Silicon Valley seems obsessed with failure. Failing fast, failing harder – that’s the mantra of the lean startup. Constantly pivoting until you are dizzy from spinning left, right, up, down. The pivot is the new status symbol for founders. If you haven’t pivoted at least once you haven’t really done a startup.
This idea, like the idea of the minimal viable product, has really bothered me for some time. I finally found a someone who agreed with me on the fallacy of the MVP idea. You need a minimally remarkable product, not a minimally viable product. Would you like a minimally viable baby? I didn’t think so! How about a remarkable baby, sound better? For founders your startup is your baby. But you can read that contrarian viewpoint in MVP vs. MRP.
Having participating in the startup world since 1980 I’ve had a success or two, but mainly lots of failures. And I’ve been obsessed with what the one ingredient that separates successful founders from unsuccessful ones. And after lots and lots of reading and lots of observation I’ve decided it’s persistence. And what drives persistence? Passion. For if you don’t have passion for your product, for your customer, to succeed you won’t be able to keep going. You know the sayings: When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Quitters never win and winners never quit.
But just as I felt like a lone voice crying in the wilderness about why putting out a product that was only minimally viable was a bad idea in this world of ruthless competition and the battle for the customer’s attention, I’ve felt just as alone in my belief that it’s persistence, not pivoting that leads to big successes. Whether it’s Pandora and its founder Tim Westergren being turned down by 150 VCs before finally getting funded or Boston real estate developer Don Chiofaro calling Fred Salvucci every single day for a year until Salvucci, then Secretary of Transportation for the state of Massachusetts who was the roadblock to Chiofaro’s dream of building One International Place in the financial district, unbelievable passion has driven these founders to persist, not pivot. To not accept failure, rather than to fail faster and faster. Well here’s a book for all you founders who have been indoctrinated into the world of the lean startup, the MVP, the fast failure and the pivot: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. But while Grit was a bestseller it seemed aimed at parents, not founders and I’ve never heard a word about it at MIT or from my founder friends. But it’s well worth reading. Here’s the Amazon blurb:
The daughter of a scientist who frequently noted her lack of “genius,” Angela Duckworth is now a celebrated researcher and professor. It was her early eye-opening stints in teaching, business consulting, and neuroscience that led to her hypothesis about what really drives success: not genius, but a unique combination of passion and long-term perseverance.
In Grit, she takes us into the field to visit cadets struggling through their first days at West Point, teachers working in some of the toughest schools, and young finalists in the National Spelling Bee. She also mines fascinating insights from history and shows what can be gleaned from modern experiments in peak performance. Finally, she shares what she’s learned from interviewing dozens of high achievers—from JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon to New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff to Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll.
But finding Grit didn’t do it for me. I was still under the spell of the Lean Startup – Steve Blank, Eric Reis et al. It wasn’t until I read the Quartz article “The Lean Startup” is an unproductive legend by Luis Perez-Breva that I finally found someone from the startup world who doesn’t buy into the fail forward, fail faster mantra of Silicon Valley. As he writes:
The problem is that, with a focus on an imaginary product’s viability, it gets easier to discard everything else. Then it’s all downhill. Every next “validation” just strengthens the emotional attachment to the “idea.” It’s all fatally powered by the seductive appeal of availability and confirmation biases. And what starts as an ambition to build a world-changing innovation with nothing but a minimum viable product ends up with an easily forgettable flop.
The numbers for founders are daunting: Since 1994, the U.S. economy has seen a whopping 15.6 million new businesses created, but only 1 in 10 has survived. Perez-Breva makes the point that the goal of a startup is to stop being a startup! If you are constantly pivoting, putting out one MVP after another, you are stuck in the startup mode. Here’s what we both have seen in today’s startup world:
Whether building or funding, companions that don’t care about solving the same problem or just want to “do a startup” make for bad journeys (they should be interested in building an organization). Lastly, none of these are science: a recipe to hack your way through a bad idea, putting “whatever” in the market, hoping for the best, or pivoting.
The Lean Startup ideology has sown a lot of confusion in cohort after cohort of my MIT students for a decade. The recipes have all the right sounding words and slogans. They seem to make so much sense, so how could they not work?
Time and talent—not a product idea—are the most valuable assets of an entrepreneur and innovator. Ten years’ experience with Lean Startup and its variants has taught only that it’s an expensive recipe for remaining an entrepreneur longer, not really for innovating.
Luis Perez-Breva is the author of Innovating: A Doer’s Manifesto for Starting from a Hunch, Prototyping Problems, Scaling Up, and Learning to Be Productively Wrong. He is an educator at MIT and advises organizations on AI and innovation. If you don’t have the time to read Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance or think it’s aimed at soccer moms, not an engineer founders, at least take the time to read Mr. Perez-Breva’s article. And if you are starting up already, keep you eye on the prize: graduating from being a startup to being a real company, with an actual product, customers, and revenue. Forget about all those vanity metrics like page views, downloads, number of users or even writeups in the tech press, and harness that passion you have – right? – to persist and persevere to create a sustainable business.