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I’m somewhat tired of these kind of “startup folklore” articles, although I read and bookmark them all. Sure, these people were crazy successful and see many other people being successful. Still, so much of these “insights” feel like they could be exactly the other way around. Many successful founders I have met, have told me: well, no we weren’t the only ones doing this, but we got lucky for this and that reason (e.g. timing). What if the lucky ones wrote the “rules”?

I don’t know if it’s possible but I would love to see all these concepts proven by data.




There's a meta-insight there: what if the lucky ones do write the rules?

If that's the case, an optimal strategy might be to take as many convex bets as possible, keep secret all the ones that fail, and then once a low-probability bet succeeds, milk it for all it's worth and convince everyone you're a genius. You can then leverage that for significant financial gain from organizations who seek genius-level insights in the future. Eventually regression-to-the-mean makes you lose your credibility, but in the meantime you can pocket significant amounts of cash and invest them in much more stable revenue-generating assets.

A glance at who's been successful since the 3rd millenia started shows that this might not actually be a bad career strategy.


The other part that's insidious is even the most well-meaning and well-intentioned individuals oftentimes fail to understand the role of luck in their success. Some psychological studies posted here on HN support that people that are successful even for completely random reasons start to believe that they did something different from others. One of the points in the posted article here indirectly addresses this though that you should listen to those that failed too because when people fail it's usually much more clear why compared to the agency of the founders that succeeded. Furthermore, successful people tend to stick near other successful people - they are insulated oftentimes from most of the world that is normal out there. Nobody on tech blogs cares about the insights of a middle manager of a construction company in Louisiana, but there's so many businesses out there that do perfectly fine it seems odd to me how little cross-pollination seems to happen.

One of the criticisms of psychological studies historically has been that we've been studying mostly abnormal behaviors and that it'd be like trying to determine how a car is built based upon only asking repair shop auto mechanics. Similarly though, I think we need to invert this for business - we need to identify commonalities between businesses that fail more than we need to identify the factors that cause success (the entrepreneurship porn out there is potentially harmful this way despite the many articles on the dark side of it). I think the common factors in what causes failures are fairly static compared to the factors that cause success. This interview[1] is a great example of what was successful at one point in history can totally fail later (much greater planning necessary in the early 90s while now we're focused upon market fit / reactivity today as a trend). My gut feeling is that some kinds of companies are better off sticking to their guns and churning out good product independent of the market trends while others need to evolve.

1. https://torch.io/interview-series-tim-brady/


> One of the criticisms of psychological studies historically has been that we've been studying mostly abnormal behaviors

I’m not sure this is actually true. There’s tons of data from “normal” subjects, though normal here mostly means “average behavior of an 18-22 year old college student.” If anything, psychology would probably benefit from more focus on individual differences rather than commonalities.


For some more context I was paraphrasing a passage from a psychology textbook about the position psychology was in several decades ago, in particular about how languages are processed in the brain and how most of what we've learned about processing languages came from analyzing people's brains that acquired disabilities such as through strokes, accidents, etc. I do agree with you to question the the original validity of the statement in relevance to where we are now - my point is to question the status quo in business discussions of primarily studying the survivors when they're the minority for tech businesses and to ask some more fundamental questions of "are all these business principles relevant after the survivors talk about it publicly?" or is it closer to revealing winning lottery numbers after the drawing is over?

I must admit I may be missing some much more fundamentals that are discussed in academic programs for business (like data structures in CS programs) but am curious why they're treated as table stakes for merely talking about topics like market fit and growth projections when engineers do talk frequently about "basics" like essential data structures.


There's a huge amount of luck and serendipity involved in all things, including of course the outsized returns and hypergrowth that SV worships and today's generation of young social climbers pines over.

However I would caution anyone to be careful with the type of optimal strategy you outline. Diversifying within reason is good, but you have to deliver real value somewhere along the line. The luck involved in building a successful business does not occur in a vacuum, if you are not focused and prepared, the rocketship won't leave the ground (or worse explode mid-flight).

Those who are more obsessed with the financial or social outcome than the actual job of building a business are the ones you find all glad-handing each other at networking events while the most successful always seem to have (or have had) something more important to do.


It’s not just luck. It’s also the unacknowledged support of your peers. I’ve had two bosses that were process nerds to the point of wanting to write a book, and neither of them, once they tried to condense their findings down, wanted to credit the teamwork aspects and other human factors (I’m big on human factors).

When you like people, or just your team, you plaster over their mistakes. If you try to reduce the whole thing to something cynical, people just want to watch you crash and burn. Which is I think where you see the problem with reproducing results. You get a certain number of people who just want to turn the screws another two clicks instead of creating a better work environment where more gets done.


In my 6 years in the startup industry, what I have found is that luck plays a huge part in being successful. A lot of people that are successful are successful because they caught the market wave. Not because they did something different or were better than other entrepreneurs. Some are truthful about it, but many aren’t. And they always find ways to rationalise their success. It similar to people explaining technical analysis of market graphs. They will provide lots of reasons based on patterns, but it’s all just mumble jumbo.


You are right and most people don’t know or don’t acknowledge this. Check Bill Gross Ted talk on the number one reason startups succeed.

I shared my own personal experience in this article https://thenextweb.com/contributors/2018/12/08/this-is-how-i...


I'm so glad you mentioned this.

Here's the link for anyone interested: https://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gross_the_single_biggest_reas...


The established truth is that “Chance favors the prepared mind.“


Yeah, all I can think of when reading these pieces is survivorship bias.


> Many successful founders I have met, have told me: well, no we weren’t the only ones doing this, but we got lucky for this and that reason (e.g. timing).

I would go even further, ideas are a dime a dozen but execution is what matters--simply staying alive is the biggest issue.

"Timing" is simply staying alive long enough that you are actually present when the correct timing occurs.


Yep, reminds me of Survivor Bias




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