Entrepreneur

It’s not your startup anymore if the market tells you what to do

This post was originally published on Jason Cohen’s blog

Isn’t entrepreneurship about having an amazing idea, and building a living around it?

…yes, except every advisor and blogger warns that “your idea sucks you prima donna pompous asshole.” You end up using your first idea as a foil to find out what is actually an amazing idea and then following that path, whatever it might be. The only thing we’re sure of is that you’re instincts are wrong and you need get that fixed.

At a certain point, I have to wonder, how is that even “your company” anymore?  Those are someone’s else’s ideas, not your own.

Isn’t the fun of a company to build a product you know the world needs, even if (especially if!) they don’t even know they need it yet? Something they couldn’t or didn’t know to ask for. You can’t envision an iPad until one is placed in your hands.

But every advisor and blogger proclaims that you couldn’t possibly have insight in a vacuum, so instead you must conduct 50 ego-busting interviews in which a pack of clueless “end-users” with no experience building products or companies, and certainly no experience providing constructive insight, will somehow coalesce under your non-directed, open-ended line of questioning into a brilliant roadmap to success.

How is that even “your company” anymore?  That’s the culmination of everyone else’s product ideas, a design-by-committee which we all know typically leads to shit.

Aren’t some of the greatest moments of a startup’s life the point where you pick a name, create a logo, write your headline on your new home page, craft your teaser and your bi-line, stamp your personality on every page, and implement your own philosophy on pricingservicelanguage, and exposition, attaining your own voice and not the collective voice of the Marketing Department?

But advisor and bloggers will often direct you to A/B tests and landing page experiments and advertising alternatives and failing fast where “failing” means 3 percent fewer people clicked X than clicked Y, because when it comes to pricing your “philosophy” doesn’t mean shit if rearranging the tiers and using unholy language gets you $20 per month more revenue per customer, and your clever tag lines don’t mean shit if language designed for 7-year-olds and written like a 2am-infomercial means a 1 percent lift in click-through rate.

That’s not your voice, that’s a million monkeys slapping keyboards hoping that one stumbles upon a better conversion rate.

Is your startup an expression of your own identity and vehicle by which you are master of your destiny, or are you randomly iterating into a different identity, some other destiny? Are you an inventor, or an explorer in a world you didn’t ask for?

I love the Lean Startup movement because it demands introspection and honors data.  It defines “progress” even in the ineffable mode that progress is achieved in the messiness that is early-stage startups, where it’s nigh-impossible to separate the paths of success and failure.

But I worry that the pendulum can swing too far. Mantras prevail that amount to “guess and check,” because it’s easier for advisors and investors to drive by metrics rather than by insight, and by funnels rather than by a strong point of view.

So what’s the answer?  I refuse for the answer to be “it’s a balance” or “it depends.”

It’s this:

You create children in your own image, literally.  You can’t help it – half their variable DNA is yours. After rebellion, as they age, they “find themselves” and of course discover you were lurking there all along.

At the same time, what kind of parent intentionally molds their kid into their own notion of what the “perfect child” should be?  Well, what kind of startup parent are you to stubbornly mold it to your preconceptions rather than exploring the synthesis of your ideas, your values, your perspective against what is actually true in the world – facts you simply haven’t yet uncovered?

What kind of parent takes pleasure in preventing a kid from fulfilling their own destiny rather than noticing what their kid is naturally drawn to and encouraging and feeding that nature?  Well, what kind of steward of your startup’s destiny are you to predetermine its course, ramming its assigned future down its throat, rather than being the guiding light, helping it find its own way, even while sharing your DNA at its core?

What kind of parent allows a kid to indulge in unhealthy behavior that of course a 3-year-old desires but which isn’t acceptable? Well, what kind of startup builder are you to focus on the easy stuff, the safe stuff, rather than tackling the parts you’re not good at and challenging the assumptions that haven’t been vetted?

If you believe you’re the master and the startup is your slave, then I do believe you’re almost surely destined to fail, because that’s not what a startup is, and that’s not how the world works outside the little bubble where you’re convinced that your ideas are amazing and your product is marketable, and the world will know it when the homepage is unveiled.

Rather, you are a parent. A shepherd, a steward, a guide, a mentor, a director for what is almost a new life – a thing that has to live and grow and thrive and interact with the real world.

It’s not an amalgamation of other peoples’ notions, but an imperfect copy of yourself that needs guidance as it finds its own way to success.

It’s your startup.

Jason Cohen, is the founder of WP Engine & Smart Bear Software.


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