The Startup Mindset: Stubbornness and Flexibility
Holding two opposing thoughts in your head at the same time is generally a valuable skill. It allows evaluating trade-offs, empathizing with the other side in a negotiation, and brokering compromises and agreements.
To build a new product from scratch, whether it is in an actual startup or as part of an established organization, requires even more than that: you need to be able to employ two different and opposing mindsets, be able to switch back and forth between them, and know when to employ which. I call these two mindsets stubbornness and flexibility.
Stubbornness in this context means relentlessly pursuing a path, regardless of the adversities that one might face. Stubbornness helps you overcome the gravitational pull of the status quo and allows you to open up new opportunities.
One part of this stubbornness means being persistent, having grit. This requires accepting failures and setbacks as part of the overall path to success, and being resilient to them. Developing new products means setbacks are inevitable. Any new idea looks very simple at its inception. Only once you start getting into the details do all the complexities become visible. Each complexity you uncover means additional effort, additional decisions, additional potential for problems and failures. If you give up any time an additional problem is identified, you are never going to successfully build and launch a new product from scratch.
Stubbornness in this context also means having a clear direction. You need a north star, a vision of the product to strive for. The vision should describe the world that you are attempting to create and the problems you aim to solve. The vision provides both direction and motivation. Without that vision, all persistence becomes meaningless. Sisyphos was persistent, but did it get him anywhere?
Relentlessly pursuing the vision, never losing focus on it, regardless of however often you fail, is a prerequisite to creating something from nothing. This relentlessness requires a certain level of self-delusion, even hubris: you have to believe that you “know better”. You have to think there’s a better way that no one else, not even the smartest people, has discovered yet. You have to question some of the assumptions that underpin the status quo, assumptions that everyone else believes to be true.
Building great products requires this stubbornness and persistence to be focused on positive outcomes — for the customer, for the company, for society. Not losing sight of this positive vision is another hallmark of the stubbornness required to start something new.
The flexibility required to create a new product, on the other hand, means not being precious about your ideas, being willing to “kill your darlings”. One of the fundamental truths of product development is that you don’t know what ideas are going to work. Indeed, most of your ideas will fail. Holding on too long to an idea that is going to fail means you waste time and resources. When building a new product, especially in a startup context, that is dangerous. You must be nimble, agile, and fast in order to bring the new product to life and not get squashed by incumbents and competitors.
Flexibility, therefore, requires accepting that you don’t know and can’t know a lot of things, and focusing on learning quickly. It means employing means to get rapid feedback and being willing to change course to react to that feedback.
The fastest way to get feedback is by iterative design and development, building concepts, prototypes, and the product in small steps and then validating them. This validation doesn’t have to be done by launching each of the steps along the way to a broader public, of course, but it could be. Especially early on, though, the validation will likely be through interviews or prototype tests.
Some time ago, a friend asked me for advice on validating his startup idea, and asked what I thought the MVP scope should be. My advice was to not think about a single MVP, but rather identify all the critical assumptions underlying the idea, and then devise as small as possible validation mechanisms for each of them. In other words: an iterative approach, where you minimize the time to learning. Rather than building one MVP, start by finding just one critical assumption to test and do that — most likely, not in the form of a fully launched product. Once you’ve learned from that test, repeat with the next assumption.
The mantra that describes this approach is “fail early, fail often”. It means that we accept and expect failures, so we try to achieve those failures as early as possible. It also means trying again and again with different approaches until we eventually find one that succeeds. “Fail early, fail often” doesn’t mean that we expect or accept overall failure to achieve our vision. It simply means that we know that any meaningful progress will see failures along the way, so rather than building up a big new concept ending in one massive failure, you should proceed iteratively, with many small failures (and successes, too!) culminating in one big success. This flexibility is required to balance out the hubris that can come with the stubbornness discussed above.
To successfully create new products, you need both stubbornness and flexibility, and be able to switch between them effortlessly.
Stubbornness without flexibility means not getting feedback on what you are building. It means not identifying those of your ideas that either miss the mark completely, or that could be much improved through some iteration. In the end, it means building something that will not live up to its full potential. Stubbornness means having a hunch that something can be improved, that some conventional wisdom doesn’t apply. However, if you believe to be 100% correct at all times, you will likely be proven wrong.
On the other hand, flexibility without stubbornness means settling for incremental improvement: without the determination to follow a long term vision regardless of setbacks, you start to crave results through fast iteration, and those are easiest to realize through marginal improvements on the status quo — but you won’t build a great product that way. It can also mean falling into the A/B testing trap, where you believe that A/B testing everything is a replacement for vision and deep understanding of the problem.
An even worse problem that can arise with flexibility without stubbornness is interpreting “fail early, fail often” as “fail fast”. The difference seems subtle but is actually significant. “Failing fast” meaning lacking stubbornness. It means trying an idea only until the first setback. It means equating an idea with the vision, and giving up when the idea fails. In contrast to that, “fail early, fail often” means realizing that the failure of an individual idea doesn’t invalidate the underlying problem, and therefore doesn’t invalidate the vision, either. Many successful technology companies spent years working on a specific problem before achieving success, trying out many different approaches and discarding lots of failing ideas in the process.
The mindsets of stubbornness and flexibility complement each other, and need to be employed in the right way. On the long-term vision and direction, you need to be stubborn and persistent, on the details, flexible and willing to give up individual ideas and iterate.
Most people have a natural tendency for one or the other mindset. Some people are naturally more visionary, stubborn and persistent. Others are more learning-focused, flexible and adaptable. To lead the development of a new product, it’s important to understand on what side of the spectrum you are, and deliberately build up and employ the complementary mindset.
One generally recommendable principle to follow is splitting the problem and the solution. The problem can form part of the vision, but you should first validate that there actually is a problem worth solving through foundational market research. Once you have reason to believe that the problem is real, craft your vision to stubbornly pursue, and start working on options to solve the problem. For these options, maximize flexibility by proceeding iteratively. Focus on learning as quickly as possible. For each solution idea, identity the underlying assumptions and validate them one by one, starting with the most critical one. Build MVPs that are the lowest effort thing you can employ (often a prototype) to validate the single most critical assumption of a particular solution, and then iterate.
For this approach to work, it’s crucial to have strong confidence in the vision so that you can stubbornly keep pursuing it. As mentioned above, some of that belief might be slightly irrational and even delusional — after all, you are challenging the status quo and the underlying assumptions — but it should still be based on a solid understanding of the problem space or some unique technological or market insight.
Of course, it is sometimes correct to give up on the vision itself and completely pivot. Some great technology companies started out that way: Instagram started as the location check-in app Burbn, Slack as the game Glitch. However, these examples are exceptions to the rule, and were based on a new insight sparked by working on the original vision. In general, it’s best to stick with the original vision until it is certain that there is too little potential. Stubbornly following a vision does have a real risk of failure. Of course! New product development is inherently risky. Giving up at the first setback, though, guarantees failure, since no new product is ever developed without these setbacks.
Great product leaders and entrepreneurs are able to balance these two mindsets of stubbornly pursuing a vision and flexibly focusing on learning and course-correcting, and switch between the two effortlessly as needed. Being aware of these mindsets and practicing to use the one that’s less natural to you is the first step toward being able to build a great, novel product.
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