Brandon and I have been a product team for years and have helped startups and big companies alike create beautiful and exciting new products from nothing. Despite our best efforts, just about all of them have failed. But I think after all this time, we’ve finally figured out why. Every time we made one big mistake: we had people as part of the process. Human people.
It was no one’s fault, it was just that people are people. And when you throw people into extreme conditions, we predictably don’t do so well. This is exactly why creating a completely new product or startup is wrought with failure, as the journey is inevitably characterized by four extremes:
- 1 The end goal is ambiguous
- 2 The path to get there is unknown
- 3 The experience is stressful
- 4 The cost of failure is high
Some people are superheroes and rise to the challenge, others just get lucky. But most are just regular people, no matter how smart, experienced, or talented they are, and they fail just like we have. So what’s there to do?
It can’t really be this hard
Luckily creating new products and companies aren’t the only times when people are challenged with succeeding in those same four conditions.
Take a soldier for instance. “Winning” a battle is an incredibly vague objective. Exactly how to do that isn’t well defined. Trying to win is extremely stressful as it’s not a fight if only one side is trying to win. And if you lose, the cost often comes in the form of lives.
How about a surgeon? Saving someones life or improving their health is fairly ambiguous. How exactly to do that with a knife and some stitches is different every single time. Cutting someone open can’t be a walk in the park. And if you don’t do everything perfectly, things could get a whole lot worse.
Luckily, there are a couple things that we can borrow from these people who professionally navigate these conditions on a daily basis and succeed a lot more than they fail: unending practice and veteran leadership.
Practice, practice, practice
One way I like to think about practice is “trying without the possibility of failing.” People who professionally navigate uncertainty, stress, and a high cost of failure are usually unbelievably committed to practice. We all make bad decisions when we are stressed because we revert back to what comes naturally…usually something related to “fight or flight.” Practice is how you get regular people to get good at doing something they’re bad at, like running towards danger, not away from it.
Think about how large the US military is and how few of our soldiers are actively fighting. What is everyone else doing? Practicing. How about when med students are learning to become a surgeons? People aren’t too forgiving of a “trial and error” journey to expertise when it involves their bodies and someone else holding a knife. Students practice over, and over, and over again on cadavers so that they know each and every step before they take someone else’s life into their hands.
When practice doesn’t cut it
You may be thinking that the gap between dry-runs and rehearsals and the real deal is expansive, and you’d be right. Bootcamp can’t train you for real bullets, and cadavers don’t come with the pressure of life or death. Practice is tough in the startup world for this exact same reason. There’s the academic approach, reading every startup book and using the best of the best methodologies, and then there’s the real thing. Millions of dollars are on the line, your family’s future, your reputation, and it all could be for nothing if you screw it up.
That’s where the second insight is even more important: no one in these conditions outside of the startup world venture out without following an experienced leader. There will always come a moment or a season that no amount of practice, advice, or education could prepare you for. These are the times when you don’t need advice. You need a leader who has lived these moments before so you rest in being a follower.
This may sound a little insulting, but if you look at anyone who has learned to thrive in these extreme conditions, anything else would be reckless and unwise. Soldiers don’t follow generals out onto the battlefield with their high-level strategy, they follow sergeants. Gritty, scarred, experienced sergeants who have paid a price for the privilege of leading others, almost always by learning how to follow first.
I don’t at all mean to overdramatize the startup experience. Failing at business will hopefully not result in anyone’s death or bodily harm. But what we can do is learn from what others have figured out and give it a try. Practice at every moment for the adventure, but know that it would be almost certain peril to set out on your first or second try without someone to follow who has seen it all before.
All we can really say is that we’ve spent our careers practicing how to create new products and companies that people love each and every day and probably won’t ever stop. It’s hard. It’s fun. It’s agonizing. It’s thrilling. There’s no way to fix that part, but we’d love to take on our favorite challenge alongside you.