[Updated: Please read Billy O’s comment below – he sums up what I was trying to say in his comment, far better than I did in this post.]
Marci and I went to a wedding and reception last night. As we were leaving the house to head to the event, my Mom â€” who was in town for Annabelle’s birthday, and was watching the kids while we went out â€” looked at me and said, “Dance like no one is watching.”
My Mom knows that Marci is a magnificent dancer, and I’m…well…let’s just say I have other gifts. Dancing for me is excruciating. I rarely feel as self-conscious and awkward as I do on those rare occasions when I have to dance.
However, as I sat through the wedding ceremony I had a good deal of time (it was a Catholic ceremony) to think about my Mom’s advice with respect to pretending no one is watching, and how it applies to more than just dancing.
I believe that most start ups, initially at least, should follow the same advice.
I deal with an awful lot of entrepreneurs who spend inordinate amounts of time and money developing web sites, marketing/business plans, pitches etc. I’m not for a moment saying that these things aren’t valuable. Of course they are. They all are, in fact, essential.
However, they are only valuable at the right time and in the right context.
Entrepreneurs, artists, etc. must begin their creations based upon an internal vision and drive that is undisturbed/undiluted by perceived “marketability.”
Fred Wilson postulates something similar on his required-reading blog in this post which lists notes from a recent talk Mr. Wilson gave at HBS (I’ve excerpted the relevant notes, but, obviously, the whole post/blog is valuable – emphasis mine):
Early in a startup, product decisions should be hunch driven. Later on, product decisions should be data driven.
Hunches come from being a power user of the products in your category and from having a long standing obsession about the problem you are solving.
Domain expertise to the point of obsession is highly correlated with the most successful entrepeneurs in our portfolio.
Ideas that most people derided as ridiculous have produced the best outcomes. Don’t do the obvious thing.
We create differently when we base our creations on an internal vision/obsession. We also create differently when we have nothing left to lose.
On this point, I recently gave a guest lecture at a class at St. Edward’s fantastic Digital MBA program that attempted to address the New Orleans post-Katrina landscape with respect to entrepreneurship.
In this lecture I tried to show that â€” because both no one (e.g. government, etc.) was watching and (relatedly) because there was nothing left to lose â€” the vacuum has been somewhat filled by incipient innovation/entrepreneurship, and, importantly, post-Katrina New Orleans feels mercifully free from the self-conscious shackles endemic to other start up areas around the country.
Here are the slides from the lecture (please pay particular note to the Tyler Cowen references; he has shaped a lot of my thinking on the topic of creativity from the margins, and his blog is indispensable).
And so I danced last night.
I can’t say that I was un-self conscious. However, when I saw my beautiful wife walk on to the dance floor, fully expecting, I’m sure, that I would stay on the sidelines and be the wallflower I always am in those situations, I surprised and delighted her by taking the long walk to meet her there; my Mom’s advice rang in my ears the whole time, and compelled/propelled me.
Was my dancing pretty/graceful? No. Did it make the night infinitely better for both of us? Yes.
The fact of the matter is I danced.
Startups must do the same. If you get consumed by what some imaginary market/investor/customer might think of your idea, you’re likely to either (a.) not even try or (b.) create something that is a diluted version of your initial vision.
Ultimately, if your vision is strong and a market for your idea emerges/becomes defined you’ll need to shape it and develop it, but â€” in the initial stages at least â€” you must dance like no one is watching. And, obviously, the reality is that, of course (just as no one was watching me dance last night), in the initial stages of a start up, no one is watching you either.
While it won’t ever happen with my dancing, if you do push forward with that undiluted idea and shape it over time, people will start watching, and to them, it’ll seem graceful, and like you’ve had it all figured out from the start.