6 Steps to the SOSV Wholebrain Startup

Alan Clayton
Jan 29, 2014 · 7 min read

We’ve all been told “use your brain” or “engage brain before opening mouth” or been judged as being “a brainless idiot”. We get the idea brains are important. We’ve had them a long time. They’re issued FOC to all Startups. They come in a pretty standard format. Bottom line — we struggle to use them effectively.

How come the brainy folk running the investment world are making almost -ve returns ? How come the brainy few running the food industry can’t feed everyone ? And how come 9 out of 10 brainy people who start companies end up inventing something nobody actually wants to pay for?

Clearly the answer lies between our ears.

So with 25 years of direct experience working everywhere from WalMart, AT&T, & Unilever thru mentoring over 250 start ups in a series of our own accelerator programs, SOSV has been gestating a wholebrain approach which just might be one small step for startup kind.


As Buckminster Fuller has it, “we’re all born genuises, but the process of living de-geniuses us”.

The infinite curiosity and confidence of the 2 year old, are progressively sabotaged by the tsunami of ‘limiting’ feedback received from parents, teachers, lecturers and bosses…..and, depressingly, investors !

So, despite the physical presence of a full deck of intelligences, we learn, by real life experience, that some are more valued than others. We adapt and employ the most loudly applauded thinking styles, consigning the scorned upon intelligences to the week-end, leisure time and vacations.

In business over the last 50 years, we’ve loudly applauded the scientific and financial elements of enterprise over the creative and social aspects.

So what ? So life expectancy of Fortune 500 companies has fallen from 50 years to around 10 years in just a decade, and the world is hungry and bankrupt.

The SOSV rescue package involves combining science and psychology, and in particular the work of Ned Herrmann at GE, & NLP gurus Robert Dilts & Todd Epstein, to offer a brighter future.

Start up basics are simple enough. Get idea. Make it. Sell it, ideally for more than it cost to make.

Wholebrain thinking, re-igniting that full deck of intelligences, increases the chances of success at every stage. Idea generation, achieving product/market fit, business metrication, team building, and all aspects of communication, selling and, of course, pitching to investors.

1. Wholebrain Idea Generation

Having ideas is what start up entrepreneurs are good at. The ability to look at the world, and see opportunity. To put things together in new ways, see visions, shape narratives. To see a group of people with a problem, and imagine a solution. And in extreme cases visualise a solution where there isn’t actually a problem.

In fact the tendency, born out by Start Up Genome research, is for start up founders to rely too heavily on their vivid imaginations, pure fantasy, and uncontrolled blue sky thinking. They “care more about impact and experience than money”. “Entrepreneurs don’t care about rules” says the research.

Wholebrain thinking on the other hand prompts the founder to ask questions like: “Is it financially viable and scalable ?”. “Is it something that potential customers really care about ?”. “Is it something that is practical to build, and efficient to run ?” Questions that consciously engage other intelligences.

2. Wholebrain Product Market Fit

The left brain intelligences have much to contribute here. They will prompt questions of the founders like “Is it value for money?” “Have you done your market research & competitor analysis?”. Less preferred intelligences, like an individual’s intuition and interpersonal intelligence are often under used at this stage. The need for right brain inspired, user friendly, beautiful design can be overlooked in favour of ‘what works’. The ability to enjoy going talking to real people, and really listening to their comments is also brushed over. The logic that claims “if Henry Ford listened to his customers he would’ve invented a faster horse” is thrown up as a defence. Not smart.

Critically, entire brand reputations have their origins rooted in one or other type of intelligence. Think retail. Wholefoods & Apple rely on constant new ideas (imagination)…..Tesco & WalMart win with economies of scale (analysis)….Nordstrom & Harrods focus on service (people)…Lidl & Aldi are masters of cost saving (systems). A start up needs to identify the intelligences it will applaud relentlesssly to establish long term competitive advantage.

3. The Wholebrain Business Plan

Once the project is set in motion, investors start requesting multi page business plans, knowing the only page that will get thumbed is the back page with the hockey stick projections. Some joke ?

For a typical start up a business plan is a useful discipline. Left alone the optimistic entrepreneur sees the whole world as a market, with few barriers to progress, and over enthusiastic sales assumptions (recent examples include a founder blissfully unaware the UN actually bans trading with certain potential customer nations — oooops !)

But the wholebrain approach prevents things getting out of hand. It demands an analytical review of the revenue model, the costs, the investment. And a systematic review of just how it works; is it efficient, what is the cost of customer acquisition, how many man hours of building are required, what are distribution costs etc ?

Wholebrain discipline looks equally seriously at the people stuff:- customer service, numbers of potential customers, and other relationships that will help such as channel partners, investors, and additional staff. Its critical to understand that as long as a working relationship exists (right brain emotional intelligence required here !!) then business may happen. No relationship (and just cold calculated analysis) = No business deal, not now, not soon, not never !!

4. Wholebrain Metrication

What gets measured gets done. What doesn’t get measured doesn’t. And because right brain intelligences are harder to measure numerically, they often aren’t. Unsurprisingly start ups measure cash burn, site visitors, revenue, customer acquisition rates etc. In the words of Balanced Scorecard supremos Kaplan & Norton these are basically ‘lag indicators’. They tell you where you’ve been. Relying on them is like navigating a ship by looking at the wake. So the SOSV wholebrain approach is here to remind us to look at ‘lead’ indicators, like team spirit, how our customers & partners feel about us and the number of prospects in the sales funnel. If these are in good shape too, we probably have a better chance of future success. And they can be measured — eg number of complaints, column inches of media coverage, customer meetings scheduled in a diary, staff surveys.

5. The Wholebrain Team

Taking the starship Enterprise on its mission was never a one man job, and the captain (Kirk), alone would have been helpless. OK, so he had a vision to “go boldly where no man has been before…” but he needed Dr Spock (analysis) to make calculated choices, Scotty (systems) the engineer to maintain the machinery, and Bones the doctor (people) to keep the team in good health.

And so it is in Start Up land. What’s needed is Thomas Edison’s imagination — the incandescent light bulb, NOT the improved candle. Mahatma Ghandi’s charismatic inspiration for the massive peaceful protest movement in India. Bertrand Russell’s analytical brain that spawned an entire revolt against idealism in late 18XX, and the school of analytic philosophy. And Otto von Bismarck’s “blood and iron” reputation in unifying several mini-empires into one hell of an efficient Germany around 1900. Imagine what any start up could achieve with all four rather than just one or two.

In a start up the Thomas Edison and the Bertrand Russell are often the happily wed co-founders. Imaginative (BusDev) and bright (Programmer). How much better could it be if they had their feet on the ground, and were super friendly.

6. Wholebrain Communication

Which brings us to wholebrain communication. Critical, whether its messaging on a website, pitching to investors, or selling to customers.

Most human beings have hearts which ultimately rule their heads; it just requires a decent level of ‘rapport’ to be established as quickly as possible, using all channels of communication, remembering only 30% of comms is words, and the majority uses the right brain sensitivity to non verbal signals, including voice tone, gestures, and facial expressions. All of which have parallels on line in the way text is written, images/videos are strewn around, and the path to purchase is laid down. Creating that rapport is easiest achieved by a process of matching and mirroring, or simply copying/reflecting the audience preferred style. So no good Mr Edison waxing lyrical about the start up ‘idea’, if the customer is a down to earth von Bismarck. And equally fruitless is the Biz Dev analyst imposing death by powerpoint on a story loving Ghandi.

Need to speak all the languages and demonstrate the flexibility to use them to good effect.

Take game design. Wholebrain games allow for those who want to ‘win’ (achievement oriented / competitive), those who love to dig into the detailed stats and move up the leagues (systematic), those who just want to play socially — who cares who wins ? (friendly), and those who’ll play whatever the newest novelty game is (dreamers). Gambling games on the other hand are not attractive to friendly dreamers wanting a reliable quiet means of entertainment. They satisfy simply the need to WIN !

SO.……..there you have it. Six steps to wholebrain startup happiness.

Now go check out our accelerator programs, including HAX and Chinaccelerator, and come practice what we preach.

Originally published at sosv.com on January 29, 2014.

SOSV: Inspiration from Acceleration

Insights from The Accelerator VC—including our programs (HAX, IndieBio, Chinaccelerator, MOX, Food-X, dlab) & our startups.

Alan Clayton

Written by

Roaming Mentor @ SOSV - Chinaccelerator, HAX, IndieBio, FoodX

SOSV: Inspiration from Acceleration

Insights from The Accelerator VC—including our programs (HAX, IndieBio, Chinaccelerator, MOX, Food-X, dlab) & our startups.

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