Keep Your Failures Narrow and Broaden Your Options
Too many tech companies fall for the go-big-or-go-home, unicorn mythology of Silicon Valley. There's nothing wrong with thinking big. But starting small, and nailing it, is often the better choice.
Executive director, Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship, Illinois Institute of Technology
Perspective is one of those by-products smart entrepreneurs are expected to gain from being punched in the nose so many times by fate and misfortune. The theory is that the next time around, you'll be a little more perceptive, look a little longer before leaping, and take into account more of the variables and risks that you're facing. But honestly, there's no way to protect yourself in a fast-growing startup--especially in an uncertain area where you're a first mover-- from making a multitude of mistakes regardless of how many times you've been around the track. The most you can hope for is that (a) you won't make the same mistakes twice and that (b) you will quickly recognize and remedy those unhappy cases where you're heading hurriedly down the wrong path. As they say down South, there's no education in the second kick of a mule.
We all know that it never feels good to be wrong, but it feels a lot worse when the pain and misery are self-inflicted. Getting important things wrong is somewhat easier to bear if you haven't shot yourself in the foot or inserted said foot in mouth. As Jim Croce used to sing, there's no one to blame but yourself if you insist on spitting into the wind.
I get that sometimes circumstances conspire against us. Of course, the best entrepreneurs know that their job in those cases is to change the circumstances and make their own good fortune. When you're in the swamp, the steps are pretty clear: acknowledge the problem; admit the mistakes; put them behind you. You should consider all the going-forward options, not in terms of saving face or salvaging something, but with a view toward the future and the best way forward. Then just get going and do it. When the situation turns to urgent, you never get the time back that you spend in too much noodling. The rest of the world isn't exactly waiting around for you to make your next move.
But avoiding the problems and trying to make the best choices and decisions possible in the first place is always the smartest route. Much better to avoid the potholes entirely than to get a great deal on the tow truck. And it's just as important to be sure that you have an approach and a consistent process in place that helps you make the right decisions under whatever circumstances you find yourself in.
Enhanced decision-making is a set of skills and a discipline that can be learned and employed in just about any context to improve the ultimate outcomes. It starts with a simple proposition: you need to not only think bigger, you need to think broader. Expanding the consideration set is the single most overlooked way to improve the quality of your decision making.
Everyone tells new entrepreneurs to think big. I couldn't agree more. If I have a quibble, it's never with the vision-- it's usually with the timing. Dream big, but start small; get it very right and then scale quickly. This approach still seems to be the smartest to me and the few, highly-visible, Unicorn-ish launches that are exceptions just help to prove the rule. Betting the farm, burning through a boatload of bucks, and going big from the get-go is a bad plan 99% of the time. It may still sell in the Valley, but in the real world, slow and steady starts make the most sense. At the same time, what's also critical is to not let tunnel vision or ancient history (which means anything that happened more than a few days ago) cloud or obscure the full range of options and alternatives that are available to you.
One of the most powerful aspects of all the new technologies and data resources that we now have at our disposal is that we are no longer limited to evaluating binary, "either-or" choices. We can, and we need, to consider a much broader group of alternatives. You don't want to be stuck with Yogi Berra's useless advice that "when you come to a fork in the road, take it". Unquestionably, the more conscientious you are about considering a greater number of realistic alternatives, the more likely that your ultimate choice and decision will be correct.
So, it's not enough in the process to simply ask how these tools can help you do what you've always done better and more efficiently; the new and most critical question is what things can you do and accomplish today that you never even imagined were possible before. That's the next game and the key enabler of this approach is the ability to (and the necessity to) identify multiple new choices and alternatives rather than simply accepting the most immediate and obvious ones.
We're all in a hurry and short on time--especially when the spit hits the fan. But when it comes to increasing your optionality and range of choices, investing a few extra hours of inquiry can have a huge payback. It's important to think bigger in building your business; but it's just as important to think as broadly as possible in order to help make the best decisions.
Bottom line: the more choices, the merrier.