Startups: Choose Who You Are Being

“Being wrong feels exactly same as being right, up until the moment you realize it.” — Kathryn Schulz

Growing up as a tech nerd, I soon realized that one of the games you had to win at to keep your nerd cred was the game of “I’m right and therefore you are wrong”. I got really good at amassing a painfully large number of facts that were both accurate and counterintuitive, such as “inflammable” is a synonym for “flammable” and people like you less if you do them a favor than if you ask them to do you a favor.

Years of personal development, a happy marriage, and the wisdom of a good friend have all taught me that being right about a font of facts is not my most attractive feature, so I have worked to tone down the tendency over time. It’s still sometimes tempting though!

As an entrepreneur, choosing how to be is one of the most critical yet least discussed aspects of both failure and success. Nearly every piece of advice focuses on what to have and what to do:

  • Do A/B testing
  • Have a great product
  • Do stand up meetings
  • Have a great team
  • Do regular reporting
  • Have accurate management accounts

The list of things you must do and must have is endless, as is the list of things not to do and not to have. While much of this advice can be useful, there is a problem.

No matter how hard you try and how hard you plan, it is very hard to have a great degree of deterministic control over what you and your team do and don’t do, and it’s even harder to control what you do and don’t have.

Early on in my entrepreneurial career, I strived to control precisely what my team and I had and what my team and I did with limited success. Time and again I would put out a fire only to have another start in its place, and the morale of my team appeared to vary almost randomly, sometimes good in adversity and sometimes bad, sometimes great with success and other times not so much.

I remember once winning a decent customer contract only to have my head of sales quit the same day because he felt “unrecognized’ despite gaining the largest commission in his life that very afternoon.

Now of course, what you do and have are both important. For instance. having great traction and doing your best are definitely going to assist you to have success, especially when fundraising. The point here is that what you do and have are both less deterministic than you would like.

So what? Well here is the thing: while you might not have nearly as much control of what you do and have as you would like, there is something you have nearly complete control over that is just as critical to your success, and also crucial in how you deal with failure.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” — the famous quote from the amazing Peter Drucker — is often looked at through the lenses of the things you have and the things you do, and so it is often assumed that culture is somehow mysterious and difficult.

A really good friend, John Colville, once told me that my having a huge number of facts at my disposal did not endear me to anyone, and that what I was doing by beating people with my knowledge was actually my least charismatic trait.

It took me quite a while to figure out the difference between being a knowledgeable contributor and being a know-it-all, and even today I sometimes still get the balance wrong. Yet today, it’s an accident, and back in my youth it was an almost all-consuming intent.

This is the thing you get to choose that, more than anything, can get you across the chasm of adversity that is the maelstrom of startup. You and your team get to choose who you are being in every situation you encounter, and what you choose to be matters a lot.

Choosing who, what, and how you are being in response to the world might appear obvious. Yet we fail this test every day, and most especially we often fail to even recognize what ways of being serve us and our team the best, leading to useful having and doing, versus what ways of being lead to us having problems and doing the wrong thing.

Crucially the culture that Peter Drucker valued so highly is actually composed of ways to be more than anything else. So consider now some ways for you and your team to be. I will describe some which you may wish to add or subtract to and from your culture. Some are obvious and others not (a couple are delightfully counterintuitive):

Be Purposeful.
Purpose-driven companies are all the rage, and for very good reason. Aligning on a clear purpose is tremendously productive. At SOSV our purpose is “making impossible inevitable”, and it drives us to seek out cutting edge technologies that are just ready enough to go mainstream. Having a clear purpose is simply the key to team productivity.

Be Honest.
If you cannot get the benefits of radical honesty and integrity in startup, you really ought to do something else.

Be Transparent.
Demand clarity in all things. It is hard to express how much bulldust and time wasting can be alleviated simply by not being secretive. Secrecy rarely adds value and frequently adds drama (some of which can have PR value) that in reality you don’t have time for.

Be Kind.
By this I do not mean be soft or weak — I mean genuinely be kind and polite to people. It really costs you nothing and has the capacity to generate a whole host of cultural benefits for your team, your suppliers, and your customers.

Be Demanding.
There is nothing wrong with authentically demanding performance, and do not confuse this with being needy. Being demanding is about extracting the best performance out of yourself and everyone in your team.

Be Humble.
Nothing makes you visibly and actually more resilient than humility, and with humility you open yourself up to being liked and trusted as well as to the next critical way to be.

Be Curious.
The opposite of being right is not actually being wrong, and as previously mentioned, the feeling of being right is identical to the feeling of being wrong. No, the true opposite of being right is being curious. Having the courage to question things, to test, to investigate especially when you think you know, is one of the most critical ways to being a startup. Certainty is often a potent illusion and curiosity is the cure.

Be Unstoppable.
I was recently asked, “When do you know that you have failed and it’s time give up on your startup?”. I asked a simple question in return: “Have you learned everything you can from your startup yet?”. The answer was “No”, and so the founders overcame the problems and kept going. This is not about optimism, it is about the attitude of always, always, always finding a way to get there.

By now you should get the idea that being things like generous are more likely to assist your success than being stingy, likewise being courageous rather than fearful or being resilient rather than angry. The idea is that you and your team get to make choices about who you are all being, and by sharing those choices and calling each other out on the choices you all make as things progress, you get to form a culture that is both strong, purposeful, and transmissible.

When James Welton and I started CoderDojo with the purpose of getting the world’s young people to learn to become talented coder poets, we looked long and hard at the rules we would set out for those attending CoderDojo clubs. After a lot of trial and error we settled on just a single sentence for the young people to abide by, and it has worked exceptionally well at CoderDojos across the world. That directive? One rule: Be cool!

Bill Liao is Managing Director at RebelBio and General Partner at SOSV.

Originally published at on July 15, 2017.