Posts Tagged ‘meaningful failure’

Why the numbers in your operating plan are wrong

December 9, 2008

Startup companies begin life with operating plans – the spreadsheets that outline how revenue will be generated and expenses will be allocated. But in the end it’s all a very well calculated guess. So much is unknown.

A phrase I use a lot when I meet with startup companies is “the only thing we know for certain about your plan is that the numbers in it are wrong”.   It’s a disarming statement, it generally sets everyone at ease.  How could you possibly know what your revenue will be in month 33, when you haven’t even shipped your first product?

And it’s true, in a good way. It’s not the values in the cells that are important, but the set of assumptions and principles that underpin the numbers in the cells that are. I mentioned this in my first post. It sounds and is obvious.

Why bother with the plan? Some CEOs I meet take this path, and use their operating plan as a “check off the box” deliverable on the way to getting funded. But if you go there I think you blow right by critical insight about your business. You need that plan, even when you are far off it, to help you understand which assumptions are still valid, and which may need to change.

An example of an assumptions is “we’ll have larger companies distribute our product for us, and each company will deliver 50,000 end users to us”. That’s important to remember, especially if after six months, they’re only delivering 5,000 users.  It’s even more important to understand if this is just a factor of how long it takes to ramp demand (in which case that assumption needs scrutiny) or of it’s because that’s all the demand these companies can produce for you (ditto).

Your plan is a tool that has a limited useful life, at some point your business (and assumptions) change so much you need to pull out (or rather create) a new one. The right tool, for the right circumstances matters, a lot.

If the right tool is critical, the right mindset produces it. Successfully running a startup requires a resilient open mind and cultivating a sense of intellectually curiosity. You need to want to understand the “why” and “how” the numbers in the cells fail to match reality.

So, examining the failure of your plan, and finding the meaning in the failure, enables you to construct new, more valid assumptions, so you can discard the old plan and create a new one. This can be harder than you think, the plan you have now is was slaved over, polished, and is so “done”. But this new plan has a clearly defined lineage connecting it to the old one, and is the new “right tool” for your business.

Missing your plan is different. Plan “failure” is fundamentally different from missing your plan. Missing your plan comes from poor execution, poor discipline and poor vigilance about understanding why you’re not performing to your plan.  It’s still failure, but failure where no meaning has been examined or made use of.  It’s where you end up using the wrong tool, and not understanding, or even knowing, why you need a new one.

Missing your plan is like trying real hard to use that shovel that worked so well to dig the foundation of a house you’re building to hammer the nails into the framing. Sure it might work, for a while, but over time it’s just not going to do the job you need done. Missing your plan is insisting that you just hit the nails harder and faster with the shovel, and not realizing you hold the wrong tool to begin with.

This is why one of my partners coined the phrase “teams that miss plans generally continue to miss plans”. It’s because they don’t realize its their tool that’s wrong, not their intentions or efforts.

The best CEOs I work with are wonderfully disciplined about creating and appropriately discarding their plans. They measure their performance relative to their plan, and they’re vigilant about clearly delineating the key assumptions supporting the plan. When they’ve measured enough to know the assumptions are no longer valid, they revise their plan, and gladly leave that old plan behind. It becomes all about their new plan, and new tool.

Ego and why it’s over-rated

November 27, 2008

Becoming a VC has had the same effect for me as getting an MBA – it’s provided me with a label that has opened some doors.  But a label is different from substance, it’s thin, and sticks to the clothing you’re wearing. Under the clothing is you.

I’d never been a VC before and it felt very much like a very fast race, but where I was learning the event and the course as I went. So much to learn about the business of evaluating embryonic, wildly ambitious businesses as well as learning the mechanics of investing other people’s money.

Then again, this is a lot like every job I’ve ever had. In every startup I’ve been in, we were creating an entire new category in the market. No one had a playbook, no one had studied this before. Yet, we had a business to run, and customers to keep happy. We wrote the rules, we led our teams, in real time.

About 15 years ago, right after business school, I worked for a high powered management consulting firm in Boston. I managed a small group of undergrads, and we worked with large firms on tough strategy problems. It was intellectually rigorous and obsessively methodical. It was very much about the essence of management: establish a plan, direct a team, measure results. You operated with a playbook you carefully constructed as you went along.

My team? All recently minted undergrads, and so, so much smarter than I was. At various points I managed Steve Levitt (yes, Freakonomics), Glenn Berger, Russ Wilcox, and Greg Sands. But all I was focused on was how their smarts compared to mine, and as a result I quickly lost my ability to direct them.  I lost my ability to let my experience and perspective provide a framework and direction. My ego, fed with insecurity, became this huge obstacle to success.

In about 18 months, it was clear I was failing. I was repeatedly counseled “forget about how smart they are, they need the direction that your experience can provide them”. But I couldn’t. I’d like to say I failed “spectacularly”, but there’s never anything spectacular about consulting firms. I failed quietly, by being told I would have three months to find a new job.

With hindsight I realize I lacked the confidence to accept what I knew and didn’t know, I thought I had to know everything, and if I didn’t, I spent a lot of time and energy trying to create the illusion I did. All that energy got wasted and prevented me recognizing and embracing their talent, and I couldn’t focus on the pleasure of enabling and directing their effort and success.

So in the first few months in my role as a VC, I had almost an out-of-body experience. I could see where I could go back down that path of ego-as-obstacle – so much I didn’t know, so many people who knew so much more. But this time it was different. I had the accumulated scar tissue to “let go”, to seek and embrace that line where I knew what I knew and where I didn’t.

This time there was an added twist.  This is an industry where a very few people have made enormous amounts of money by helping to create groundbreaking new companies. But the other 98% of us? We haven’t. That “aura” is thrust upon you, projected on you by the people who seek your advice and your funding. It’s easy to let that define you, to let that inform the ego you present to the outside world.

So, I love knowing that if I’m lucky, I will meet and work with people smarter and more capable than I am.  I also love knowing that I haven’t yet made billions in this business.  I still believe I’m really good at it, and enjoy it.  But it’s a heck of a lot lighter meeting with entrepreneurs and co-investors, comfortable in the skin I am wearing.  We’re all a lot more effective, and at ease.

So, I love having no ego in this business. For me, ego is different from being smart, experienced, and helpful. You can be all those, but you can be those in a way that meets people in their comfort zone on their terms, not yours.

Meaningful Failure

November 27, 2008

In my world as a venture capitalist and a veteran of four fairly successful startup companies, I see and have experienced failure, a lot. My colleagues and I talk about it a great deal, in familiar ways and in ways that assign value to failure that occurred in a meaningful way. With the big ideas and within the teams that build companies around these ideas, modest success is simply not valued as highly as failure that occurs while attempting something bold, new, and ambitious.

Outside of my world, failure is spoken of in ways that make me think the people doing the talking view failure more superficially than we do. It’s a pause on the way to success, something you move on from. It’s as if failure is treated as a currency that gets spent on the way, but it’s a currency that’s been in circulation too long; it’s grimy, and you don’t really want to touch it if you can help it.

In the ”sky’s the limit” world of startup companies it’s all about being in a place where you’re brave enough to go do something new and bold and the only thing you are scared of is not succeeding. My colleagues and I frankly spent less time worrying about the failure side of our businesses than we do understanding what the obstacles to success are. We know failure is going to happen. In those early days of our companies, in fact, one of the few things we know is that the plan will end up being wrong, or at least that the numbers in all those cells will be. But understanding why they are wrong – examining, seeking the knowledge of where we failed – is how we find the path to success.

It’s not that we’re in love with our failures, but we do have meaningful relationships with them.

Meaningful failure. It’s not just where things didn’t work out. It’s failure that happened even when you were really, really motivated for and focused on success. It’s that confluence of ambition and reach, hard work and commitment, preparation and talent; where all of that comes together, and it’s still not enough.

It’s why most of us have an iPod while we also still use Windows computers; Apple sure failed to get the Mac mainstream, but learned from that when they entered the music and phone businesses.

But this is a really big failure. What about the failures we all experience in our jobs and personal lives that happen on a very human scale. You can have ambitions, you can place yourself in uncomfortable and vulnerable positions in order to achieve something of importance to you, and still you can fail. In fact, if you accept, even embrace failure, then about all you can control is how you respond to it when it happens, and what you take with you to as a result of it.

I like the analogy of failure being the lubricant in the engine. Without it, the engine stops. Without the meaning from the failures we create and encounter, the engine of success will stop. Or rather, when success happens it will be a lot smaller. Failure can tell you why what you hoped would happen didn’t but also why something like it, or better, can and will. If you’re not experiencing failure, then, perhaps you’re not hoping with enough ambition. Embracing it, anticipating it, being resiliently open minded, well, that’s just being a good steward of a high performing engine.

That’s why when I describe what it’s like to be in a high octane startup I refer to it being in a place where you remain calmly focused on the very few reasons why you will succeed and not on the seemingly thousands of reasons why you might fail. You’re striving for performance towards the big goal, not results of any specific setback along the way. It places you on the balls of your feet, not your heals. You know failure’s bound to happen, so lean into it.

It’s as simple as shifting your perspective to a “fear of not succeeding,” which is fundamentally, and in a very nuanced way so much different from a “fear of failing.” By focusing on what it takes to succeed, you can embrace the fact that there will and should be many junctures involving failure along the way. It’s the focus on success that enables you to get the big things done in life.

But embracing failure and extracting the data isn’t enough. You need a resilient, open mind to care for and make use of what you learn from your failures. Resiliency is important; it provokes a stretchiness and adaptability of your frame of reference and enables you to let go of that firmly held set of assumptions developed yesterday in order to embrace a better, more informed set today.

I like to think of my life as living in a continuous startup. At some point along the way, I realized that it’s at the moment of failure where the real meaning is, where you can figure out both what you are deep down inside and then how to be a different, more capable you the next time. That in order to be living a life of meaning and value, failure has to be not just acknowledged but embraced as the missing ingredient to success.

When you’re busy being focused on how you’ll succeed and failure occurs, it seems so much simpler to look at what just happened as fodder and information to take another run at finding out how to succeed the next time. It may be that the “next time” is the next iteration of the business you run at your company today or a totally different business at a totally different company. The constant, however, is standing at a juncture of success, open-minded learning, and meaningful failure and being ready to take the next step.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.