Don’t develop a fetish for failure: triage your startup

The term ‘post-mortem’ is Latin for ‘after death’, and originally referred to a medical examination of a corpse to determine the cause of death. The term has, more colloquially come to refer to any ‘after the fact’ analysis and discussion of a recently completed process or event, to see what lessons we can learn from it.

Such analyses are have been going on for a long time. Five thousand years ago Egyptian doctors recorded wounds, treatments and results to build up a body of knowledge about what did and did not work. Military strategists have long studied every battle ever recorded so that they could learn lessons without having to suffer defeats.

The post-mortem is focused on understanding what we did wrong and historically (and perhaps psychologically), failure has proven to be one of our best teachers. ‘Failure’ has become an integral part of the startup community vocabulary, where we have the mantra ‘fail fast’ as a way of learning and making quick changes to find product/market fit.

Indeed ‘fail early, fail often’ has become something of a startup badge of honour that makes it sound like it’s a good thing, but I struggle with the cultural fascination with failure being the source of lessons to be learned. Pause for a moment, what did you really learn?

You learned what didn’t work. So, ‘we all learn from our mistakes’ – you’d like to think that was the case, so you won’t make the same mistake twice, but isn’t it the case that you’re just as likely to make a different mistake next time? As Jason Fried said, You might know what won’t work, but you still don’t know what will work. That’s not much of a lesson.

Making mistakes isn’t part of a scalable startup model. So if we accept that learning from failure is overrated, how can turn the ‘it’s good to fail’ philosophy on its head into a new way of thinking? Surely the most valuable experience to take your startup to the next level is learning from the stuff you got right? Isn’t this just about taking what you’ve done that others don’t have, and creating further advantage from it?

The common sense is overwhelming. If you’re starting a new venture, going into it believing it’s going to work has to be your mindset. You don’t have to assume you’ve got to collect pain points along the way as the necessary badges, failure being a prerequisite of success. Don’t believe your first idea won’t be your best one, and don’t accept that your credibility is only enhanced because of collecting the scars of failure to parade to others.

Failure. We’re hypocrites about it. You find scores of pleasant aphorisms celebrating the inevitability of failure of underdogs and entrepreneurs, their determination to come fighting back and the importance of learning from it, but in real life failure is painful. Failing is an overstated hobby, another glorification in the dictionary of entrepreneurial hyperbole.

So let’s pause, and if the startup patient is in intensive care, rather than thinking about startup funerals, wakes and autopsies, lets focus on survival, and determine the priority of startup patient fixes and treatments based on the severity of their condition, and that can halt the terminal decline. Let’s talk about startup triage.

Triage is the process of determining the priority of patients’ treatments based on the severity of their condition. The term originated during the Napoleonic Wars from the work of Dominique Jean Larrey. Those responsible for the removal of the wounded from a battlefield or their care afterwards would divide the victims into three categories:

  • Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.

So, what are the most common causes of startup failure, and what are the triage priorities? Here are some thoughts.

Triage 1: Start for purpose, don’t start for money Check Simon Sinek’s classic TED talk on ‘finding your why’: If you set out simply to make headlines motivated by success equating to money made, you’re setting yourself up for business failure. As Michelangelo says, our biggest tragedy is that we set low goals and achieve them.

Triage 2: Define what success looks like If success is defined as becoming a unicorn, winning awards or an IPO, it is a skewed measure of success. It’s barely what really defines success for most entrepreneurs. How about making your mark with customers, sustainable growth, loving your work, and making a dent in your universe?

Triage 3: Don’t assume, find a need Just because your mum, your best friend, and your dog think that your idea and business model is cool, doesn’t mean that you have a valid business. Move quickly to get a MVP to test on real potential customers. Get worthwhile feedback, tweak your product and model as needed, and repeat this process until you find what truly works. Work hard, work smart, that’s my strategy. Avoid the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome and vanity metrics.

Triage 4: Nail it, then scale it Via your MVP, find your formula for solving the problem, figure out your ‘secret sauce’ and scale, but don’t scale until you find your formula first. You need to ensure you have product-market fit, and that there is a sizeable market to sustain your business model. Asking questions to define the problem comes before you build your full product.

Triage 5: Take control of your emotions A startups leader’s feelings are contagious, so you need to be genuinely in control of your emotions or your team will see through you. Mental toughness is a key leadership quality in a startup, no matter what the situation. Lead with confidence and calmness, avoid getting too elated or too despondent on the highs and lows.

Triage 6: Know when to value speed vs. stability Developing great tech, content and a team simultaneously takes time. You try to make each deep and stable, but also need to be agile and pivot. I agree with Reid Hoffman that if you review your first product version and don’t feel embarrassment, you’ve spent too much time on it. On the other hand, keeping all aspects of your startup aligned for growth is a real challenge.

Triage 7: Control and calculate your user acquisition costs Many startups initially conceive of marketing as a creative exercise. That’s partly true, but the best marketing is controlled and calculated. If you know how much it costs to acquire a user and you control the process, you then know how much capital and revenue you need, reducing your marketing plan from fuzzy guesswork to a clean formula.

Triage 8: Don’t Move Slow. Move Fast Moving at a snail’s pace can be detrimental, losing advantage in terms of getting to customers first, and it can deplete your motivation. Be sure to move fast, but not so fast that you lose attention to detail. Find a pace that you can work within that allows you to make smart decisions while also moving your business forward.

There are some talented entrepreneurs who fail first time, learn and then succeed second time round, but we generalise from anecdotal success-after-failure stories. There is a lot of startup folklore and myth out there. Failure is an opportunity to try again through revised eyes, a signpost alerting you to the fact that you need to change your business model.

We all want to feel free to try, stumble, fall, get back up, try again, and learn as we go. What we need to realise is, however, success isn’t about getting where you want to be, rather it’s about accepting and appreciating where you are at each point. Failure is an experiment that had an outcome, just one you didn’t want.

There will be a moment when you will be dejected in fulfilling your startup dreams and melancholy thoughts will haunt you, they will try to restrict you. But, if you have a robust will and determination about yourself then no matter what happens, you will conquer the difficult moments in your startup life. There have been myriads of successful people who have faced brick walls throughout their journey, but they have exceptionally pulled it off. There should be determination, an optimistic approach towards life and no matter, what life throws at you, just stand up and fight.

Yes, starting a business is hard, and you certainly could fail. I’m not suggesting failure isn’t an option, I’m only suggesting that it shouldn’t be the assumed or default outcome. It doesn’t need to be. Have confidence in your ideas, in your vision, and in your business. Assume success, not failure.

Everything is a learning experience, good and bad, there’s something to be added to your thinking. But all learning isn’t equal. I’ve found that if you’re going to spend your time pondering the past, focus on the wins not the losses. The lessons learned from doing well give you a better chance at continuing your success.

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. Rousing words from President Abraham Lincoln, taken from his 1862 annual address to Congress, which resonate with the forward challenge, we go again.

Adopt the same mindset as a startup founder, don’t look back in anger. Don’t develop a fetish for failure.

Good entrepreneurial habits from the Lean Startup toolkit

The Lean Startup methodology is recognised as a proven strategic management system that combines entrepreneurial principles, innovation development activities and an iterative learning-based process to enable startup ventures to make better decisions about how to create customer value.

The approach has at its heart the philosophy that a startup is an experiment. It is searching through testing hypotheses to create a sustainable business model, managing risk at each stage of the problem-solution design-customer fit journey. This is based on a focus of customer development and putting customers at the heart of a startup’s business model.

It forces the entrepreneur’s thinking to focus on the problem they’re solving, recognising customers are forever in motion, and demands that a startup constantly explores, learns, iterate and adapts to create a value proposition. Lean strategy aims to be what Ed Catmull, founder of Pixar, calls a balance between clear leadership and chaos.

Many people tend to fall in love with their ideas and start tunnelling, seeing early stage funding as a validation of an idea or business. People prefer to spend an incredible amount of time building the perfect product instead of getting a quick ‘Not that, but this’ and then finding out how to improve it.

However, the Lean Startup recognises that strategy is a bet on the future, a hypothesis about how the customer landscape is going to evolve . Under these conditions of extreme uncertainty, the Lean Startup provides clarity with its framework and principles and that every statement about the future strategy should be seen as a hypothesis to be tested, not accepted based simply on a hunch.

Creating hypotheses allows us to move away from spending time and effort designing a product in isolation before we reveal it to the customer, and encourages the creation of prototypes and experiments to find out if the customer actually values what we are planning to make. Get out of the building is the call to action, find out what the real problem customers have, and what value they place on a solution.

As Ben Yoskovitz’s says, Lean Startup allows entrepreneurs to move from providing the right answers to asking the right questions (preferably early and often). This underlying narrative also captures economist Keynes’ sentiment of it’s better to be roughly right, than precisely wrong in your business thinking.

It’s more important to learn about what customers value, and improve your value proposition by shaping a MVP, than to ship more stuff early and more efficiently, no matter how tempting that is. The focus is on learning, not revenue. We first need to determine what customers value enough to pay for, before we invest our time into building a business that offers products that might end up on the shelf.

The main point of MVP is that you can start to gather feedback and behavioural data, which provides validated learning. At this point, you’re no longer relying on your subjective hunch and belief, and can proceed to develop those bells and whistles based on the real needs of your customers.

This build-measure-learn feedback loop is another core principle of the Lean Startup approach, identifying key themes and using metrics to guide future decision-making based on developing the MVP. Themes are discovered through customer interviews, user experience testing and analytics.

This enables the entrepreneur to focus on their North Star, guided by the one metric that matters. This one metric approach allows everyone to focus on the same thing, creating freedom for experiment whilst ensuring effort is focused.

The MVP is a thoughtful, structured approach for curating development of a startup’s product, making it fast and releasing it, listening to customers and data, data, data – and adjusting accordingly. It enables a startup founder to make a series of bets, make them quickly, and learn from them.

Whilst entrepreneurs have a free-thinking style, the methodology shapes their actions, providing a focus and a discipline that underpins any methodology. It’s a toolkit that provides a process supporting a sense of direction to follow from a product engineering perspective, and aligns thinking and doing.

I see the Lean Startup as a growth hacking tool, supporting entrepreneurs’ high tolerance for ambiguity and shaping an entrepreneur’s habits. For me, this is one of its unrecognised yet key benefits. In guiding their behaviour, thinking and actions via a roadmap of routines and processes, all of this cultivates an entrepreneur’s habits around iterative and incremental learning.

So, what do I see as the key habits that the application of the Lean Startup supports?

Habit 1: Always looking forward Being a startup innovator is all about being bold and forward thinking, to go beyond simply following current market trends. You need to be a pioneer, always keeping your eyes open for new opportunities to create your own market space. This means taking chances, and if anything is a critical part of a good habit set, it’s a willingness to do just that. The Lean Startup provides a framework for evaluating the outcomes of taking chances, supporting innovation and discovery.

Habit 2: Be customer centric Startup success requires an unwavering commitment to the customer. You need to develop an obsessive habit and mind-set of living in your customer’s world. Understanding customers’ wants and needs provides you with a greater opportunity to earn their attention. Focus away from profit as the purpose of your startup, focus on finding, winning and keeping customers. This is the core of the Lean Startup approach.

Habit 3: Make decisions You have to be decisive. From product feature to customer conversations, waffling with indecision won’t work. The ability to make decisions is directly related to your velocity and direction of progress. The Lean Startup provides metrics to help guide you – flagging where you can trust your judgement but combining gut instinct with facts along the way.

Habit 4: Avoid the crowds Conventional wisdom yields conventional results. Joining the crowd – no matter how trendy the crowd or ‘hot’ the opportunity – is a recipe for mediocrity. Remarkably successful people habitually do what other people won’t do. They go where others don’t because there’s less competition based on a hunch. The Lean Startup enables an entrepreneur to turn their instinct of opportunity into hypothesis, and provides a framework to test them.

Habit 5: Always be selling I once asked a number of startup founders to name the one habit they felt contributed the most to their success. Each said the habit and ability to ‘think selling’. Selling isn’t manipulating, pressuring, or cajoling, but convincing other people to talk with you, and then work with you, to build long-term relationships. You don’t need to sell, you just need to communicate. Get out of the building is the Lean Startup call to action, and an essential habit for startup success.

Habit 6: Start at the end The Lean Startup is based on an entrepreneur’s vision, and then supports a disciplined planning approach to lay out every step along the way to make it happen. Never start small where goals are concerned, the habit of thinking big, looking to the horizon and working backwards is vital to growth. Make visioning a habit to be supported by disciplined execution.

Habit 7: Make small bets and pivot There is no guarantee anyone will buy your great idea. Your resources are limited and you don’t want to risk everything on one roll of the dice. Get out in the market fast and let potential customers tell you if you are onto something. Using the habit of pivoting allows a startup to respond to circumstance to change course and act. The habit of pivoting allows us to respond to changes without being paralyzed with fear and uncertainty.

Habit 8: Don’t be afraid or embarrassed by failure James Dyson, creator of the Dyson vacuum, is no stranger to failure. He made 5,127 prototypes of his vacuum before he got it right. There were 5,126 failures – that’s a lot – but he learned from each one – that’s how I came up with the solution he said. If you want to create something new, you’re bound to fail a few times and that’s okay. Validated learning embraces failure as an entrepreneurial experience, from which we can pivot to the next iteration.

Habit 9: Look for 80/20 outcomes There’s a strange phenomenon in life that almost always holds true: if you examine your life, you’ll often see that only 20% of the things you do account for 80% of the results you get. Being productive and being busy are two different things. If you want to quadruple your productivity, focus on the 20% first, and if you can, cut the other 80% that just makes you busy. The Lean Startup has its roots in the Lean philosophy, so make sure lean thinking is a core habit.

Habit 10: Ask ‘Why?’ like a five year-old Entrepreneurs aren’t satisfied with the status quo, they ask ‘Why?’ over and over again, until they get to the bottom of things, rather than accepting the explanation ‘That’s just the way it is’. This relentless inquisitiveness in fact helps entrepreneurs find and fix the 20% wrong that causes 80% of their problems, and the use of hypotheses testing helps them get there. Great entrepreneurs have the habit of curiosity.

Each of the habits detailed above are set in the context of having another good habit – having a passion, a vision and a purpose for your startup endeavours. This ensures your actions are aligned with the intention behind your goal, to avoid being side-tracked along the way. It’s impossible to grow a business when you’re always busy putting out fires, the distractions waste time, money, effort and opportunities to grow.

You need a guiding north star to ensure the critically important decisions don’t get lost by you jumping straight into tactics. Without having a big picture, ‘doing stuff’ is letting the tail wag the dog – you’ll be chasing your startup, not leading it – chasing sales for numbers and not chasing customers for learning, and consequently your business is managing you and not the other way round. This is a bad habit.

We are what we repeatedly do, nothing is stronger than habits. Use the Lean Startup approach to help guide your entrepreneurial flair, and adopt the framework to instil good habits. In doing this, you will live less out of habit and more out of intent.



Entrepreneurial learning journey: The Lean Startup Conference, San Francisco

The Lean Startup Conference 2015, was a gathering for entrepreneurs, innovators and thought leaders from across sectors in a fast paced, highly curated program featuring the best of the Lean Startup community.

Held on November 16-19 in San Francisco, over 2,000 diverse Lean Startup thinkers and practitioners shared ideas that are shaping the future of the approach to startups, at the 6th Annual Lean Startup Conference.

Renowned speakers – including founder Eric Reis – collaborative workshops and interactive discussions created an unforgettable collective experience at the historic Fort Mason campus. It was a place to pick up knowledge on a variety of aspects and topics, providing some informative research into specific elements of the methodology, and insights and learnings from practitioners’ implementation experience.

The Fort Mason venue was a former U.S. Army post located in the northern Marina District. During World War II, Fort Mason was a key location, with 1.6m military passengers and 24m tons of supplies moved from the port into the Pacific theatre. Today, you still get a sense of the endeavour, enterprise and effort of those times in the fabric of the buildings, making it an iconic location for a conference focused on guiding and growing startup businesses under conditions of extreme uncertainty.

What is the Lean Startup approach? Simply, the Lean Startup methodology is a proven technique to help you achieve and sustain startup success – making fewer mistakes, burning less cash, getting there quicker and proven to deliver more success.

Instead of executing business plans and releasing fully functional prototypes, the Lean Startup advocates testing hypotheses, gathering early and frequent customer feedback and showing ‘minimum viable products’ – early prototypes of your product idea with a minimum feature set – to prospects.

Business plans rarely survive first contact with a customer. As boxer Mike Tyson said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the head. Forecasting three years revenues ahead is a step into the great unknown – and based on what assumptions?

The Lean Startup approach thus requires a founder to establish and test a series of hypotheses underpinning their business model, and to ‘get out of the building’ and meet prospects to validate their business model by quickly iterating and assessing potential customers’ feedback. This customer discovery process recognises that searching for a business model is the primary task facing a startup.

Fundamentally, you’re trying to determine the problem you’re solving, not what the product is. Validating customers’ interest through early adopters and product usage provides feedback, from which the startup can ‘pivot’ by changing one or more assumptions in its business model. This ‘Customer Development’ process underpins the entire approach – a business model is all about the customer, not the product.

After customer validation, the product is refined enough to go to market. The startup creates customers, using its proven hypotheses to build demand and ramps up marketing and sales resources to scale up the business.

Why the Lean Start-up Changes Everything, an article in the Harvard Business Review by Steve Blank, makes the compelling argument that mainstream adoption of the Lean Start-up is not only attainable, but would provide the basis for a newer innovation based economy. During the conference, the key messages showed how this methodology breaks down the barriers to traditional innovation approaches:

  • The high cash cost of getting the first customer and the even higher cost of getting the product wrong are significantly reduced
  • Long technology development cycles are shortened, based on the MVP approach to product development
  • The risks inherent in founding or working at a start-up are lessened by reference to the customer development process

The lean approach reduces the first two constraints by helping new ventures launch products that customers actually want, far more quickly and cheaply than traditional methods, and the third by making start-ups less risky. The combination of all these forces is altering the entrepreneurial landscape.

Lean start-up approaches and methods have mostly been applied to software and Internet businesses – but it’s interesting to look at other businesses through the lean start-up lens – for example food trucks – especially as they fed the conference delegates!

  • Food trucks are much cheaper to start and can get to market much faster than brick and mortar restaurants.  In many ways, food trucks fit the Lean concept of the minimally viable product.
  • Food trucks can quickly and easily test new concepts, menus and recipes.  In many cases food trucks are being used as lean start-up-like laboratories to test potential brick and mortar restaurant ideas.
  • Food trucks take an iterative approach to their menus and even location based on customer feedback. ‘Build-measure-learn’ is a daily occurrence with food trucks.
  • Food trucks are tightly focused on their customers and interact with them every day.

So, a good practical example on our doorstep every dinnertime.

Great sessions from a number of contributors can be accessed here, click on the name to go to the Lean Conference web site and access the details of their talks and twitter accounts:

Aditya Agarwal Dropbox – managing through hyper growth

David Binetti Dinadesa – lean startup finance through innovation accounting

Gagan Biyani Sprig – focused on product-market fit

Chris Dixon Andreessen Horowitz – an interesting 121 conversation session with Eric Reid

Amy Jo Kim Shufflebrain – focus on early product development

Laura Klein Users Know – great insight in UX

Dan Olsen The Lean Product Playbook – practical guide to product-market fit

Alexander Osterwalder Strategyzer – how to design a startup culture

Frank Rimalovski New York University – insights ion the customer development process

James Warren Share More Stories & Johnson – using stories to share innovation

So over the four days of the Conference, here are my top ten takeaways for startup founders to embrace:

1. Have an open-minded experiment based culture. The Lean Startup describes the startup as an experiment for building companies that are creating new products and services in situations of extreme uncertainty. The key is experimenting and testing assumptions to then use that feedback to evolve your product and ‘fail fast’ if there is no product-market fit.

2. Focus on understanding exactly what your customer values. The customer rarely buys what the company thinks it sells. Many entrepreneurs focus on building their product without engaging the world. You need focus on understanding your market more than building your product. Validate and talk to customers. Also, make sure you are targeting the right audience so as not to skew your observations.

3. Think metrics, not pixels. There is so much emphasis on design (thanks to Apple!), however sometimes the things that work aren’t the obvious choices from a design perspective, so don’t over-do it. Test everything. Figure out what needs to be measured, then come up with experiments to improve those most critical items.

4. No excuses. Many founders shared some of their amazing MVP stories. My takeaway was that there really are no excuses, you can build an MVP to prove your idea and you can test it on any budget– they were just testing the viability of the idea. As the idea of experimentation matures, there’s a growing swell around the idea that evolution trumps intelligent design. That is, if you can run more experiments to test more hypotheses, and let data decide the winner, you stand a higher chance of being successful with your startup.

5. Eat your own dog food. Use what you are building often and uncover issues before your customers do.  If you don’t use it, why should your customers?  You will quickly identify and fix usability and functionality issues, thus enabling you to show a more polished product to your target end users. Be clear on the problem you are solving, that’s the key fundamental to take from the approach. For me, the Lean Startup is basically the scientific method applied to startups.

6. Nothing is cast in stone. Be willing to change. No emotional attachment to anything you build and no bruised egos when changing a previously stated direction. It is better to change direction early and be successful than to stay the course that leads to a dead-end. Most successful startups end up releasing a product that is vastly different than what they set out to build.

7. Avoid endless debates. Build-Measure-Learn. Try, test, measure, then pivot or persevere. It does not help to spend hours discussing if you should place a button here or there, so try it one way and measure your customer’s engagement. No one decision is ever perfect. This is Reis’ key mantra, the core practice of Lean Startup is to hypothesise, experiment, analyse results (focus on data) and iterate to success.

8. Embrace failure. If we do not want to fall down on the slopes, then we will never learn to ski.  Failures gives us valuable lessons on our quest for improvement. As an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, How did it feel to fail 1,000 times? Edison replied, I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.

9. Set realistic but challenging milestones. Nothing rallies the team like the challenge of meeting a difficult but attainable deadline, be it an advisor demo date or a set of features in a mini release required to close a potential customer deal. Make it a habit to set challenging deadlines and always reward your team by celebrating these milestones no matter how small.

10. Have a vision and plan ahead. Do not make the mistake of thinking the experimental based approach to hypothesis testing implies Lean doesn’t require you to have a vision. Pivot on the strategy but always maintain your vision. Without a guiding north star, a ship will be lost in the endless sea. What makes a startup unique is the vision of its founders.

With the Lean approach, you get iterative early in the lifecycle of your startup business. You need to be agile in understanding your requirements and even who your customer might be – not so much sell what you can build, but build what you can sell.

The Conference was epic. Sessions ran from 8am to 9pm and there was just too much for me to summarise here. During the Conference I took lots of notes, asked tons of questions during the after-hours 1-on-1 sessions with experts, and received direct feedback from Eric Ries on the final day of the conference.

To close, my ‘top ten quotes’ that captured the essence of the Lean Startup approach that I noted at the Conference, were as follows:

‘Don’t jump from zero to Picasso. You have to go through the reality stage first’ @cdixon

‘Keep the business plan & spreadsheets, leave the fiction writing behind’ @EricRies

‘Your job is not to validate the product, but to validate the problem & how best to solve it’@rimalovski

‘A common trap for startups is convincing yourself there is a market when there actually isn’t’ @ericries

‘It’s like hand-to-hand combat, just run the experiment (see if it works)’ @EricRies

‘Eliminate your ego for product-market fit, it’s the idea you end up with that counts’. @gaganbiyani

‘Put hypotheses into every story to learn what customer wants. No shortcuts. It is hard’. @ericries

‘Innovate your product by getting stories from customers. Hear 100 stories in 100 days’ @warrenjwric

‘Innovation done right = idea -> hypotheses -> experiment -> learn -> act -> repeat!’ @alexosterwalder

‘Innovation is an insurance policy on your company’s relevance’ @dbinetti

Lean thinking defines value as providing benefit to the customer, anything else is waste, so the goal of a Lean Startup is to learn what is valuable to the customer. Learning is the essential unit of progress for startups, testing assumptions you’ve made about your business, its customers and how you’re serving them.  Your job is to find a synthesis between your vision and what customers want and recognise you’re providing a solution to a problem.  Just trying to make customers happy does not produce a sustainable business model.



Timing – the key factor in a startup’s success

Startups are literally an experiment, a journey into the unknown, always looking for opportunities to do something better by disruptive thinking and constantly questioning the status quo. They learn from their mistakes and fix them quickly as they continue their growth journey.

The startup organisation is one of the greatest forms to make the world a better place. If you take a group of people and organise them in a startup, you can unlock human potential in a way never before possible. You get them to achieve unbelievable things.

But if the startup organisation is so great, why do so many – up to 90% – fail? What actually matters most for startup success? Bill Gross recently looked at five factors potentially driving startup success: the initial idea, the team, the business model, the funding, and the timing. Here’s a link to his insightful TED talk:

The number one thing driving success was timing. Timing accounted for 42% of the difference between success and failure. Team and execution came in second, and the idea – the uniqueness of the idea – came in third. It surprised me that the idea wasn’t the most important thing. Sometimes it mattered more when it was actually timed.

So what makes great timing for startup success? Timing for me is about taking limitations and turning them into possibilities. You can’t wait for timing, you have to create it, give yourself the opportunity. You can’t wait to see what might have happened.

Entrepreneurial founders are fuelled by passion and an insight or a hunch into the problem they are going to solve, but intrinsically startups work on being a bet – and it’s the timing of this bet that seems to be a factor in success. Timing is about judgment, intuition and foresight.

A startup leader has to be comfortable with taking on ambiguity, uncertainty and multiple challenges. What kinds of people chose a life of exploration, challenge and discovery where timing is a decisive factor in the outcomes they achieve? What do you think are the most important leadership characteristics of these ‘explorers’, and how do they impact the ‘timing’ as identified by Gross?

Here are the thoughts about the importance of timing on a startup leader’s actions and behaviours.

Vision A well-defined vision is the compass by which every startup journey is navigated, giving the focus to the direction of travel. Vision, driven by an instinct and with foresight for timing, can be a formula for success.

Flexibility ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy.’ This variation on German Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke’s original quote could not be more true for startups. Leaders of start-ups need to be flexible to alter (or even throw out) plans as timing of product-market fit and market circumstances dictate.

Unwavering belief Every startup revolves around taking risks, but again it is the timing of knowing when to do so that is key. A combination of paranoia and utter confidence is needed, in order to hold your nerve so as to get to the carpe diem moment.

Speed It makes a difference when a startup is able to launch on time and able to move faster than competitors. Successful startups never delay the process of getting things done. The most productive startup leaders are the ones who make the most of their time. I believe that the faster you can make the mistakes, learn from them and improve your offering, the better.

Discipline Self-control and a strong self-imposed agenda in terms of getting-the-things-done-you-said-you-would-when-you-said-you-would, are important elements to timing. Self-discipline from the founder leads to a positive team work ethic to getting things done effectively and efficiently. When focusing on your first release, this focus is critical.

Time and ability for listening, reflection, curiosity and self -awareness Listening is a completely underrated trait. In a hyper-competitive economy, the person who speaks first – and loudest – is most often heard. But soliciting feedback and internalising what you hear will always make you a better startup leader. The best startup leaders have an acute sense of self-awareness; they know their strengths, and more importantly, their weaknesses. They are confident enough to be honest about areas for growth, take time to be curious about feedback, be reflective on lessons learned, and make timely changes to their business model or product as a result.

Time for the team Startup leaders who share good, bad, and ugly news to their folks with full transparency earn trust, and have a daily huddle with the team. Aside from this honesty, making time to share information ensures that all team members know what they’re working toward.

Stick-to-it-ness Seriously impressive entrepreneurs are willing to put in the graft to work through the hard times. They work through the different bits of a knot, rather than trying to rush through and cut it apart. They take their time to craft the product that is in their minds’ eye and don’t compromise.

Bide your time The untold stories of Pinterest and Twitter are that they were operating for two years before they became marginally relevant. It’s very seldom that a startup comes out that delivers overnight success. If you have already validated your problem and solution, then stick with it. Conserve energy and cash, because this is a marathon, not a sprint. Do not pivot too early thinking the solution is wrong. It could be that you are not getting to the right customers, you don’t have friendly onboarding features, some tweaking is needed, or one of many reasons. Timing here is all about patience.

Knowing the right time to fight rather than adapt Important traits for a startup founder are tenacity, passion and grit to keep fighting for what they believe is right. But that must be balanced with the humility and openness to listen to customers on feedback that improves the product, even if it goes against your vision. What determines success is knowing when to apply which one of the personality traits.

Most startups fail because of the lack of customers – maybe their products didn’t end up being what they thought it would. Some fail because they ran out of money because their revenues couldn’t grow fast enough.

But these causes of death don’t exactly illustrate what went wrong for the startup during the course of its life, much in the same way that listing a heart attack as a cause of death doesn’t directly indicate an unhealthy lifestyle that may have led to it. Like with human life, some startup deaths come out of nowhere and can’t be helped, and some are both predictable and preventable.

We all know that there are no shortcuts to success, and there’s no secret formula that can create the ‘perfect’ startup. However, as identified by Bill Gross, there’s one factor that rises above all others in importance: – timing – which represents the single most important make-or-break point in a startup’s development.

Fundamentally, timing is about judgment, intuition, foresight, gut instinct and an element of good fortune, to tip the scales and create the moment. Timing is about ensuring that your idea doesn’t come too early and consumers aren’t ready for it. Conversely, if your idea comes too late and there are already a number of different offerings in front of your target audience, you won’t be able to squeeze in.

Timing can’t be ignored, and it can’t be substituted just by paying more attention to the other elements of your business. Certainly, having a good idea, business model, team and available capital can all increase your chances of success, but without that critical timing factor, you’ll inevitably end up failing, or at least struggling. It’s up to the startup leader to ensure they gets their timing right.

High growth anatomy: your startup’s dna

Remember the conversation that Alice had with the Cheshire cat?  Alice didn’t have a clear idea of where she wanted to go, or where she wanted to be, and asked the Cheshire cat Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to walk from here? The Cheshire cat responded You’re sure to get somewhere if you walk long enough.

This is often a question startup founders find themselves asking. Seeking to increase customers, they experiment with strategies aiming for straight-up, hockey-stick growth. Few startup ideas are perfect right out of the gate. That’s why it’s important to recognise when you might need a course correction and iteration in your idea, pitch, product or execution, but you need a clear sense of direction as a route map.

From performance metrics and market feedback, to the general mood of the team, there are several signs entrepreneurs should assess when deciding whether to stay the course or head in a new direction.

For many startups, knowing when to pivot can be more important than having the perfect idea from the start. Ideas are cheap, but execution is hard. As you listen to customers and their experience of your product, it’s not uncommon to have to consider that you may not have nailed it on the first go, and be open-minded to a pivot.

Often it’s about standing back. Whilst the customer metrics may be encouraging, the best startups make a distinction by applying a bigger-picture, strategic perspective to the detailed performance metrics they developed on their dashboard, such as unique customers and engagement.

It’s not about having failed to get in front of potential users, it’s often that the value proposition doesn’t resonate enough with the target audience to generate sufficient interest for regular, repeat users.

Understanding your sales cycle is also important to assessing whether you are on the right track. You should know whether the sales cycle for your target customers is four to six months, or whether sales typically come in the form of a quick ‘yes or no’ in four to six weeks. If you’re finding that you’re not getting that within the sector time frames, that’s a pretty good red flag that you’re going to get kicked into the cold water of reality.

However. Amazon was not the first online bookseller. Google was the 21st search engine to launch. eBay was not the first auction site. They just did it better than their predecessors. So if you are in the trough of despondency, maybe there is a re-think as an alternative to simply throwing in the towel.

Having arrived at the check-in desk with bags filled with uncertainty and self-doubt, from Uber to Zoopla, every ambitious startup reaches a point where they have to reflect and figure out what to do next, and in what direction to grow, and which door to storm through. Sustained growth is achieved by not only having a key, but picking the right door to go through.

Even startups equipped with staff with solid experience and track records can come unstuck. Boots on the ground are an imperative, and while the short-term turbulence may seem unappealing, even hazardous, making the right decision now cannot be understated. It’s not an issue of not knowing ‘where to?’ and ‘what’s next?’, it’s knowing how to make the decision and what questions to ask to decide between the choices.

Research highlights that 50% of startups fail, and those that survive typically only realise about 60% of their potential value – because of defects and breakdowns in execution. It’s a fault in their dna, vision without execution is hallucination! Fortunately, unlike biological dna, startup dna can be reengineered by the purposeful rewiring of the genes making up the core of the startup model.

Let’s assume you’ve achieved customer validation and a business model shaped. You’re sure to get somewhere if you walk long enough simply isn’t the answer now. Based on research, intuition and my own experience, you need to build what I call your High Growth Anatomy, a blueprint of your dna. This is what makes you unique, gives a scalable and innovative business model, and provides an effective route map for the direction of growth.

Here’s a list of fourteen ‘dna’ elements you need in your High Growth Anatomy, to give clarity on your future direction, readiness and potential to be a high growth business at the pivot. They are structured as to ‘Go’ and ‘No Go’. Evaluate yourself, what’s your ‘Good To Go’ score?

Foresight or Hallucination?

  • We have clear and articulated goals based on our purpose, of where we want to be in the next 6, 12, 18 and 24 months;
  • We have some thoughts on where we are aiming to be, but it’s more of a wish list than a ‘lets make it happen’ plan.

Front-foot or Back-foot?

  • As a team we are moving forward all of the time;
  • As a team we are fire-fighting most of the time.

Clued-up or Clueless?

  • We are clear about how we make a difference in our market;
  • We are unclear about how to get ahead in our market.

Dexterous or Clumsy?

  • We are agile in our business, we can ‘seize’ the moment with alacrity;
  • We are quite blundering, unable to move quickly.

Leaning-forward or Leaning-back?

  • We are restless thinkers, learning, imaging the future, eager to grow;
  • We are thinking about our future, but focused on today really.

Web-enabled or Webbed-feet?

  • We have a clearly articulated digital strategy in our business model;
  • We use the Internet and social media, but have no digital vision.

Harmonious or Mutinous?

  • We are all wearing the same jersey, pushing together in the same direction, one heart and one voice;
  • We’re a collection of tribes and opinions, connected but not united.

Curious or Cautious?

  • We develop lots of new things, some of them work, some don’t, but we’re always ready to experiment;
  • We generally keep trying things until they don’t work, then think of something new to have a go at.

Heads-up or Head-down?

  • When faced with a threat we respond rapidly and decisively;
  • When faced with a threat, we often step back and wheel-spin.

Fresh thinkers or Copy cats?

  • We are creative and restless, innovation is a core behaviour;
  • We don’t have a point of difference in our business model.

Stickability or Bendability?

  • When something is not going to plan, we reflect, adjust and kick on with renewed enthusiasm;
  • When initiatives do not work, we tend to give up and go back to what we know.

Kinship or Coldfish?

  • We actively pay attention to building our culture, values and spirit;
  • We do not pay attention to our internal culture – it just happens.

Connectivity or Disconnected?

  • We are hot wired, we’re all linked-in and linked-up;
  • Our organisation is not well co-ordinated – we’re disconnected and decoupled.

Insights or Blindspots?

  • We have a very good knowledge of our customers, their customers and our competitors;
  • We have an ad-hoc knowledge of our customers, their customers and our competitors.

High Growth Anatomy is a simple set of questions to ask yourself, share, listen, reflect and learn as a team, about your ‘startup dna’. Startups have to create their futures, things don’t just happen. You’re sure to get somewhere if you walk long enough isn’t the answer. Hope isn’t a strategy. It’s about strategic readiness and agility, clarity, direction and velocity and then execution. Have you got these in your dna?

Startup lessons from the Apollo XI moon landing – 20 July 1969

Some 46 years ago today, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon. When the lunar module landed at 4.18pm EDT, Armstrong radioed Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed. At 10.56 pm EDT Armstrong planted the first human foot on another world. With more than half a billion people watching on television, he climbs down the ladder and proclaims That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. Only a few have shared this vantage point.

I was there. I saw Neil Armstrong take his giant leap for mankind from my parents’ living room perched on my grandfather’s knee. I still recall the grainy black and white images on the television screen. It’s a clear memory of a unique moment in history, and also a poignant and warm memory about my grandfather, who died later that year.

I’ve always had a keen interest in space adventure. At university, when looking through the Careers Guide for Graduates 1984 I stopped at the letter ‘A’ and send off applications for Accountancy roles and one, a bit speculatively, for ‘Astronauts wanted’ to NASA. I didn’t get a reply. Anyway, there probably wouldn’t have been the legroom in my allocated seat.

There’s a great book, Moon Dust, by Andrew Smith, in which he interviews nine of the twelve astronauts (three had died, and we lost Neil Armstrong in 2012) who landed on the moon between 1969 and 1972 ( The book has many fascinating facts about the Apollo missions, but for me the most memorable thing I learned was that NASA only paid astronauts a few dollars a day while they were in space and deducted bed and board from their pay cheque! They were paid $8 a day minus deductions for their free bed on Apollo. Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, has a framed receipt: From Houston to Cape Kennedy, Moon, Pacific Ocean. Amount claimed: $33.31.

President Kennedy first presented the moon landing proposal to the US public in an address to Congress on May 25, 1961. However, his more famous speech was on September 12, 1962 at Rice University: We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win. We have vowed we will not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. We intend to be first.

Kennedy’s bold statement of ambition shows how people can unite behind a vision and achieve something unique. His push toward putting a man on the moon in less than nine years was a fantastic statement of intent, and the fact that it was done is astounding. Of course, Kennedy did not live to see the dream realised.

Landing on the Moon is surely man’s greatest ever entrepreneurial act. Think about it. Go outside tonight and look up. Imagine yourself up there, looking down. Imagine! How would you feel, blasting out of the atmosphere, orbiting the Earth, and standing on the moon! WOW.

Courage, ingenuity and one heck of a big adventure, leaping off into the unknown, driven by your vision, just like launching your own startup business. So what lessons can we take from the extraordinary Apollo XI experience for startup entrepreneurs?

1. It starts with a vision

When John Kennedy went before Congress on May 25, 1961 and said we were going to the Moon, our total flight experience was one 15-minute suborbital flight. Dr. John Logsdon, Director of the Center for International Science and Technology Policy

To say Kennedy’s vision was bold and set an ambitious timeline is an understatement. As a startup founder, he set down the purpose and the vision, expectations that you don’t think are realistic. Dr. Robert Gilruth, Director of the Manned Spacecraft Centre said, I don’t know if this is possible, and detailed his frank opinion about the resources NASA would need in order to make Kennedy’s dream a reality. However, it came together, united and focused by the vision.

2. Have a sense of direction

We knew what had to be done. How to do it in 10 years was never addressed before the announcement was made. But quite simply, we considered the program a number of phases.  Dr. Maxime Faget, Chief Engineer & Designer of the Apollo command and lunar modules

When launching your startup, it’s a case of not knowing the unknowns, so don’t bother in trying to craft a detailed plan based on guesses, instead, break it down into the major steps and focus on attaining each one, one at a time.

The Apollo programme followed the steps of The Lean Startup, setting a series of milestones: phase 1 was to fly to the moon, phase 2 was to orbit the moon, phase 3 was to land an unmanned craft on the moon, and so on. They followed the concept of ‘the pivot’, from the Lean Startup. Had they immediately set their sights on a full-fledged lunar landing, history may have turned out very different.

3. Iterate – and don’t be afraid to modify the plan

They probably normally expected us to land with about two minutes of fuel left. And here we were, still a hundred feet above the surface, at 60 seconds. Buzz Aldrin, Lunar Module Pilot

On descent to the moon, the lunar module’s computer became overloaded with data, threatening to reboot in the middle of the landing sequence. Aldrin discovered they were going to miss their target, and would likely smash into a crater at an alarming velocity. Armstrong took manual control, while Aldrin fed him altitude and velocity data. They successfully landed on the moon’s surface with just seconds of fuel left. If Armstrong and Aldrin hadn’t acted, Armstrong’s iconic moonwalk would never have happened.

No business plan survives the first contact with a customer, so remember that even the most well thought out startup plans may need to be altered if circumstances change or a new opportunity arises.

4. A startup is an experiment

We said to ourselves that we have now done everything we know how to do. We feel comfortable with all of the unknowns that we went into this program with. We don’t know what else to do to make this thing risk-free, so it’s time to go. Dr. Christopher Kraft, Director of Flight Operations

The Apollo 11 mission was one of the most risky undertakings in human history. From technical failure to human error, any number of things could have gone wrong, and did. But without taking that risk, the achievement would never have been made – Build-Measure-Learn is one of the Lean Startup key principles, and applied here.

As with any experiment, a startup is about setting down hypotheses regarding customers, the value proposition and product-market fit, and then using a customer development process to identify facts. NASA handled risk by actively looking for it and constantly asking themselves, ‘What if?’ It’s about calculated risks, don’t let an acceptable amount of risk keep you from pushing ahead.

5. It’s all about the team & communication

One of the biggest challenges that we had was one of communication and coordination. Owen Morris, Chief Engineer & Manager of the Lunar Module

The Apollo team scaled rapidly, from a selected founding team to thousands of people. Coordinating such an effort required clear communication. Their solution was to identify five central priorities and drill them into every single level of the organisation. With the entire team aligned around those set priorities, communication became easier. At no point was any team in the dark about what another group was doing, or what support needed.

As your startup team grows with early hires, don’t just trust communication will fall into place on its own, or that everyone will assume the same priorities. Create a plan for how your team will communicate, and check in frequently to ensure processes are running smoothly.

6. Recruit for attitude and fill your skills gaps

Another thing that was extraordinary was how things were delegated down. NASA responsibilities were delegated to people who didn’t know how to do these things, and were expected to go find out how to do it. Howard Tindall, Mission Technique Coordinator

Delegating to people who don’t have experience with a certain task may seem counter intuitive, but it was something Apollo project managers actively encourage – the average age of the entire Operations team was just 26, most fresh out of college. NASA gave someone a problem and the freedom to run with it, and the results speak for themselves. Do the same in yoru startup, give people the opportunity to shine.

7. Keep asking questions

When we had the Apollo 1 fire, we took a step back and asked what lessons have we learned from this horrible tragedy? Now let’s be doubly sure that we are going to do it right the next time. Dr. Christopher Kraft, Director of Flight Operations

The Apollo program was home to some of the most brilliant minds in the world, and yet no one was shy about their mistakes. They made recording and learning from their errors a central part of their process. Failure was simply an opportunity to learn and improve.

For a startup, get out of the building, talk to prospective customers and fail fast – validated learning and making retrospectives an ongoing part of your project are vital, not one-time events, they are crucial to startup success.

8. Celebrate success as a team

We would like to give special thanks to all those Americans who built the spacecraft; who did the construction, design, the tests, and put their hearts and all their abilities into those craft. To those people tonight, we give a special thank you. Neil Armstrong, July 26 television broadcast from orbit

At every opportunity the astronauts called the world’s attention to the efforts of their teammates back on the ground. So when you win that first customer as a startup, share that applause with the team. Small wins throughout the project fuel continued hard work.

9. The pivot to MVP is painful

The leader has got to really believe in his organisation, and believe that they can do things. Dr. Maxime Faget, Chief Engineer & designer of the Apollo command and lunar modules

Once you’ve achieved Proof of Concept success, how do you take it forward? According to NASA, every successful project needs three things: a vision, a vivid picture of where you’re going; complete commitment from leadership to make it happen; a first goal to keep everyone focused, which in Lean Startup philosophy, is the Minimum Viable Product (MVP), based on validated learning.

Getting to the third point is hard. The pivot is all about changing direction but staying grounded in what we’ve learned. If we can reduce the time between pivots, we increase our odds of success.

10. Dare to dream

Armstrong dared to dream and took risks. Life has its its twists and turns – Armstrong was nearly killed twice in his NASA training, but he never quit. Success is failure turned inside out, and you never can tell how close you are. Armstrong lived his life as an exclamation rather than an explanation, a decade dedicated to training and preparation, absorbing the set backs as well as keeping his dream alive.

Armstrong captured the true spirit of a pioneering entrepreneur, and Steve Blank, a colleague of Eric Reis in the Lean Startup movement, has rewritten Kennedy’s Apollo vision, capturing Armstrong’s spirit:

We choose to invest in ideas, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

The Apollo 11 mission is to me, the ultimate startup and best example of launching a large-scale high-risk technology project to achieve something no one had done before. It resonates with Simon Sinek’s work on ‘Why?’ in terms of having a clear vision and purpose underpinning your startup ambition.

It was about turning an idea into reality, an example of what Steve Jobs termed the reality distortion field. Ignore the naysayers, it can be done. We can lick gravity, but sometimes paperwork is overwhelming said Wernher von Braun, Chief Architect of Apollo’s Saturn V launch rocket, capturing the spirit of adventure.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go, said T.S. Eliot. Eric Reis defines a startup as a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions if extreme uncertainty. Everything about Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins makes them startup founders and entrepreneurs. What a leap for mankind they made.