LUCKY OR SMART? There Is No Such Thing As A Great Startup

Bo Peabody

Below is the fourth chapter of entrepreneur and VC Bo Peabody’s book, LUCKY OR SMART: Secrets For An Entrepreneurial Life

Before you read this chapter, you might want to read a quick overview of Bo’s experience of founding his first company, Tripod: How To Start A Company In Your Dorm Room And Make $580 Million.

You might also want to read the Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter 2 and Chapter 3.

Chapter 4

There are thousands of business books, most of which contain not one useful word for entrepreneurs. But I’m sure they contain many useful concepts for managers. My friends who pride themselves on being good managers devour these books at the rate of several per week. God bless them. Remember, eventually these A-student managers have to show up and actually run the messes we B-student entrepreneurs create.

My sense is that the vast majority of business books use a lot of different words and stories to talk about the same topic: the transition that companies and their employees must make from “being good” to “being great.” I don’t know what the hell any of these books actually say (I’m opposed to reading most business press…more on this later), but they have titles like Good to Great, so I assume they help you elevate yourself from the drudgery of goodness to the shining light of greatness.

Greatness is exactly the wrong thing for entrepreneurs to strive for. I tell my colleagues: “Never let great be the enemy of good.” A good decision made quickly is far better than a great decision made slowly.

There is no such thing as a great start-up, because every start-up can be improved upon. And most of the improvement happens between the first incarnation of a company and the tenth. Maybe by then, the company might well be considered great. And that is precisely the moment by which all of the true entrepreneurs will have left the building.

Start-ups are like extreme-skiing runs. The person who wins is the one who screws up the least and doesn’t die. Success in a start-up is being around tomorrow, a lot of days in a row. The wisest thing my colleague Dick Sabot ever said to me was that “if we survive, we will succeed.” Why? Because like the first run down an uncharted Alaskan peak, Tripod was such a big, crazy, and fundamentally innovative idea—allowing anyone in the world to publish whatever he or she wanted for free—that just surviving was going to look awfully good.

This type of logic confounds A-student managers. A’s are great. B’s are good. A’s are success. B’s are survival. A-students simply cannot allow their perfectionist minds to settle for good; they need great. But start-ups move too fast for greatness. Greatness, and the deliberate, perfectly-thought-through decision-making that greatness demands, is for companies like General Electric. This always has been, and always will be, true. Start-ups move more swiftly than established corporations. They don’t have time to consider everything carefully or to perfect their products.

So if start-ups can’t afford to be great, how do some succeed so wildly? My favourite illustration of this paradox is Project Mercury, the precursor to NASA that was commissioned to determine if humans could survive in outer space. Think of Project Mercury as the ultimate start-up, and think about NASA as the quintessential established company. The folks who worked on Project Mercury succeeded in actually figuring out that people could survive in outer space. Or, to be more accurate, they justified the creation of NASA and its very large budget. Without Project Mercury, the folks at NASA wouldn’t be terribly busy today. Project Mercury was important, very successful, and certainly fundamentally innovative. But was it great?

Think about what NASA does today. People live in outer space for months at a time. Schoolteachers, businessmen, and celebrities are taking rides into orbit. We’ve got satellites circling most every planet, and we’re researching ways to put whole cities in outer space. Now, these things are great!  NASA is version 10 of the product that Project Mercury entrepreneured. And it takes a whole lot of A-students, managing a large organisation with an astronomical budget, to make NASA run smoothly and generate the consistent, steady, marginal improvements that greatness requires.

Maybe you’ve never heard of Project Mercury, but you’ve certainly heard of NASA. Maybe you’ve never heard of Tripod, but you’ve certainly heard of General Electric. Project Mercury and Tripod are good. NASA and General Electric are great. Start-ups are no place for greatness; leave that to the large, established companies. If your idea is big enough, and crazy enough, all you have to do is survive. If you survive, you will succeed.

Reprinted from Lucky or Smart? Secrets to an Entrepreneurial Life by Bo Peabody.