Monday, October 4, 2010

Stop lying on stage

Entrepreneurs crave information about successful startups, and they should. Most of the received wisdom about business and entrepreneurship is simply wrong. Many journalists and conference organizers attempt to fill this demand by giving successful entrepreneurs the opportunity to tell their stories: in magazines, on blogs, and on stage. And yet, most of the time, those opportunities are wasted, because the protagonists tell lies. And while this may sound like a harmless phenomenon – after all, most of these are simple lies of omission – I think the consequences are quite harmful.

I know the word “lie” sounds harsh. But I think our industry has to face up to this unpleasant reality. Luckily, some people have started to collect evidence of misleading behavior on the part of speakers. Paul Graham wrote this just the other day:
I didn't consciously realize how much speakers at more public events censored themselves till I was able to compare the same people speaking off the record at YC dinners and on the record at Startup School. YC dinner talks are much more useful, because the details people omit in more public talks tend to be the most interesting parts of their stories. About half the interesting things I know about famous startups, I learned at YC dinners.
I commend Paul for his honesty, something I have always admired about him. Paul has been – intentionally or unintentionally – running a perfect science experiment to answer the question: do startup speakers tell the whole truth on stage? His results are the same as I’ve observed on many occasions: the simple answer is no. I think everyone who’s been around these events long enough knows this to be true. None of the really successful people I know take what’s said at public events seriously. This is the same issue we see with vanity metrics: companies are giving the appearance of sharing information while actually engaging in spin or outright deception.

I call this the vanity ratio: the amount of apparently interesting information given divided by the amount of useful information contained therein. The higher the vanity ratio, the more effective the PR. Unfortunately – also – the more misleading the story is as a help to others.

And it’s not as if the stories we hear about entrepreneurs are biased in a random way. Paul quotes one of his founders like this: “That's the actual beauty in the off-the-record-ness: you hear just how screwed up most of these successful startups were on the way up.” In my experience, the official stories are always more linear, make the founders and investors look smarter, and dramatically overstate the level of certainty everyone had at every stage of the process. Failures, pivots, and crappy minimum viable products are generally elided. And the kinds of failures that do get airtime are usually failures to adequately plan, anticipate, or design in advance. So, naturally, the kinds of inferences we make from these stories are: we need heroic entrepreneurs, with absolute certainty in a brilliant idea, and we need to plan and execute well.

I call this the mythological-industrial complex, because it serves the interests of many players in preserving the status quo. It sells newspapers and magazines. It helps investors boost their profile and convince entrepreneurs that they offer value-add. It helps companies with PR. It makes successful founders famous. I've certainly been a beneficiary of these forces. Yet I worry that it deters new entrants from disrupting incumbents: if your idea looks a little dubious, your career a little messy, your team a little dysfunctional, if you lack superhuman design skills, maybe you should just give up. You don’t have the Right Stuff to become an entrepreneur.

The reason this is harmful is that it benefits another kind of person even more: the startup advisor. Yup, that’s me. When all of the stories floating around are bogus, there is a huge opportunity for people to claim to have arcane or esoteric knowledge. Paul does it right in his essay: “About half the interesting things I know about famous startups, I learned at YC dinners.” Doesn’t that sound good? Don’t you believe that having that special knowledge would help Paul give you better advice? I emphatically do. Most of my mentors have had this arcane knowledge, and I have benefited from it immensely. They know how the game is really played. They know what really happened in those pivotal moments that shaped famous companies. And I have done my best to pay it forward, by sharing that arcane knowledge with as many startups as I can.

However, the problem is this: how can you tell if someone who claims to have arcane knowledge is telling you the truth? After all, the fact that what they advise you contradicts all public sources of knowledge is part of the pitch. And, of course, it sounds good. All talking heads (including me!) face an overwhelming incentive to say whatever it is that will sound good to their audience, regardless of whether it is true. Believe me, it is hard to resist (as far as I can tell, that’s why cable news is so awful: pretty much everyone on cable news is giving in to this temptation every day). But I have met many startups that are making key decisions based on arcane knowledge that is simply not true. It is extremely hard to help them, because they are following voodoo advice that is nearly impossible to disprove. In fact, in some of my early entrepreneurial ventures, I was taken in by people just like that.

I have tried really hard to hold myself to a high standard in all of my public presentations: to give the unvarnished truth about what it was really like to succeed and fail. I do my best and yet I probably fail sometimes, too. In fact, I rely on readers and attendees to ask me the hard questions that challenge me to root out and eradicate these errors. And this was an absolute requirement of the speakers at sllconf. The reason we had such a non-diverse lineup (much to my chagrin) is that I insisted on hosting speakers whose stories I already knew – because I had been there, as a friend, advisor, or investor. Thus, I knew they were telling the truth and I knew they shared a commitment to speak with integrity even when it’s uncomfortable. This is also why I get so outraged when people treat Lean Startup like a religion. The whole point of transforming advice into the form of a testable theory is to allow people to evaluate whether it works. You can test theories like Lean Startup in your own practice, and discover if they deliver the outcomes they predict – and you can do it in small batches.

That’s why I find lying on stage so upsetting. By misleading future entrepreneurs, we put them in an untenable position. Either take the stuff you read and hear at face value or gain access to a wizard who can guide you to the true path (and hope you don’t get taken in). But this false choice is not the only way forward. As usual, I think there’s an opportunity for our industry to do better.

To be clear, I don’t blame any particular actor in the system for doing what they’re doing. Paul Graham is getting his startups the best advice he can in the best way he knows: by giving them exclusive access to off-the-record conversations that nobody else is privy to. And it’s not reasonable to blame him for their behavior when he gives them the stage at events like Startup School. Similarly, journalists print vanity metrics because that’s all companies will release. And companies crave positive PR and control over their message – all for rational reasons.

And yet you who are reading this right now have tremendous power. You are the intended audience for all of those expenditures of energy. You are the “hits” that websites crave, the followers and the RSS subscribers. Where you put your attention and what you do with it matters.

So I’d like to suggest the following: let’s stop giving lying on stage and vanity metrics a free pass. I think if we can delegitimize this behavior, we can make it stop. We’ll need to ask tougher questions, though: how do you know your company’s success was caused by X? what else was happening around that time that might have caused Y? what did you think was going to happen when you did Z?

Journalists have the highest obligation to ask these kinds of questions, and conferences organized by journalists ought to be the exemplars the rest of us look up to. And yet, today many are not. I am sympathetic, because I have faced this problem, too. If you ask tough questions, are unwilling to help people craft their message, and are skeptical of vanity metrics, you can’t get the high profile guests. That means less attention, less coverage, fewer readers, and lower sponsorship dollars. Assuming, of course, that all of you give your attention disproportionately to famous people.

But if you’re attending a conference or reading a magazine, you aren’t bound by those rules. You can ask any question you want. And you can reward the speakers who tell the whole truth with your support.  Every time you do that, you’re helping make our industry a better place.

(Have a favorite real startup story? Share it in the comments and we can start giving those people some much-deserved attention right away.)
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