Startups, Meet Sondheim

Into the Woods

“If you know what you want, you go and you find it and you get it.”

On Christmas Day, Walt Disney Pictures releases Into the Woods, the sixth major motion picture adaptation from Stephen Sondheim’s expansive body of work. Director Rob Marshall will helm, following his success with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and capitalizing on his Academy Award nomination for Best Director of movie musical Chicago in 2002.

The lyric above is sage advice from one of the production’s characters known only as the Baker’s Wife. In retrospect, the words could almost describe Marshall’s astounding path from talented choreographer — the creator of movement and dance — to a noted stage and film director in under a decade. They could also apply to any one of us with a big vision, including entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and innovators.

Stephen Sondheim, the man who crafted these words into song, lived this lesson himself. Like most theater fans of the last three generations, I was introduced to Sondheim’s work through West Side Story, to which he wrote the lyrics at age 25. By the time I discovered him around 1990, he was 50, and in just half his life to date had won six Grammys, six Tonys, six Drama Desk Awards, three Laurence Olivier Awards, an Academy Award, a Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and had convinced a young Jonathan Larson to write what would become the international phenomenon Rent.

At 24, however, Sondheim was unknown. A staff television writer at the time, he sprang out of nowhere to become what The New York Times calls the “greatest and perhaps best-known artist in American musical theater.”

His story, as in many others we could study, follows a similar pattern. Sondheim wrote 10 musicals before the debut West Side Story, from “By George” at 15, which his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, called the worst thing he’d ever seen, to an as yet unproduced “The Last Resorts.”

A string of 10 straight unsuccessful musicals, then a skyrocket to the top of his field.

What can Sondheim’s ascent teach us about taking a market?

Dr. William Jackson, serial founder of university entrepreneurship programs, is the gentleman on the right.

A simple question

Sitting at a small bar off Beale Street in Memphis, William Jackson ponders, “Why aren’t startups more successful?”

His question is principally rhetorical, as Dr. Jackson founded entrepreneurship programming at three separate universities: Stephen F. Austin State University, University of Texas of the Permian Basin and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where I have the privilege of working with him. (Dr. William Jackson will be named USASBE’s 2015 Educator of the Year at their national conference in January.) We are in Memphis for the annual conference of the Association of Small Business & Entrepreneurship, a forty-year-old non-profit dedicated to improving entrepreneurial education. Jackson, as executive director, is driven by the real-world success of student startups.

My head is abuzz with potential answers. It feels as every article I’ve read lately on going to market revolves about A/B testing, growth hacking and startup metrics. Everyone seems to have an answer about removing risk, error and guesswork from startups. Embrace failure. Learn, build, test solutions. Each lesson contains perfectly rational advice for entrepreneurs.

Yet we haven’t quite mastered the fine art of building successful companies. Startups are just as speculative today as they were ten years ago. Seed stage investing is no easier now than before all the fancy analytics and tricks. Predicting opportunity requires faith over fact.

What’s up with that?

With all these methods, frameworks and platforms, you’d think we have this figured out. We don’t. Startups simply don’t have enough throughput to run a statistically reliable A/B test. Growth hacks have a small window of effectiveness. Startup metrics are historical, valuing what has happened over what is happening next.

The thing is, startups work when markets explode from seemingly nowhere, and you have a product that meets this market’s need. We saw this unfold with Seattle’s music scene in the early nineties. Nirvana struck a nerve, built an early market, and then our desire for similar music built a global phenomenon, producing countless successful acts.

You cannot measure your way to explosive market growth.

You can pick a cresting wave and surf it. And the best surfers can intuitively feel where the wave is going to appear. Math has nothing to do with it. Math only works after the signals are present. By then it is too late to arrive. Taking a market is no different. Feel the wave; make sure you are ready to surf; do your best not to wash out.

What’s missing?

In a word: Strategy.

Startups, meet Sondheim

Strategy is the intentional coalescence of a goal with tactical execution. If strategy was a recipe, we’d mix one part vision to one part get-r-done.

And Sondheim’s journey encapsulates these two components of strategy. Better yet, his lyrics reflect his life’s work, his strategy.

One passion drives Sondheim, and that is crafting music and lyrics. Knowing this early allowed him to recognize opportunity as it arose. For example, a young Sondheim befriended the son of Broadway lyricist and producer Oscar Hammerstein II. Hammerstein became Sondheim’s most influential mentor.

Even in the face of impossible odds, Stephen persisted. Did he A/B test his work? No, he simply attempted to achieve personal growth. Did he attempt to hack shortcuts to success? No, he kept himself open to serendipity. Did he measure growth channels? No, he focused on what was important, his goal.

And this is the power of leveraging strategy in startups.

Failure can be measured in two ways: small and fast or big and slow. If we are looking to fail quickly, chances are we’ll find what we are looking for. If we seek to succeed towards a goal bigger than ourselves — or any one metric — failure is only assured when not pursuing our passions.

Startups can learn an important lesson from the Baker’s Wife this Christmas: “If you know what you want, you go and you find it and you get it.”