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May 11th, 2022 Share: Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on LinkedIn

How to Combat “Squirrel Brain”

In our last dispatch about Kevin Kelly’s wonderful list of 103 things he learned in his 70 years, I made a comment about a rather common problem among startup founders: Squirrel Brain (also known as “shiny new thing syndrome”). I received a couple of emails from fellow Heretics asking me to dig deeper into the topic as it is not only a common issue but also one which (in the words of one founder) “literally self-destructs startups.”

To get us started, and as it is such a great summarization of the issue, let me continue to quote this founder: “I’ve seen it create an incredibly frequent change of direction and the resulting decrease in velocity. Or the juggling of far too many balls and adding new ones every week. And I’ve seen it lead to constant daily micromanagement of different people every minute of the day, leading to high employee churn because the CEO repeals all work done every few days. All in all, it seems to me that it’s a trait that’s very prevalent among most founders, that almost no one talks about.”

Yep. I’ve been there — charged as guilty. In my first startup, every second day, after my 4th coffee, I would run into our little office, assemble the team and share yet-another-great-idea. Typically, I didn’t even mean these ideas to be anything more than just an idea — a fleeting thought I wanted to get off my chest and get some reactions to. Alas, my team took it as direction and shifted whatever they were doing toward the new, shiny thing I so enthusiastically presented. To say it ended up being a mess is an understatement.

Since then, I have learned a few things — and I still have a very active, curious, and sometimes weirdly wired brain:

  1. Ideas are ideas and shall be treated as such. I often find myself ruminating about an idea for the business. When talking to others, especially your team, make it utterly (and I mean utterly) clear that this is only an idea, and therefore something you, at best, want an opinion on. Even better is to share these ideas only with those who will not even remotely assume that your idea is strategic direction.
  2. Do not share on first thought. Unless you are a genius (I surely am not one), ideas need time to form and take shape. I avoid sharing ideas prematurely — in my case, I found that ideas require at least a good night’s sleep to form into something even remotely defined enough to share.
  3. Know which questions you want to ask. Just as important to becoming clear about the idea is to be clear about the questions you intend to ask to further your idea. An idea without a set of good questions is easily mistaken for direction.
  4. Distinguish Capital-I and lowercase -i Ideas. There are big and small ideas. Small ideas improve your current business, big ones put your existing business into question. I would argue that if you find yourself having many capital-I ideas, you are not deeply immersed in your core business. If that is the case, you ought to figure out if the thing you are currently doing is truly the thing you want to be doing long-term.
  5. Words are insanely powerful and never enough. Most importantly, c you ought to realize that whatever you say (especially as a founder/leader) has insane impact on the people working with you. As important are all the things you do not say — and people will fill in the blanks with whatever pops to their mind. Be careful!

Learn to tame and work with the little squirrel in your brain — it is a great source of power if harnessed right.

May 2nd, 2022

The Right Time Is Right Now

Living legend Kevin Kelly turned 70 last week. Kevin is the founding executive editor of era-defining magazine WIRED (and a bunch of other stuff before and after that). To celebrate the occasion, Kevin published 103 pieces of advice he collected over the years. It’s definitely worth reading his list in its entirety, but Kevin starts his list with:

About 99% of the time, the right time is right now.

I have written about this idea and approach here before. When in doubt, begin. When not in doubt, begin. In the vast number of cases, you are...

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Apr 21st, 2022

How To Be (More) Creative

In Walter Isaacson’s seminal Steve Jobs biography, you find Jobs reflecting on creativity:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences, or they have thought more about their experiences, than other people.

The literature backs this — there truly...

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Apr 14th, 2022

Persistence Is A Startups Superpower

You heard the old lore that “every overnight success is a five to ten year journey” in the startup world. Recently, I was reminded of the saying by Eric Migicovsky’s blog post on the “Success and Failure at Pebble” (Pebble was the first real smartwatch company which had a spectacular launch on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter).

You might remember us from 2012 we launched Pebble on Kickstarter and raised over $10m from 68,000 people around the world. This was our first breakthrough (a classic 5-year overnight success!) Over the next few years, we sold 2 million watches and did...

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Apr 6th, 2022

How To Make Your Own Luck

Four years before baby Jesus was born, Seneca the Younger, filled his lungs with air for the first time and, I assume, let out a long, loud scream. Over the next 69 years, a long life during those times, Seneca became one of the eminent philosophers and statesmen in the Roman Empire. Seneca gave us, among many other insights, one of my favorite quotes — an illumination of what luck is really all about:

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

And, as so often, this quote is a distorted version of something Seneca actually said,...

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Mar 31st, 2022

The Three Question Journey to Sustained Growth

Lately, I have been thinking quite a bit about a set of reliable indicators one can use to sift through the vast ocean of weak signals (the “thin wisps of tomorrow”) to identify those that will grow strong and mighty — with a potential to lead to disruptive change.

We have talked about aspects of these before: The first one, technological maturity and scalability, is best summarized by IEEE’s Rodney Brooks, who said:

“I’m only suggesting that we properly gauge the difficulty of whatever we are told could be the next big thing. If the idea builds on practical...

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Mar 24th, 2022

Solve Gnarly Problems

Fifteen years ago Joel Spolsky, who — among a bunch of other things — is behind Stack Overflow, the de-facto Q&A site for coders all over the world, wrote a blog post “Where there’s muck, there’s brass”. It’s definitely worth reading in full (as is all his other writing) — but the quote truly worth pulling out is this:

The one thing that so many of today’s cute startups have in common is that all they have is a simple little Ruby-on-Rails Ajax site that has no barriers to entry and doesn’t solve any gnarly...

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Mar 18th, 2022

Follow Me Home

It is the year 1983. Toto hit the number one spot in the charts with “Africa” — a song which, by now, truly had many, many lives. It was the year the Internet came to be and the first mobile cellular telephone call was being made. But it was also the year when, should you have bought a personal computer — likely an Apple IIe or maybe an IBM PC-compatible machine — you might have found yourself leaving the computer store, the new computer in your shopping cart, ready to be loaded into the trunk of your car, being approached...

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Mar 9th, 2022

I Have Questions

We live in a world of ever-increasing uncertainty. The Federal Reserve Banks Uncertainty Index goes up, up and up, and Google Books’ Ngram Viewer for the word “uncertainty” is solidly trending upward since 1940. It’s just everywhere. And as Warren Berger points out in his stellar book A More Beautiful Question, in a world of increasing uncertainty the value of a discreet answer diminishes, while the value of a good question increases.

Which brings us to a quote by Jonas Salk:

“What people think of as the moment of discover is really the discovery of...

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Feb 17th, 2022

Obvious is Better

We brought up Occam’s Razor here before — the notion that “the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex, or that explanations of unknown phenomena be sought first in terms of known quantities.”

I find myself regularly arguing for the application of Occam’s Razor (or simply “taking a shave”) in product or strategy meetings with our clients. But the implications of English Franciscan friar William of Ockham are much further reaching — and will help you determine your “Capital-S” strategy, not just the “lower-case s” strategy, i.e., your overall direction.

All too often, we (myself...

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