The Fallacy of Consistency in Startup Culture

Thomas Edison once said “There is no expedient to which a man will not go to avoid the labor of thinking.” Entire empires have collapsed by the dangerous comfort of conventional thought and yet American startups, once the lauded mavericks of the world, are increasingly susceptible to the virus of consistency.

Shortly after my ecommerce company was acquired last year, I followed the path of many misguided founders with cushy exits and became a consultant. The opportunity to solve complex problems for exciting companies, without the survival paranoia that comes with one’s own company, was quite tempting. I was surprised, however, by the anxious resistance every CEO demonstrated when presented with a repeatedly obvious problem — consistency.

One of the first companies I consulted for was an enterprise hosting provider I’ll figuratively refer to as Rome Hosting. Earlier in the year, Rome had introduced a premium product with innovative features that would offer significantly more value to its users. The thrilling potential of this new product allowed Rome to raise another round of funding, disproportionately invest in its launch and fill the entire office with endless enthusiasm. When I arrived several months later, Rome was losing sizable portions of its user base every month, was burning through cash reserves and a third of the desks at its office were now empty. What happened?

My approach was to talk to as many of the 20 or so remaining employees as I could before taking a look at the marketing woes which I was recruited to address. The benefits of the new product were identically articulated with a politician’s precision by every team member from customer service reps to developers to the C-suite. When asked about the product’s shortcomings, however, everyone was uniformly silent.

The energizing conviction of the CEO had fired up every single employee to convince themselves and the world how disruptive and differentiated Rome’s new product was from its competitors. That disruption and differentiation, however, lacked an inward component because the challenge to groupthink that Rome brought to the marketplace was sorely missing within its own team. For each of Rome’s employees, it was easier to be consistent with the group’s vision than to be the troublemaker wary of his commitments.

The homogeneous excitement and consistent devotion over the new product had overpowered the critical self-reflection and uncomfortable individualism that helped Rome initially create excellent products that exponentially grew its user base. The external confidence used to convince customers and investors had turned into internal blind belief in the product’s flawlessness and where blind belief starts, rigorous thought stops.

Complaints were met with sales pitches instead of solutions. Technical issues were met with temporary treatments instead of systemic cures. Cancelled accounts were met with arrogance instead of adaptiveness. As Rome took pride in its impeccable product, its competitors took pride in poaching Rome’s disillusioned customers. Rome’s employees had committed their passion and effort to this product and, as the history of human error has shown us, they became unflinchingly consistent to that commitment. Why step away from the losing table when you can double down?

Default consistency, after all, provides us a safe hiding place from the troubling realizations that challenge our convictions. Protected within these rigid walls of consistency, we remain impervious to reality’s unpleasant forecasts and vulnerable to its consequences. The moment it replaced constructive conflict with compliant consistency, Rome started to drown in confirmation bias and it took imminent extinction to save itself.

It’s almost been 20 years since Apple’s “Think Different” ads lit a contrarian fire in the minds of millions of Americans. Today’s entrepreneurs need to fight the tempting folly of mindless consistency every day to keep that fire burning.