

            • Thanks for the reply — I’m going to dig through the archives. I just know about WP Engine which is a very different play.

    • richardgarand

      You actually have a big advantage. The traditional high-volume lean startup thrives in a world of minutes. A prospect comes along, your message doesn’t resonate with them, and they leave while you wait for the next one (which doesn’t take long) and try another message. Those startups can burn through their market as fast as they burn through cash.

      In your case the sales process naturally requires a lot more human contact. During this time you can ask prospects what they need, propose solutions, and negotiate something that will work for both sides. So instead of going through many prospects to find what works you can go through many potential offerings with a few prospects to see what they agree to.

      I can’t think of specific resources at the moment but there is a lot of material on negotiating big sales with corporations. Beyond that you just need a sense of what will be a scalable business vs a one-time need. In a couple of years you could be the expert on this :)

      • Please point me at some books. I feel like I’ve got a chunk of it figured out (ie — all sales are relationship sales for me) but I am in serious need of something to assist me on a number of points (example: how do I get from the director level to the C-level)

  • I believe Biz Stone said something like “After several years of hard work and grueling hours, you’ll eventually look like an overnight success.” What a great reminder to stop comparing your startup to every other startup and to find your own formula. You’ve got to keep moving, keep trying new things, keep listening, keep learning and most of all believe that ultimately you will be successful. Easier said than done…

  • Emma – My Bespoke Chair

    Funny how life gives you what you need, when you need it. I needed this article today and “ping”, it showed up in my inbox. Thank you.

  • Most of the time, I’d say, it’s not even this straight-forward. The “overnight” success of the company behind Angry Birds is one of my favorites. Except the company was founded something like 15 years ago, toiling in obscurity until recently.

  • It sounds like you’re saying success in start ups is completely random. This is somewhat true, but you can still develop both a map and a compass with enough preparation. I believe the most successful start ups have had a clear vision from the beginning. https://twitter.com/JTFoxx

    • Not sure where you read “random.” Indeed, most of the 100s of posts on this blog are about how to NOT be random.

      But “clear vision” is definitely not a factor for success, as you can see by considering the vast graveyard of startups who also have “vision.”

      The fact that “most successful startups have X” is only interesting if it’s not also true that “most failed startups have X.”

      When I was more active in angel investing, I saw a never-ending stream of startups with vision, ideas, gumption, etc.. Those are perhaps necessary, but certainly nowhere near sufficient.

  • IMHO, the most useful point that Jason makes, that matches my own experience, is:

    “You have to find your own way, using all this startup advice for sparks of inspiration, for brainstorming, as a candy store where every item has its own merits but you must pick and choose what to put into your basket.”

    I find much of Eric Reis’ book very helpful, and a lot that is not helpful to me. I also have spent a lot of time seeking advice and I have access to some fairly impressive, people, e.g., partners at major management consulting firms and professors at a top 5 business school. What I find is: a useful nugget here or there often to confirm my suspicions or as often as not a question I don’t have a good answer to at the time that sticks in my craw. But, no one helps that much. No stream of ideas from a single source and no one who has been able to help sort the signal from the noise. My hunch is, the art of the start is, i.e., having a good basic idea, sticking with it and piecing together all of the best inputs in to a coherent whole while discarding the misleading junk.