Saturday, January 19, 2013

Being in the 90%

Statistics show that in the start-up world only 10% of the ideas succeed, meaning that (if you do the proper math) the 90% will fail. Guess what?, we are now in the 90%. But everything is OK, at least we have health and no debts, as we use to say in Colombia. Last week here was a moment of reflection in order to figure out where did we fail and what can we learn from this experience. In this post I’m going to be very honest and critical.

Before listing the key points of my thoughts I have to admit something: failure sucks. I know it is part of the learning process, that we learnt more things that the one who succeed and that we should be treated with reverence because through our errors and mistakes is how discoveries occur. Trust me, I know how failing and changing help you to discover new things and being more confortable with yourself (I’ve changed 4 time my MSc thesis topic because I didn’t feel confident enough with it, but my final topic has taught me more things about life than I could ever imagined), but in the end all the process sucks. The patient needs the medicine but it tastes awful.

So let’s list the things we learnt in this stage of our lives, they are not in a predefined order:

  • Everybody lies. The most important quote from House MD is something I learnt this time. People lie when they tell you they want to change, that they want to be out of their comfort zones, that they want to be better, etc. People lie to you because they lie to themselves.
  • People don’t want to change. I have changed sometimes in my life, mainly during hard times. I truly believe that “Change is the only thing that is permanent in life”. We are so dependent of the environment that any change on it should trigger compensations in ourselves so we can adapt to the new conditions, afterwards that’s how we have evolved from unicellular beings to homo sapiens sapiens. But people are so attached to their comfort zones that it is almost impossible for them to change, adapt and improve. I call that inertia, as first Newton’s law says: “An object that is in motion will not change its velocity unless an unbalanced force acts upon it”. Think that the object is the person and the motion is composed by all the things they are used to (like their jobs, their cars, their language, being stuck in traffic for hours, going to sleep late, chatting, Facebook, playing games, etc.), if there is no force that acts upon it the person will be the same all life. And the strongest force to change this motion resides in each one of us, if you don’t use it nothing is going to happen and the inertia will be forever.
  • Management. We were not as good managers as we thought. We decorated everything to motivate us, we were always there doing and helping, and we pushed a bit when it was required. In the end we didn’t realize how we should do it to improve the productivity, we failed in this, but we learnt a lot of things in the process. Like how important it is to have the team in the same place and the joy of a huge whiteboard.
  • Honesty. Studies show that we think the best of ourselves, that we are the best drivers, sons, parents, friends, students, etc. That’s why we don’t like that people tell us the reality, that we are not as good as we think. We defined as a core rule of our company the honesty, no matter what will happen we will very honest with ourselves. And we did it. We did an “honest meeting” once and it improved how we performed as a team. But we forgot about it and people went back. So for now on, if I will work again in a team, I will propose to create this “honest meetings” at least once per month to let people speak their minds, being honest with themselves and with others. The only way to build great things is through the transparency that honesty gives you.
  • Truth. I always thought that if you say the truth no matter how bad it will be and if you behave accord the law nothing will happen to you. All my life I’ve had problems with that, and during this time really bad things happened that made me change my mind. I still believe that truth, justice and equity are the key to change the world, but respecting those values will cost you, and sometimes will defeat you because the society we live in is not prepared yet to manage the truth.
  • Risk management. I learnt to be paranoiac about everything. If something has to fail it will fail, says a Murphy law. It is true, trust me. We planned everything, we had everything covered but we take for granted a small detail that, in the end, helped a lot to our failure. So please never take anything for granted, think about every possible scenario and be able to confront them. Being paranoiac can save your ass, so don’t be lazy and cover every corner.
  • Knowing each other. The best way to know people is to live with them, but trust me in this: you will never finish to know somebody. Each one of us has its own habits. Improvement the coexistence with others is just not an enough reason to change. Strong habits die hard, and I didn’t see any habit die while I was here. I still need to understand why people cannot adapt when circumstances require it, maybe they don’t give a shit about that.
  • Exercise. For the first time in my live I’ve been working out regularly for almost all the year. The results are not what I expected for all the work done (maybe more healthy food will help) but with more patience and discipline I can get in the shape I want. From now on exercise will be a must for the rest of my life. My only remorse is to have not learnt it some years ago.
  • Design. I do not like to design. I was not born with the neuron of art/design. But in the world we live now for technology to succeed it has to be related with design and arts, as Steve Jobs pointed out several years ago. We thought we could do our own design, we a bunch of geeks. And guess what… it sucked. The job that this guys do, designers, is impressive. With it they can sell a lot of things, even if it does not work in the backend. We provided a robust architecture, great and scalable performance, and it didn’t matter. Lesson learnt, next time hire a good designer. Ideas are not sold by how they perform but by how they look.
  • Motivation. I worked in AIESEC, as you might know (joke! no one reads this so you wouldn’t know :P). There I learnt how to motivate people and why it is important to make things happen. In this start-up experience I learnt that in order to motivation to succeed it has to find a catalyst inside you.  You can brain-wash all what you want but if the people don’t react or the motivation cannot find that catalyst it is not going to work. So you need to find the right people that has the catalyst your motivation needs.
  • Getting older. I’m 27 now. Studies show that is in this age when your brain activity begins to decay. So I’m really worried. I’ve been experimenting some changes in my brain activities since last year. Concentration is more difficult to get, now I’m procrastinating and getting easily distracted. My brain is becoming lazy, now I don’t remember a lot of phone numbers (not even mine) because I can access them quickly in my phone. So I’m beginning to train my brain. I’m learning again calculus, practicing my French, reading more books, making more exercise, and in the future I want to learn a new language and play again the guitar. Also I’m worried by the fact that I’m single and by somehow I’m feeling now that I want to have children. Maybe my brain thinks that it is time to rise a kid, teach him/her all I know and put in this world a being able to change it. Time passes, my brain gets older (hope not dumber) and the world is still there waiting for me to know it.
  • Antifragility. Antifragility is a concept introduced by Nassim Nicholas Taleb that wants to describe how biological system (like human beings) can recover from failures and become stronger. Human systems, such as education, economy, health among others, are fragile, meaning that each failure of the system leads to another failure, making the system weaker and more exposed to black swans, like the economic crisis of 2008. The author presents the need to create antifragile human systems in order to improve society. Our company was quite fragile, as many start-ups are. We didn’t know that and we didn’t build it in a way to be less fragile. And when adversity hit us, it was in a way we could not recover. So for the next time, if it will be one, we need to build ideas in a way they can resist adversities, get hurt and learn while they recover, in other words to be more antifragile.
  • Remorse. Simple, do your best and give all you have so you wont have any remorse. I did it in that way so no remorse baby!
  • Believe. At last but not least. You have to believe in you and your ideas to make them happen. It doesn’t matter if you don’t succeed at the first try, or if no one likes what you do. If you believe you will probably succeed. When we lunched we didn’t get the feedback or the acceptance we were waiting for. Then we decided to change the idea or how it is called a Pivot, but it went even worse. Now looking backwards I think we could have fought more, have not done the pivot, tried to create new things..., etc. Next time I hope I can believe more.

I don’t regret coming here. It has been an amazing experience. I’ve had the opportunity to live in two different countries: one several years behind mine and other several years ahead; this has taught me a lot of things and help me in my self-production process. Everything in life is an “apprentissage” and we have to take the best of each moment.

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