Work

Success looks like success

One useful thing I have learnt by working in an early stage startup is that success looks and feels like success. If you are doing something and it does not seem like it is being successful then it isn’t. This might seem like something that is completely obvious but it is really not.

There are many kinds of “not success” (or failure to give it it’s true but cruel name). The worst is the “almost success” where something works and delivers on its promise, but not very well. Almost success creates this dilemma where perhaps with a little iterating and more effort you could turn it into a real success.

When this kind of success creates ongoing liabilities in terms of customer expectations then the situation is even worse. If you try and cancel things or do a lean startup pivot then you are guaranteed to alienate your current customers with only the hope of gaining more of the true customer base you originally envisaged.

Weak success is a little better, weak success is not outright failure but is so unsuccessful that people completely understand if you want to knock it on the head.

In a large organisation though things are far more difficult. Both almost success and weak success are ironically more dangerous in a big and profitable organisation due to two factors: personal reward and hidden cross-subsidy.

If someone achieves any degree of success in an organisation they expect to be rewarded for it. Perhaps justifiably, perhaps not. Either way there are serious morale implications if at the end of period of exertion by any group or individual you kill off the object of all their efforts, no matter how rational and correct that decision may be.

In general people are conflict averse so they prefer to reward almost success and move on to other activities that might be more successful.

However a set of almost successful activities all have real costs and the minute any of them fail to generate revenue sufficient to carry their costs then you are in the world of the hidden cross-subsidy where all your almost successful projects and products start to drag down any aspect of the business that is profitable.

It is a tar pit that can be difficult to escape unless you have really good accounting to see where money is coming and going. It is only easy in a startup because generally you only have one product and therefore all profit and loss is easy to tally and attribute.

So everything in your business that is not a success is a potentially business-killing failure. And for that reason, even though it is hard, you need to end almost success just as much as you need end failure.

The question to ask is not “Is this successful?”; if you are asking that question then the answer is simply no. If you are successful then the question you ask is “How are we going to deal with all this success?”.

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