How is it even *my* company anymore if “the market” tells me what to do?

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Isn’t entrepreneurship about having an amazing idea and building a living around it?

…yes, except every advisor and blogger admonishes ”your idea sucks,” you prima donna pompous asshole, so your job is to use an “idea” as a foil to find out what is actually an amazing idea and then go follow that path, whatever that might be. The only thing we’re sure of is that you’re wrong and you need get that fixed.

…OK, except how is that even “your company” anymore?  Those are someone’s else’s ideas, not your idea.

Isn’t the fun of a company to build a product you know the world needs, even if (especially if!) they don’t even know they need it? Something they couldn’t ask for, because you can’t ask for an iPad to be invented until it’s placed in your hands?

…yes, except every advisor and blogger proclaims that you couldn’t possibly have insight in a vacuum, so instead you must conduct 50 ego-busting interviews in which a pack of clueless “end users” with no experience building products or companies, and certainly no experience providing constructive insight, will somehow coalesce under your non-directed, open-ended line of questioning into a brilliant roadmap to success.

…OK, except how is that even “your company” anymore?  That’s the culmination of everyone else’s product ideas, a design-by-committee which we all know typically leads to shit.

Aren’t some of the greatest moments of a startup’s life the point where you pick a name, create a logo, write your headline on your new home page, craft your teaser and your bi-line, stamp your personality on every page, and implement your own philosophy on pricing, service, language, and exposition, attaining your own voice and not the collective voice of the Marketing Department?

…yes, except every advisor and blogger directs you to A/B tests and landing page experiments and advertising alternatives and failing fast where “failing” means 3% fewer people clicked X than clicked Y, because when it comes to pricing your “philosophy” doesn’t mean shit if rearranging the tiers and using unholy language gets you $20/mo more revenue per customer, and your clever tag lines don’t mean shit if language designed for 7-year-olds and written like a 2am-infomercial means a 1% lift in click-through rate.

…OK, except how is that even “your company” anymore?  That’s not your voice, that’s a million monkeys slapping keyboards hoping that one stumbles upon a better conversion rate.

Is your startup an expression of your own identity and vehicle by which you are master of your destiny, or are you randomly iterating into a different identity, some other destiny?

Are you an inventor, or an explorer in a world you didn’t ask for?

I love the Lean Startup movement because it demands introspection and honors data.  It defines “progress” even in the ineffable mode that progress is achieved in the messiness that is early-stage startups, where it’s nigh-impossible to separate the paths of success and failure.

But I worry that the pendulum can swing too far.  Mantras prevail that amount to “guess and check,” because it’s easier for advisors and investors to drive by metrics rather than by insight, by funnels rather than by a strong point of view.

So what’s the answer?  I refuse for the answer to be “it’s a balance” or “it depends.”

It’s this:

You create children in your own image, literally.  You can’t help it — half their variable DNA is yours. After rebellion, as they age, they “find themselves” and of course discover you were lurking there all along.

At the same time, what kind of parent intentionally molds their kid into their own notion of what the “perfect child” should be?  Well, what kind of startup parent are you to stubbornly mold it to your preconceptions rather than exploring the synthesis of your ideas, your values, your perspective against what is actually true in the world – facts you simply haven’t yet uncovered?

What kind of parent takes pleasure in preventing a kid from fulfilling their own destiny rather than noticing what their kid is naturally drawn to and encouraging and feeding that nature?  Well, what kind of steward of your startup’s destiny are you to predetermine its course, ramming its assigned future down its throat, rather than being the guiding light, helping it find its own way, even while sharing your DNA at its core?

What kind of parent allows a kid to indulge in unhealthy behavior that of course a 3-year-old desires but which isn’t acceptable? Well, what kind of startup builder are you to focus on the easy stuff, the safe stuff, rather than tackling the parts you’re not good at and challenging the assumptions that haven’t been vetted?

If you believe you’re the master and the startup is your slave, then I do believe you’re almost surely destined to fail, because that’s not what a startup is, and that’s not how the world works outside the little bubble where you’re convinced that your ideas are amazing and your product is salable and the world will know it when the homepage is unveiled.

Rather, you are a parent. A shepherd, a steward, a guide, a mentor, a director for what is almost a new life — a thing that has to live and grow and thrive and interact with the real world.

It’s not an amalgamation of other peoples’ notions, but an imperfect copy of yourself that needs guidance as it finds its own way to success.

It’s your startup.

  • stevec77

    Jason, this is so right on! At times I feel like a throwback to an earlier age when an inventor, entrepreneur’s or intreprdnur’s intuition played the crucial role in assessing a product’s chances of acceptance and success. What a lonely place to be in this day and age when one methodology goes viral as has the Lean movement and every message is that you are doomed to fail but, you know you aren’t. Glad to know that you too are on my island. There must be a name for our kind and I know it isn’t dinosaurs.

    Steve Chayer

  • thomasbecker

    Don’t we all refer to our startups as “my baby” every once in a while. Nice to see that analogy (or is it a metaphor, or a simile, or what, I never know) being elaborated on so well. Another analogy that pops into my mind every once in a while is the artist and his (often unrecognized) work. Vincent van Gogh was a businessman who wanted to make a living with his paintings. I’m pretty sure he could have painted what people wanted. Would we have wanted him to? On the other end, there’s the Beatles, who’s stuff was pretty rough around the edges and may not have been very successful had it not been for George Martin, who had this uncanny instinct for, well, maybe not what people wanted, but what people were going to like. Ok, similes and metaphors and analogies only go so far, but maybe we should just accept that in the startup world, there are van Goghs and Beatles’s and Britney Spears’s and a million untalented wannabes and that’s just fine.

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  • http://httpcolonslashslashwww.www.startupjerkfest.com StartUpJerkFest

    wow, you link to some pretty amazing articles from your past. I didn’t know your cave was so deep. I’m only on my 5th rum & coke after a crappy day of invalidation, but as you can tell by my typing skillz, i’ve had many of those days, and just as many rum & cokes. or maybe it’s just the spell czech.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      Haha, awesome. Have another 5 and watch as my musings go from curious to mind-blowing. Unfortunately the effect wears off by morning.

      Drink water!

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  • mhsutton

    Awesome post Jason – it’s your ship, it just ain’t your ocean!

    That said, the forces you do no control e.g the market do not have all the answers, just more questions, that I as a founder need to have some strategy to address.

  • Andy Brice

    I guess it depends on what your ultimate metric is. If you judge success purely in money terms, then you should follow the market. But if you are more interested in being happy and fulfilled, then you should follow your vision.

  • http://www.salesprocessengineering.net Justin Roff-Marsh

    Nice. Except nature ensures that parents have a significant developmental head-start on their children!

    Many startups better resemble toddlers with strollers.

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    I like the metaphor.

    Btw, I would love to once again stress to readers that qualitative research should not be about asking people what they want. Observe behavior and look for evidence. It is the entrepreneur’s job to design the solution. Then the market will tell you if your solution sucks :)

  • http://reidwalley.com Reid Walley

    Yep, every parent’s kid – like every startup – is gonna get their ass kicked on the school playground. That’s a good thing! How is it even *my* kid anymore when it’s “the playground” that shapes my kid on a daily basis? Thank god for the playground, so I can see how shitty or awesome my parenting is – LOL. And adjust accordingly.

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  • Brittany Jones

    This is a great analogy! Another part of this are the influences from the outside world. There are so many different things in the world that influence children. Friends, family, and a huge one is media. These things are all pointing the child in all different directions. Now in terms of a website, all of these Google algorithms are trying to influence your website. This means it is trying to influence which direction it should go to be great.

  • Jörgen

    Because it’s my kids and other peoples children

  • Oisin O’Connor

    Thanks Jason! From my perspective the whole lean movement is being abused. People are taking it as the bible. I see friends building nothing of substance and then A/B testing everything. Constantly doing small pivots around nothing of substance leads to nothing of substance. Their definitely needs to be counter balance to the movement stressing vision and identity as main drivers in any endeavor. Elon Musk didn’t start SpaceX pivoting and going by what people said.

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