The Myth of the Startup Miracle


I found this old New Yorker cartoon, by Sidney Harris, courtesy of a columnist over at Inc. magazine, and it made me smile. Just about every founder (whether we admit it or not) has the fantasy, or nightmare, of at least one Black Hole in the business model — that place where something unquantifiable, or even as-yet-unknown to you, will have to happen to make the thing fly.

Maybe it’ll be that moment when your coder stumbles on “the solution” ; when your product “somehow” finds its way into the hands of an evangelist who tells the right person about it; when you “bump into” the perfect investor or partner.

Such myths of serendipity and miracles sustain our romantic notions of founding — they keep us going, despite huge odds. But there are no miracles. And this is OK! Just ask Paul Graham, who debunks the idea of startup “miracles,” beginning with the ideas themselves:

“…[people] assume ideas are like miracles: they either pop into your head or they don’t.
I also have a theory about why people think this. They overvalue ideas. They think creating a startup is just a matter of implementing some fabulous initial idea. And since a successful startup is worth millions of dollars, a good idea is therefore a million dollar idea…
The fact is, most startups end up nothing like the initial idea. It would be closer to the truth to say the main value of your initial idea is that, in the process of discovering it’s broken, you’ll come up with your real idea.”

Lesson: Startups succeed or fail based on their ability to execute in the midst of dynamic change. Such changes might seem serendipitous in one instance, and like bad luck in the next. On balance, they are neither. Each event is just part of the evolution of your experiment. Your ultimate task as a founder isn’t to shine light on the Black Hole in your model, or even to plan for “everything” (like a completed mathematical formula!). Your job is to respond as quickly and effectively as you can to dynamic change in any given moment.

Somehow, thinking about startups in this way — absent the mythology of a performance miracle that I can’t now imagine, much less control — takes a bit of the uncertainty away, and therefore some of pressure off.