After trying a new variety every week for past 6+ months @magnoliaboxing declare this Brazilian beauty the winner (at MagBox Towers)
I’ve just finished reading Bounce by Matthew Syed, a book primarily disabusing the talent myth in sport but which also contains many universal truths applicable to startups.
The following highlights some of the shared characteristics:
“Those who held the belief that abilities are transformable through effort not only persevered but actually improved in the teeth of difficulties; those labouring under the talent myth, on the other hand, regressed into a state of psychological enfeeblement.”
Bounce heavily references Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets.
With a fixed mindset, people believe that talent alone creates success. Your basic qualities, such as intelligence or talent, are fixed traits. You have a finite amount your goal becomes looking smart the whole time and never looking dumb. Time is spent documenting and promoting intelligence rather than developing it.
With a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication, persistence and hard work. Brains and talent are just the starting points. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for motivation, productivity and accomplishment.
It’s almost trite to suggest that a growth mindset is essential when starting your own business. A reliance on innate talent is rarely going to be sufficient due to the multidisciplinary requirements involved with creating a startup. As Paul Graham states: “We learned quickly that the most important predictor of success is determination…In most domains, talent is overrated compared to determination.”
Many studies demonstrate that innovation comes from domain experts working tirelessly on specific problems:
“…creative innovation follows a very precise pattern; like excellence itself, it emerges from the rigours of purposeful practice. It is the consequent of experts absorbing themselves for so long in their chosen field that they become, as it were, pregnant with creative energy. To put it another way, eureka moments are not lightning bolts from the blue, but tidal waves that erupt following deep immersion in an area of expertise.”
The myth of the overnight success or the child prodigy is just that. Even Instagram, the poster boy for overnight success, evolved from a long series of deeply related experiences.
Hardwork is a fundamental component of success. It’s continually proven that the very elite sports stars are also the ones striving the hardest to improve. Shaquille O’Neal describes how he came to realise this:
“Camp was real competitive… You’ve got all the best high school players from everywhere in the country. At Cole High, I was always ranked first, but at camp, I saw other guys ahead of me.’”
When he got home, O’Neal told his mother that he was having doubts about his future in the sport. She responded by encouraging him to try harder, but O’Neal was not having it: ‘I can’t do that right now, maybe later.’ Then his mother said the words that would change have everything: ‘Later doesn’t always come to everybody.’
‘Those words snapped me into reality and gave me a plan. “You work hard now. You don’t wait. If you’re lazy or you sit back and you don’t want to excel, you’ll get nothing. If you work hard enough, you’ll be given what you deserve”. Everything got easier for me after that.”
The cliche that there’s no substitute for hard work is true. You also have a finite window in which to execute, otherwise the opportunity will pass you by.
You need to be continually challenged by domain experts and mentors if you are going to reach your true potential: “Feedback is… the rocket fuel that propels the acquisition of knowledge, and without it no amount of practice is going to get you there.”
Hard work alone is not enough (another cliche!). Your work must be focused and purposeful:
“Purposeful practice is about striving for what is just out of reach and not quite making; it is about grappling with tasks beyond current limitations and falling short again and again.”
Accelerated learning comes through purposeful practice, through pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. For example, it is perhaps surprising that the very best ice skaters fall a lot more frequently during their practice sessions:
“Elite skaters regularly attempt jumps beyond their current capabilities; less elite skaters do not…The conclusion is as counter-intuitive as it is revealing: top skaters fall over more often during their training sessions.”
The very best are continually pushing themselves beyond their current capabilities. There’s a clear analogy here between the Lean Startup ethos of “Fail fast then succeed”.
My first visit to San Francisco and Silicon Valley came as part of a diverse delegation of 20+ founders (primarily London based) brought together for LDN2SFO; an independent expedition organised with military precision by the inimitable Jack Gavigan.
The goals of the trip were to introduce participants into Silicon Valley culture, to identify some of the key attributes that make this culture so successful and to encourage any positive experiences to be brought back to help improve our own startup ecosystems.
A good summary of our agenda and some takeaways can be found in Julian Carter’s blog, whilst others like Dan Hopwood pt1, pt2 and Rob Johnson have summarised their experiences and observations.
The following are those aspects which made the greatest impression on me.
The best entrepreneurs all shared a common set of characteristics: the ability to articulate their companies’ story clearly, concisely and charismatically.
Failing to communicate your business succinctly immediately marks you out as an amateur.
Closely allied to this is the ability to execute.
You need to state what you are going to do and then just get on with doing it, preferably at speed. Jeff Lawson, the founder of Twilio, provides a perfect visual metaphor for this attitude with his ‘owl drawing’:
#Hustle stamp on homemade Twilio ‘door desks’ (see Conspicuous frugality)
The Lean Startup pervades everybody’s thinking and language but, unlike in Europe, there is a real emphasis on actually executing better experiments, rather than, say, simply reducing capex. The emphasis is on speed and hustle; about rapidly, scrappily hacking your way to product market fit by any means possible.
Pitching is the most important part of a startup founders life here. You will (or should) be pitching the whole day, every day, and the most important question anyone will ever ask is: “What do you do?”
This repetition provides an amazing opportunity to refine and improve your pitch; far beyond that which we experience in Europe. Fortunately, the solution here is simple and relatively attainable: practice, peer review, repetition.
I’m sure this also partially explains why the successful founders we met were able to articulate their vision with such focused economy. They’d had the opportunity to continually refine and improve their story many, many times.
This is our Mecca. Everyone you meet is going to be connected in some way to the tech industry. This geographic density creates a highly charged atmosphere that is distinct from any other ecosystem. It’s overt, it’s tangible and it can probably only truly be appreciated in person.
I suspect the majority of us come from places where most people think we just “build websites”. It’s incredibly energising to suddenly find yourself immersed amongst a community where everyone shares your experiences, motivations and aspirations.
Everyone is either directly connected or just a single degree of separation away from each other.
The prevailing ‘Pay it Forward’ culture - where people genuinely strive to help out, to make connections, provide introductions and be as useful as they possibly can - hugely increases the efficiency of these connections.
Cynics may argue that this virtuous circle is primarily motivated by self-interest - e.g. your personal ’brand’ is your most important ‘currency’ - but regardless of whether or not this is true, it ultimately results in a net positive. You have the opportunity to meet a lot of people who are more than happy to invest their time and experience in helping you succeed.
You should be confident about your views on a wide variety of industry issues and aware of the latest new products because you’re inevitably going to be in situations where opinions are expected.
An absence of opinion shows an absence of engagement.
An absence of engagement immediately marks you out as an amateur.
Most people you meet are going to be pretty sharp and when your personal brand “is your most important currency” it’s vital you do yourself justice.
The startup culture feels highly aspirational, highly competitive and highly supportive.
People immersed in startup life will continually provide you with feedback on your opinions, ideas and strategies. Expert feedback is the “rocket fuel that propels the acquisition of knowledge, and without it no amount of practice is going to get you there”. In London we operate far more within our own silos. There’s also, for historical reasons, a deficiency of domain expertise across the board.
Significant motivation also comes from the informal competition created by constantly being surrounded by your peers. Everyone is pulling each other upwards, indirectly competing to achieve greater things, at greater speed.
Closely related is the fact that a hyperconnected community can also rapidly disseminate new ideas and learning. Being continually surrounded by a hugely capable peer group creates numerous direct / indirect opportunities.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve raised over $20m like CloudFlare, you still need to live as cheaply as possible. For example, who needs a table when you can get by with a couple of old server boxes?
Several factors contribute to this culture of frugality: the area’s original hippy roots (highlighted by Eddie Yu via Chris McCann); the ‘model’ established by a long line of previous founders; latent peer pressure to conform to this archetype; even the natural personality of most founders.
More crucially there’s the awareness that every dollar you save will provide fractionally longer runway, decrease your dependence on external investors, minimise your equity dilution and increase your chances of success.
For all the “Peace and Love” ethos, it’s clear that many attributes can ultimately be distilled down to cold hard cash.
The best investors aren’t really interested in sectors that are currently ‘hot’. Instead there is intense competition to get deal flow from star teams working on sectors that have the potential to begin blowing-up in the next few years. This gives investors the best opportunity to get into companies addressing large emerging markets, at an early enough stage.
This big picture view encourages a preoccupation with the future, with what’s coming next. In Europe, the majority of startups seem far more grounded in the present; with what markets currently look like rather than trying to predict or shape the future of their industries.
Everyone in the Valley gives the impression they are thinking about the bigger picture, about what’s going to become really big in the future. Either that or they are going home (obvs).
We met some inspirational founders like Matthew Price (CloudFlare), Elliot Loh (Yammer, 500 Startups), Rich Aber (WePay), Andy McLoughlin (Huddle), Harj Taggar (Y Combinator), Aaref Hilaly (Sequoia Capital), who had either raised millions in venture financing or successfully exited their companies.
All presented themselves with a terrific blend of confidence and humility. Their lack of complacency was also striking. Everyone was striving to achieve the next thing, continually pushing forwards. When your benchmarks for success are so elevated, you probably tend to view your own achievements more modestly.
“Humility” was regularly referenced as a cultural trope and, whilst the Valley may purport to be forgiving of failure, I suspect it would be far less generous with a sense of entitlement.
According to Valley-lore, failure is an opportunity for learning and many people highlighted the fact that there’s no stigma associated with failing.
This may well be true but it still sounded far from convincing. For me, Bruce Nussbaum recently wrote much more compellingly about failure: “We learn as much from our successes as from our failure and I suspect we learn much more.”
Startups are hard wherever you are based.
Locating in San Francisco might make things a fraction easier, but even those startups that are apparently “killing it” are still working desperately hard to keep all their plates spinning.
Getting a glimpse below the surface proved that, for all our cultural differences, there’s plenty we have in common. Distribution is hard wherever you are, nobody really cares wherever you are, there’s no instruction book. Figure it out, ship it and iterate.