Everything I Need to Know About Startups I Learned from Quantum Leap

Heather Wilde
Jul 1, 2015 · 6 min read

In 1989, a new kind of Science Fiction show came to the airwaves. This arrived at just the right time for my impressionable mind to soak in lessons from television. The first episode had me hooked — the premise can be summed up with the opening credit narration:

Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Doctor Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator — and vanished. He awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear. And so Doctor Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap… will be the leap home.

Wow.

That’s a lot of impact right there.

You have a scientist willing to risk everything — quite literally putting his life on the line — to test his theory, and when he is proven right he found himself compelled to make the world a better place.

Sound familiar?

It definitely can be parodied when used as a buzz word, but when I watch Sam Beckett jump from one situation to another, I really see the heart of entrepreneur-ism — as it was meant to be.

So, here are my key learnings from Quantum Leap that I hope you can use in your life.


Empathize, Empathize, Empathize

Sam never knew what the situation was going to be ahead of time — he’d leap, take a quick assessment, and in the time for him to say “Oh, boy!” he’d have to start running with whatever he had to go with this week.

You won’t always have the luxury of time to get to know someone — in fact, you will only be granted that privilege if you pass through this initial phase well enough. So how did Sam do it?

It was a combination of things, including Situational Awareness (where am I right now? If it’s war, I’m probably a soldier.) and Subtext cues from the people around (for example, perhaps the person holding my hand or handing me a drink and then putting their arm around me is probably someone I am in a romantic relationship with). The way you make those decisions quickly is via something we call Empathy.

I cannot stress this enough to my clients, the people I’m advising, people in my workshops (or anyone I speak to, really) — If you aren’t empathizing with your customer, you will lose the sale.

What is Empathy? As Sam visually demonstrates in every episode, it is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to see things from their perspective.

By taking the leap, taking the limited information he’s got and filling in the blanks with his own experience, he can get each new project started quickly.


Gather Your Team

Sam is the classic entrepreneur: no risk, no reward. It wasn’t until Season 4 (when he actually did return home, albeit temporarily) Sam’s memory returns to him and he remembers he had a wife, who worked with him on the project and supported his leaving her — possibly forever.

It was that episode that cemented for me the true meaning of being an entrepreneur, and what it means to the people around you, who love and support you. The entrepreneur is like a flame that constantly burns, and there is a path of destruction they leave in their wake.

A person who gives himself wholeheartedly to their passion has little to no room for anyone or anything else. In Sam’s case, his wife made the choice to say goodbye to him the second time, knowing that the Quantum Leap project was the thing that made Sam his most perfect self. She gave him up a second time, because she was at peace with her status as a supporting player in Sam’s life.

The life of an entrepreneur can be a lonely one —just look at Sam’s journey! The more people you allow to support you, the longer the flame will keep burning.


Metrics, Metrics, Metrics

Sam’s only constant through the years of travel was his holographic friend Al. Dependable to a fault, Al would give him as much information as he could about the timelines, where he had it, and be there to brainstorm whenever there wasn’t any other option.

The problem is that no matter how much Sam wanted Al to be around, he wasn’t really there. Sam couldn’t rely on Al’s backup because he was someone that no one else could see.

This is an important lesson for entrepreneurs — you can boast about the greatest algorithm, or design, or user count all you want, but unless you have something tangible to back it up, you’re just tilting at windmills.

Make sure that whatever you are talking about, you can prove results. If you can’t, then find something you can prove and talk about that instead.

Measurable results are useful.

Anything else, you’re just talking to a hologram.


Celebrate Your Victories

Near the end of each episode, usually right before he leaped, Sam would have a moment to reflect on the good he had done that week. Some weeks he had done appreciable change (helped the civil rights movement), and some less noticeable (fixed a relationship), but there would always be that “I did it!” moment.

Entrepreneurs need to take the time to celebrate their wins a lot more frequently than they do. In order to do this, they need to break down their days — maybe it is “I got through my inbox today!” or “I ate lunch!” or even “I took a shower!” (Hey, I don’t judge. I know how it is!)

I probably don’t know you, and I already know that you are great at acknowledging the bad (ie, the things you haven’t finished, the things you do that you wish you didn’t). That’s Awesome! Now flip it around and congratulate yourself for something you’ve accomplished today!

It doesn’t have to last for long — Sam only took a second doing it, before he leaped into the next person and started all over again.


Define Your Outcome

Sam was given an opportunity to return home, once and for all, when he was enlightened in the finale by the mysterious Bartender that he was the master of his own destiny.

He was asked a question that I often ask my clients — “Where would you like to go?”

Entrepreneurs are great at risk, and not always great at outcomes. Until he was asked this question, he was focused on the “hoping the next leap would be the leap home” part.

But what did he really want? Had that changed?

After thinking it over, really taking the time to understand it, he was able to determine that the outcome he desired was to keep leaping, to keep changing the world, one leap at a time. He’d never return to his wife, never have a family of his own, and no one would ever know his sacrifice.

He would even lose Al, as the last leap changed the timeline to keep them from meeting.

And yet, that was the outcome he chose.

Being an entrepreneur is difficult…

…but I would choose it again in a heartbeat. (Or, maybe Sam will choose it for me..)

    Heather Wilde

    Written by

    Female Entrepreneur. Startup Veteran. Angel Investor. Early @ Evernote & Spirit Air. CTO @ ROCeteer, TWIP, With.Me | Coach @VTF & Seikouri. @WSLab & Food-X