The Goldilocks Principle

Lisa Simpson says, “This is madness. He’s just peddling a bunch of easy answers!

In today’s age of social content, clickbait, and listicles, it’s easy to find pithy advice for startup founders and executives. A quick search for “startup CEO tips” listed these titles among many others:

  • 5 Operational Tips Every Startup CEO Should Know and Follow
  • The 13 Things a Startup CEO Must Do
  • 5 Simple Tips For Staying Calm From A Startup CEO
  • What is the best advice for a young, first-time startup CEO?

In these articles, you’ll find obvious tips like “make decisions quickly”, “be flexible”, or “build your network and ask for help.”

But startup leaders make hundreds of decisions every day — many of them far too complex for one-dimensional heuristics. Like most complicated decisions, there are tradeoffs and no easy answers. For every “make decisions quickly” there is an equally compelling “make decisions carefully” directive. In The Halo Effect, one of the best books I’ve ever read on business, and on critical thinking more generally — author Phil Rosenzweig talks about how the same business decision can be described as “decisive” or “impulsive”, a strategy can be considered “innovative” or “straying from the core.” There are very few, if any, simple and unilateral heuristics.

That’s why I encourage entrepreneurs to apply what I call The Goldilocks Principle: the best answer is usually somewhere in the middle. This doesn’t mean fail to make crisp decisions. Syndicated columnist and former Texas Secretary of Agriculture Jim Hightower once said, “the middle of the road is for yellow lines and dead armadillos.” Trying to serve SMB and enterprise markets simultaneously is a recipe for disaster. But in taking counsel and building a decision-making framework or leadership approach, there is a delicate balance between too flexible and too rigid. You have to take advice from the experienced people around you *and* you have to think for yourself. Finding the middle — seeing both sides of a decision, understanding the tradeoffs, and *then* being decisive — especially when being bombarded by lots of differing one-sided advice is one of the greatest challenges of a startup CEO, but it is an essential ability of the most successful ones.

In the end, being a startup CEO is a really lonely job — especially when making tough decisions. There is plenty of advice, but most cheap advice is worth what you pay for it. Beware The Bullshit Industrial Complex which doesn’t come with real expertise behind it and lacks context for the critical decisions you’re about to make. Even your own investors may not have sufficient knowledge or experience to provide clear guidance at critical junctures. In fact, I’ve found the best advisors are better at asking good questions or relating their own relevant experience than telling me what to do. Taking the input, synthesizing it with the facts at hand, and owning the results is a challenge. We can’t even confidently say “trust your gut” or “do the work/math/analysis” since they might say different things. But doing each and figuring out which feels “just right” between different problem solving techniques will likely yield better results than any one piece of cheap advice. And in the end, you’ll have your own longitudinal data set and experience to share with the next generation.

This principle pertains to decisions that are actually hard. And since many decisions an entrepreneur faces are actually hard, I offer no silver bullet advice. However, if you’re presented with quick opinions that are overly one-sided, consider what tradeoffs might be hiding behind what’s masking as an easy answer.