Published on Nov 29, 2020

Breaking through to the other side


Everyone loves the hero’s journey. It’s one of the quintessential stories in western culture. An underdog that beats impossible odds to make it and achieve what was previously unheard of. These stories permeate popular culture and are imminently fascinating. I love reading and learning about break through stories. I always want to tease out lessons and identify patterns.

Roger Bannister and the replication of success

On May 6 1954, british athlete Roger Bannister became the first person to break the four minute mile. Conventional wisdom at the time was this barrier could only be broken under perfect conditions or maybe never at all. Until one rainy Thursday afternoon, Roger ran a mile in 3.58 seconds. The most interesting part of this story isn’t the fact that he broke this record – it’s what happened next. Over the next two years,  sixteen more people broke the previously untouchable record. So what exactly happened that day? There wasn’t an innovation in shoe technology – it was just one man that showed that the impossible was doable. Other athletes saw this and it challenged their mental model of what was possible.

We can now read and learn about everyone’s hero’s journey. The stories are much accessible for anyone that cares to learn. They can inspire people to do the same and give them the confidence to go for gold.

Shades of grey

Nothing is perfect and the ability to learn from other’s successes is no exception. On the low end of the spectrum, people tend to  oversimplify these lessons. Jeff Bezos sleeps eight hours a night and makes three decisions a day – and so should you! More nefariously, starting a company that doesn’t succeed (which is often the case) can lead to depression & anxiety. Everyone else is succeeding and I’m the failure.

Of course it’s wonderful that we can learn and admire breakthrough companies that we want to try to emulate – but we can’t forget that we only learn about them once they’ve hit escape velocity. We don’t see the toil and misery of those that don’t.

Guiding principles instead of lessons

A lesson is a specific instruction. I prefer to think in terms of principles which are more applicable and evergreen. Lessons tend to vary wildly, principles not so much.

In the sample of breakthrough stories I’ve seen first hand or learned about, I’ve come across a few key principles.

There is no blueprint

You can pattern match and find but ultimately the right decisions are all up to you. What worked before might not be the right formula – this is doubly important for critical decisions that are bespoke like your strategy or product. There are definitely “best practices” that can be applied from other organizations – things like HR and finance come to mind. But for a company to actually break through, there is no playbook. The decisions you make in the early days can be informed by what others have done but ultimately are in your hands.

Everything is a people problem

From writing code to finding a co-founder to getting new customers, everything is a people problem. It’s not just about having a strong team, it’s also the right people for the job at hand. If you’re an early stage startup and you want to grow sales, hiring a head of sales that has only worked in big mega companies is probably not the right call.

On the customer front, the one error I tend to see is early stage founders not spending enough time with customers (or potential customers). Even if you are taking the Steve Jobs approach of knowing what your customer wants, it still makes sense to get a customer’s perspective more often than not. Luckily today, there’s much more rigor around the process of creating a breakthrough product. Albeit the fact that it’s not a scientific process, the lean startup movement has greatly helped founders with a key insight – spending time on validation, customer feedback and product market fit.

On the co-founder side, it’s all about trust. Getting into a partnership is like a marriage, but you’re only dealing with stress and problems. Deeply trusting one another is the only way I’ve seen it work.

Hard work isn’t enough 

Fetichizing about 120 hour work weeks is not a recipe to make it. Hard work is indeed a prerequisite – I’ve never seen a “lazy” team make it.  I’ve also seen many startups that work reasonable hours do pretty well. It’s not without long nights and weekends from time to time, but it’s not the 996 working hours either. It often boils down to the business model and market. It’s important to think about the market and product quite deeply at the beginning. Errors made at a startup’s foundation cannot be fixed.

I’m not the only one that loves learning and seeing other people’s success. That’s why there is so much great advice out there for people looking to make it.  It’s good to remember that luck and timing always come into play. You can always put chances on your side but it doesn’t come with a guarantee – which is what makes it so interesting when there is a real breakthrough.

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