Breaking free of conventional wisdom


In June 1987, President Ronald Reagan defied Beltway conventional wisdom by urging Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

While The Wall Street Journal is busy shrinking its print editions – all European editions will be strictly digital from here on out, and it’s dropped various sections over the past few years in response to the death spiral of print advertising, I’m still a diehard subscriber. And the Saturday edition with its Review section is a highlight of a week’s newspaper reading, with lots of great reporting, book reviews, and insightful articles. Today’s article How to Break Free of Washington’s Conventional Wisdom In the age of Donald Trump, groupthink has driven so many to get so much so wrong is an example of the Journal’s writing at its best. This Ideas Essay may at first reading seem to have nothing to do with startups or mentoring. But upon reflection I believe it does, as we in the Boston/Cambridge area and our cohorts in New York City, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Austin, and Boulder are all in our bubbles of conventional wisdom. Listening to conventional wisdom can be very dangerous for founders. So here are four techniques taken from the article to help founders avoid conventional entrepreneurial thinking, be it their own or from their advisors and mentors.

Get out of your bubble

Mark Zuckerberg has set the gold standard for this by vowing to meet and speak with people in every U.S. state by the end of 2017.

“After a tumultuous last year, my hope for this challenge is to get out and talk to more people about how they’re living, working and thinking about the future,” he said in a Facebook post announcing the challenge.

“For decades, technology and globalization have made us more productive and connected. This has created many benefits, but for a lot of people it has also made life more challenging. This has contributed to a greater sense of division than I have felt in my lifetime. We need to find a way to change the game so it works for everyone.”

Founders should consider creating some itineraries that take them to places they haven’t been before and won’t normally go to, like the Rust Belt or Deep South. Meeting and talking to people outside the East Coast/West Coast entrepreneurial bubble may provide new ideas and fresh perspective not to be gained from yet another Boston/Cambridge or San Francisco/San Joe networking event.

Build a system for hearing different views

Rahm Emmanuel, mayor of Chicago, has formed a “kitchen cabinet” of people outside his own staff to offer ideas and advice. When you build your strategic advisory board or choose a mentor look outside your network, perhaps to someone from a local small business, a large utility company or an academic institution not one of the usual suspects – the Ivy League, MIT, and Stanford.

Be ready for some discomfort

Going against the conventional wisdom, whether that wisdom is getting big fast or hiring only from the top schools, can be lonely and even nerve wracking. But startups by definition are outside the box, against the grain – name your own cliche. As Reed Hastings, founder and CEO of Netflix has said, Most entrepreneurial ideas will sound crazy, stupid and uneconomic, and then they’ll turn out to be right.

Show some humility

As Gerald S. Seib, author of today’s Idea Essay writes, “We can all do better in asking questions and actually listening to the answers. That’s especially important in Washington, where impressing others with how much you know sometimes gets in the way of finding out what they know. Just substitute your entrepreneurial enclave for Washington.

And to quote him again, Focus groups—in-depth discussions with small groups of voters—are even more valuable. But there is no substitute for person-to-person listening. Just replace customers with voters.

I’ve tried to get out of my entrepreneurial box today by reading an article about Washington politics instead of my usual diet of technology, entrepreneurship, the arts, and pro football. And what did I find but words of wisdom totally applicable to both mentors and founders. Sometimes you can get outside the bubble without even having to endure the rigors of today’s airplane travel.


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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