Thursday, October 5, 2006

Direct experience is priceless

Somebody I respect a lot wrote a very candid comment to one of my previous posts, in which he wishes he knew what he knows know before embarking on a couple of "failed start-ups" a few years ago. I had a similar (although most certainly different) experience, so his comment was food for thought for me. This post is about the lessons I learnt and its intention is to humbly serve your own business quests.

My conclusion is that direct experience is priceless, although as the Chinese proverb goes "a fool learns by his own mistakes, a wise man by those of others". At least I have tried my best in the past 3 years to be a good fool while trying to also become wiser. Here's what my take is on "failed start-ups":

  1. we humans are experiential beings and everything we learn is through experience. Actually going out to build a start-up is genuine and precious business experience, much more precious than the experience of the regular visitors of networking events where people speak about start-ups to a crowd that has the desire but not the guts and which will no longer attend these gatherings once "being involved with start-ups is no longer fashionable"... So if I read a book, I have no direct experience of the subject matter but I have good experience of the book on the subject matter... which is why degrees are only as good as the actual practical experience they provide in the topic they cover;

  2. from the previous point follows the assertion that the quality of a civilization is defined by the degree of application of what it preaches. For example, having read everything Porter and Kotler ever wrote will not necessarily make you contribute to the "practice of business", whereas actually trying to market a basic proposition like food to a local market will. I believe civilization is about things that happen within human communities in practice. Another example, taken from current affairs, would be this: giving lessons on democracy while opening Guantanamo is not only inconsistent but also barbaric / non-civilized at least for those of us who do not believe that a goal justifies the use of any and all means (let alone a poor goal);

  3. speaking of goals and means, in the context of a start-up it is of the essence to set proper goals and to use acceptable means. By this I mean that:
    • goals should be formulated adequately (and to do that you can use the SMART framework for setting project objectives or the outcome well-formedness conditions of NLP or something else that works for you),

    • as an entrepreneur you are careful to distinguish between your personal welfare and the venture's outcome,

    • as a business owner you make sure to recruit the most adequate resources for your business and by that I mean that you should be able to define requirements of technical skill and personality traits,

    • as a recruiter, stick to your requirements and implement a thorough process to assess the fit between the venture and each candidate, to build an opinion about strengths and weaknesses of each individual you are considering for the business and to do your utmost to estimate what group dynamics are likely to develop between the people of your team each time you recruit a new person in any capacity (business partner, employee, trainee...) Today, I think that a variation of these principles should also be applied to the venture investors you choose for your business, because at the end of the day the single most critical factor of success is people, something even VCs acknowledge implicitly today when stating that they are investing in a team more than in an idea, a prototype or a business concept,

    • as a leader you make sure the people working in the new business do not bear a weight that does not belong to them (in particular by being careful to motivate for the business to get the best contributions but only insofar as it does not jeopardize the rest of the employee's life (even though a start-up environment is demanding and work-hours are undoubtedly long,

    • as a person you make sure to respect all values that matter to you. This also means that you'd better think carefully before accepting to do something that goes against your values to serve a business goal that may be "good" or "bad": if the goal is a bad one, then why do anything at all to reach it, let alone something that violates your values and if the goal is good, then why pollute it by using the wrong means?

  4. a failed start-up is like manure: it stinks but it is a great ingredient for your next endeavor, whatever that may be, from artistic creation, to humanitarian aid, to an employee position or to another risky new venture. So in essence, failure does not exist although the feedback from something that does not do as planned may be costly;

  5. the good old recipe of the path of immediate and humble action works very well in the context of a start-up: "start where you are, use what you have and do what you can". The deeper meaning of this sentence is this:
    • "start where you are" implies self-consciousness, awareness of
      the business environment and an
      ability to measure the difference between now and the dream situation
      you have in mind. It is all about being able to combine realism and vision in a way that is actionable and does not become wishful thinking,

    • "use what you have", speaks of a realistic assessment of resources and of the imperative to use existing resources in the best possible manner. I believe it also says something about the lack of relevance of seeking what we don't have before doing what we are meant to do: it's use what you have, which also translates in "don't use what you don't have". That is particularly true of venture funding. If you don't have venture funding, then don't build a plan to proceed as though you did or with the assumption that you will get what you don't have: start with what you have, else it is like building skyscrapers on weak and shifting sand;

    • "do what you can" is an invitation to do your best, a reminder of your obligation to do what is possible (and hence a statement that you are not held to accomplish what is not possible), something that should prompt some introspection about who you really are and what you can actually do now and therefore a great way to identify the strengths on which to play.

  6. for a start-up being able to think, say and act on "forever is
    instead of "now is forever" is the key to being creative and in
    forward motion;

  7. start-ups that develop and grow are keenly aware of what they
    will do if their plans do not work out
    and start-ups that do not
    take-off only dream about all they will do when success comes, as
    though success were something that befalls on one rather than an
    outcome intended and built by people. Gandhi said that "a small body of
    determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can
    alter the course of history." and I believe that it is also true for
    business history.


These are the lessons I learnt from direct experience and I don't believe I could have reached tose conclusions otherwise. May they serve in your (next) business quest!


  1. Alex, thanks for this post that I have devoured with great pleasure.
    The main thing I regret about having been involved in failures is not to have made mistakes but to have lacked wisdom.
    In that matter, experience has taught me that I should listen my wife much more. I am not saying this tongue-in-cheek: pragmatism is unfortunately not equally distributed among genders ;-)

  2. Ah! How I agree with you!
    I don't know if it is a matter of gender (although it may be judging from what I can remember from school / college where girls were way wiser than us, testosterone ladden beings), but I guess the key is to always have a trusted person with whom to discuss projects, examining:
    - what we have in mind
    - the quality of objectives
    - what the ego says (alas, we are mere mortals and our ego does not always influence positively)
    - what the guts say and what our emotions are (i.e. how we feel about the plan, how we feel as we discuss and assess the plan and how we feel about how we feel)
    - the stuff that is in our blind spot(s) (i.e. our weakest areas of perception)
    And yes, often one's significant other or wife is definitely the best person with whom to do that. In your case particularly, since I have had the privilege of meeting your wife, I can only praise your wise conclusion.

  3. You are so right in stressing the motivational aspect: I had wrong motivations in both failures I have been involved with.
    It was certainly part of the problem ; said better: I was certainly part of the problem.
    As you so righteously stated here and many times before, as soon as we stop having over-inflated/misplaced motivations, then things go much better and we start receiving more than expected.
    Let's fulfill clear personal and business goals, and the rest will come as a bonus or a treat ;-)