Crazy enough to change the world

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Steve Jobs, Stanford University commencement speech, 2005

Last week one of our mentors abruptly resigned from coaching one of the Lean LaunchPad student teams after claiming the students were ignoring his practical advice and years of expertise in the field.

His reaction reminded me one more time why entrepreneurship is an art, why VC’s manage portfolios of companies and why new ideas come from those who don’t respect the status quo.

I’m a Domain Expert Damn It
We always assign experienced mentors to our student teams. In this class this seemed like a perfect fit – a driven (irrational?) founder paired with a mentor who had two operating companies in this space, who had developed and sold vertical market software to companies in this space, and had studied the field as an academic specialty. A match made in heaven?  Not exactly.

The mentor tried his best to get the team to look at the actual operating data that exists for this kind of service and the likely regulatory hurdles they will find. He was very negative about the concept and strongly suggested the team do a pivot, but the founder was very determined to make a go of his concept.

He finally quit in frustration.

And here’s the conundrum – given a wise mentor (or VC) with years of experience telling you it’s a bad idea – what should you as the founder do?

Are You Crazy Enough?
What we suggest to teams in the classroom is the same as I suggest to teams in real world startups – after customers and experienced people are telling you it won’t work –

  1. Are you passionate enough to still believe?
  2. Can you explain after why getting out of the building and hearing all the negative news you still want to persevere?
  3. Will it change the world enough to make it worth the trials, travails and pain in getting there?

If so, ignore the other voices. The world moves forward on those who are dissidents. Because without dissent there is no creativity. A healthy disrespect for the status quo coupled with passion, persistence and agility trumps everything else.
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34 Responses

  1. Wow Fantastic!

  2. Pursuing either course to the extreme doesn’t make sense. If the entrepreneur ALWAYS follows his/her heart, one don’t need a mentor. On the other hand, if the mentor demands his way or now way, he should be a close-minded CEO, not a mentor. Somehow both sides need to be able and willing to learn from each other or there’s no value in the relationship

  3. Dear Steve,
    Very interesting scenario:
    My view>>>

    the opinion by the mentor that the idea shall not work is a hypothesis (regardless of the mountain of evidence and his expertise in the space)
    – the opinion by the founder that the idea will work in the face of the above is also a hypothesis (his strong conviction not withstanding)
    – the only way to know for sure, is when the rubber meets the road
    – if after intense customer development (which is also advisory) the founder feels very strongly about the idea then he should go for it
    – he has the most skin in the game. what does he stand to lose, if he goes with an MVP? a few years of experience (failure or success), and the loss or gain of a few hundred or thousands of dollars. BUT HE GAINS TONS OF EXPERIENCE!

    Austin Okere
    Group CEO

  4. Advice is great. Sometimes, you need to see it for yourself.

  5. did the founder examine Plan B, i,e, the Pivot suggested by the Mentor? Sounds like this team is either incredibly brilliant or really, really stubborn. Not much in between I am afraid.

  6. The 3 questions are appropriate for balance. Reminds me of the coachability “4th leg” of venture evaluation. When is positive persistence (and ability to listen) occurring, and when is negative insistence (and blocked ability to listen) occurring. Never really know. We find ourselves in the “people chemistry” zone as well in times like that.

  7. There is discipline in being passionate towards your vision of entrepreneurialship, but there is always a balance of common sense too. Perhaps in avclassroom setting the odds are stacked in your favor, but there’s much to be said when a mentor you respect and know suggests something that makes you think through the processes you are undertaking. It’s one thing altogether to have a person playing the role of experienced mentor and another thing altogether of having one who is genuine and cares to guide you down the path. Yes, there is always a sense within us that tells us whether we are onto something, but these must be balanced with common sense principles to listen and examine (research) what a trustee mentor has to say.

    Good article.

  8. Entreprenuers who push fowward when faced with negative data or reasons why their prodcuts will fail will only succeed if they can find a path forward that can overcome the obstacles they face.

  9. excellent post…


  10. As a first time founder of a start-up I’ve got to be realistic and humble while still being true to myself. I’m realistic knowing that most start-ups fail. I’m humble knowing that I need advice and mentoring. But every time I move away from being true to myself (and following status quo) the quality of my work drops and we lose momentum. I’m still working on when to pivot vs when to follow my gut.

  11. The example was passion, from the entrepreneur,
    talking to empirical history, from the mentor.

    That could have been like Icarus talking to an
    expert chariot builder.

    There is a third way: Rationality, or if you will,
    solid engineering.

    Indeed, Langley fell into the river about when the
    Wright Brothers were on the way to Kitty Hawk.

    It wasn’t just passion that make the Wrights
    successful or lack of passion that had Langley fail:
    In simple terms, the Wrights really knew what the
    heck they were doing, and Langley didn’t much know
    what he was doing. And Langley was funded, and his
    funders didn’t understand what they were funding,

    Or, the Wrights had built a wind tunnel and had some
    good measurements of lift and drag, applied the same
    to their propeller design, and could calculate
    needed thrust and engine power. And the Wrights
    understood the crucial need for good three axis
    control. The Wrights did some good engineering.
    Langley didn’t.

    Yes, sadly the Wrights missed Reynolds number that
    would have shown them how better to scale their wind
    tunnel result and, thus, use a thick wing instead of
    the thin one that was the best in their little wind
    tunnel but not in their much bigger airplane.

    If going to go into the unknown, history might hold
    you back, passion might get you to go, but a good
    map is much better, still. For the unknown, usually
    solid rationality is the best map. With a good map,
    even a prudent man, low in passion, can laugh at
    empirical history and run circles around a guy with
    no map and only passion.


    Four years ago Neurologist Dr. Gregory Berns published ‘ICONOCLAST’ – I read it three times over that Xmas and three times since.

    An Iconoclast is somebody who does things that ‘everybody’ say is impossible. The Iconoclast ‘knows’ it is possible but, unlike ‘everybody else’ has VISION. The Iconoclast knows What, How, By whom, When , Where and Funding route.

    My Mentor, Professor Emeritus Gunnar Sohlenius in Sweden, says that “ViISION is the Cornerstone of Innovation”.

    Dr. Berns says that based on the past five years of understanding the Human Brain it is now understood WHY there are so few Iconoclasts ….the prerequisite is:
    1. Perception ….seeing the glass half-full:
    2. Absence of fear of failure and/or ridicule
    3. Social intelligence ….how to steer the ‘crazy idea through the nay-sayers to fulfillment.

    I am currently engaged is a multi-BILLION (if not Trillion!) World-Wide Wealth & Welfare’ initiative. There have already been FIVE successful multi-Million dollar projects.

    NOT ONE of my highly positioned and respected mentors has said “This can never go” yet extremely few decision makers ….and mentors alike…exhibit more than traces of behavior.

    At age 72 (73 next week ) I’m on the edge of as you say “giving up in frustration”. If ‘ICONOCLASM’ would be a component of advanced education the number of Iconoclasts would take off exponentially …..that is why I have included ICONOCLASM in the proposed ECO-SYSTEM.

    Please note that lack of courage is NOT the main reason for abandonning a VISION. It is because the millions of years of brain evolution have ‘taught’ the potential consequences of following the heart. If one should understand one’s own ‘neurology’ then INNOVATION would flourish.

    These days, outside-the-box innovation ALWAYS follows the same route:
    Resist it
    Accept it, then
    Take it for granted

    One must be aware that the Human Brain works that way …….

    Regards Brian in Sweden
    Alias Sir George the Dragon Slayer
    Knighted in Canadian Dragons’ Den 2009

  13. Steve, why ask “passionate enough”?
    Did they do a test or MVP to get data and see if they are correct? What could the entrepreneur build into an MVP to test the idea? What about testing the mentors suggestion to compare?
    Sure everyone says it is wrong, but when those kids buy Beatles albums, pretty soon they will be on the Ed Sulivan show.

  14. Last week I met with the first farmer I’m working with, talking about distribution and the human element of organizing home delivery of food. The next day a Columbia professor on biz ops came and gave a talk at the co-working space where all the Start-up Chile people are, giving lots of fun anecdotes about CEO’s in big companies. So I asked him about how I could structure a network of freelancers who nonetheless maintain a company standard of service, and he said it would be impossible because good people would demand employment contracts ect.

    I said “what can be done?”

    He said “have you thought about going into a different business?”

    Pff. Glad I never hit up the Ivy League.

    Within the next 72 hours I interviewed several people, most older, most with more degrees than me, lots of demand for part-time work from high quality people – validated it is not an issue. I also recruited an advisor/possible exec who is almost twice my age for equity only. He kept trying to get me thinking about price competition, I told him we’ll compete with Whole Foods pricing, not Food Lion’s.

    Like in any relationship, good dialogue comes from a mix of respect and assertiveness.

  15. As a mentor to a number of startup teams, I do share my relevant experience with the teams, however instead of telling the founder he or she is wrong, I greatly increase my encouragement to get out of the building and validate their hypothesis. That is what I love about the customer development process.

  16. I like your 3 test questions a lot. It helps to also remmeber that stubbornness is not strength, it may be ignorance. But if the founder can answer your 3 questions, then it’s a persistence supported by reality or at least possibility. Great blog!

  17. Great story. When I mentor a team, the first thing I always do is test how they react to very negative criticism. There’s 2 reactions I like to hear: adamant disagreement, or thoughtful consideration with a plan to adjust. Too often you hear vague disagreement, or moderate consideration with no plan, and those founders tend to flounder.

    I applaud stubborn founders because they remind me of myself. When I started my current company right out of school, the first 11 customer meetings I had all told me not to waste my time. It would be hard, I’m too young, etc. The 12th person I met liked it so much he became an advisor to the company, and things took off from there. A couple years later we had converted 10 of those first 11 meetings.

    You have to be very stubborn and hard willed to handle 11 negative meetings and keep pushing. Also, during these experiences of everyone saying no to you, often your family and friends are also looking at you like you’re crazy. It can be a very lonely experience. It’s nice to see posts like this supporting “the crazy.”

    There’s a limit to being too stubborn, and being stubborn does not imply ignoring facts and reality, but it’s a shame the advisor quit on the team so soon.

  18. Great post -and a tough case to solve.

    Speaking from the perspective of a young entrepreneur, I hear a lot of advice from a lot of people (I think age and lack of experience makes everyone feel a need to give advice). The problem is, not all advice is good advice.

    Ironically, sometimes I am the one asking about whether something is validated and the advisor is relying on faith. Of course, sometimes I am the one with faith. The difficult balance is finding a middle ground between validation and faith -because data shows you what is happening now or in the past, not what will happen in the future. So if you rely on just data or the “industry standards,” I think it is difficult to do something groundbreaking.

  19. Really nice advice Steve, regards from Colombia… I took the LeanLaunchpad with Bob Dorf and it was a really nice experience… One of the things I learned was specifically that… Persevere and listen to your customers

  20. I think a mentor could consider asking good questions of the mentee so that the mentee can think through the decision with the best probability of success. If the mentor is perceived to be giving answers instead of asking good questions, I can understand why an entrepreneurial founder may resist it.
    Probably still a worthwhile experience for both, however imperfect in the courtship and the divorce.

  21. If you have theory, follow it through and check it out. You may learn more than you initially anticipated. Switch into glide. Enjoy the ride.

  22. Excellent perspective. Yes I am this crazy. Nobody understands my passion like I do because they are part of me, not them. I can’t change the world but I can make a difference one attitude at a time.

  23. Sometimes failure is a better learning experience – small failures should be encouraged. If I give up before trying, I’ll always wonder what might’ve been.

  24. Spot on! As a business and economic development consultant, I never put myself equal to God, determining who will and will not succeed in business & entrepreneurship. Because the truth is, the VC/mentor does not know the future. However, they do know and can help improve the likeliness/probability of success. This is any consultant/advisor at best. Great blog, I identify with both parties!

  25. The mentors role is to guide and give advice to the mentee. It is up to the mentee to make the decision as to which direction to take and under no obligation to go in the direction given. However, the direction taken by the mentee is at least an informed one. Even new business people once they have all the input from others have to go with their evaluation and gut. The world is changing, these entrepreneurs are hopefully creating new “Blue Ocean” products/services.

  26. Thank you for a great post.

    When I mentor teams and founders today, after gaining first hand experience as co-founder and early employee of startups, I see my role as advisory.

    I explicitly tell the founders that they do not have to follow my advice. I don’t measure their progress based on whether they meet any milestones I invent (I don’t), but whether they meet milestones THEY themselves have set up.

    If they don’t, I’m there to help them analyze what went south and how to learn and iterate based on the findings.

    I don’t validate business models. Unless I am part of the target demographic I don’t assume to have a better hit-rate than anyone else. I encourage founders to go out and ask (sell to) the only people who can help them validate their idea/model, customers.

    I advise, share knowledge and encourage progress.

    I do not run the company or make decisions.

  27. Mentoring is its own art. For people who are used to making the decisions it can be very, very hard to “let go” and let people make mistakes. But you have to realize that it’s not your business and that ultimately you are a sign post. Let them learn, either through success or failure.

  28. I’ve had some strong product successes (and done most dumb things at least once) which I suppose qualifies me to be a valuable mentor. I’ve met with many startups, VCs and Angels and found I was a mediocre mentor at best but I fit right in with the half-baked ideas and investors who thought they knew more than those with the passion and willingness to take the risk. It could be frustrating at times. However, it all changed rather quickly and I became a great mentor when I had a mentor epiphany… I’m not really sure which ideas will actually work and neither do the entrepreneurs, VC’s, Angels or other mentors. While I certainly have opinions of what I like or dislike I started to literally tell the entrepreneurs –I don’t actually care about your idea just yet because I don’t know if it will work.

    Instead I now focus entirely on working with the person or company to prove: 1. Users will use it 2. Suppliers will supply (e.g. if you have listing model, prove people will actually provide a listing) 3. they can get pre-sales (an actual commitment to buy such as an LOI). A 3B would be distribution commitments which is kind of a form of pre-sales or an avenue to getting pre-sales. 4. Investors will invest, usually if you hit some milestones (not to be confused with “Seymour” potential investors who continually want to –see more– who are really saying “no” for now).

    Suddenly I was brilliant because people were forced to get out of the building, get feedback, and validate. I starting to use a methodology and tools such as surveys, SEM tests, Craigslist tests, rapid prototyping typically without writing a line of code. Ironically, they worked harder (and smarter) and I worked less yet it was like they had a religious conversion. For the first time, they were getting fabulous and useful feedback that could quickly be used to improve the aim of their product or service (again, typically without having built an alpha or beta). Even bad feedback is energizing for most because they know the changes that can be made to make a better product.

    Almost always there are pivots. Then there are follow up surveys or prototypes with the feedback getting more positive creating a virtuous cycle. And finally a product is built that looks more like a version 2 product (and the Lean Startup process kicks in). Many times the answer is your product is not ready for prime time because you can’t yet get users, suppliers, pre-sales, or investors but almost never is there frustration between me, the mentor, and the entre/intrapreneur. Sometimes I work with someone will not do the market and product validation work but then I realize –I don’t actually care about your product just yet because I don’t know if it will work– and move on to mentoring someone who will do the validation work.

  29. I worked for a wiley and fantastically successful account manager who coined her own phrase about change and light heartedly made it her moto: “Designing the way the world changes — all by myself”. We should all be so bold.

  30. Inventors/entrepreneurs are fascinating people. They often see and do things most people have never thought of and sometimes it goes against all practical reasoning. Can you image what people said when someone wanted to start a business selling bottled water? After all couldn’t you get free water? The test of true passion is when the entrepreneur is willing put all their money and assets into the idea to make a go of it when others say no way. I’ve seen entrepreneurs very passionate about an idea with OPM but drop it when they can’t get investors to fund it.

  31. Dear Steve & Bob, I trust you will find this publication in the Technology Banker Magazine interesting:

    Link to the digital copy of the magazine.

    Link to where the magazine can be downloaded

    Kind Regards

    Regards Austin Okere Group CEO [cid:image002.png@01CE1A90.08FFD5C0]

  32. Steve, I’m a huge fan, and I agree that one can’t simply let the past tell you what will work (or not work) in the future. But I’m seeing more and more startups today not simply transcending the status quo but totally ignoring it. That is a step too far. It is still best to understand something (as much as you can within the time constraints you have) before smashing it to bits. When I ran IBM’s Extreme Blue in Austin (structurally similar to TechStars, but with teams inside IBM), we had seriously amazing mentors, what Gary Hamel used to call the Grey Haired Revolutionaries, who had a lot to teach, but as you say, they sometimes expected the teams to not simply listen but “obey” their prescriptions. “We tried this in the ’60s, and it didn’t work.” That’s where my core team would step in and modulate the connection between the team and the mentor. We’d say, “Absolutely tell the team how you failed in the past, but don’t expect them not to try it again.” And we’d tell the teams, “Just because this isn’t the ’60s doesn’t mean you can’t learn from what happened then.” Listen hard to the past before you go changing the future. But in listening, you are looking for clues that will help you avoid repeating the past.

  33. Nothing like turning dissatisfaction into innovation!

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