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Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out – The Startup Genome Project (steveblank.com)
152 points by TristanKromer on May 29, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 20 comments

I don't mean to be too harsh on a well-intended project, but the startup genome reminds me of Feynman's Cargo Cult Science:

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.


There's a reason why scientists use controlled studies to disentangle causal effects from mere correlation. I'm sure there is some value in the startup genome for people with the right mental framework, but I would be careful about interpreting the data as "guidelines for success".

If you think about it isn't the success of YC and other venture firms predicated upon doing something roughly the same?

In as much as you're trying to predict which startup will succeed, the data from the genome project is perfectly acceptable. The problem comes when you decide "I will do X because that's what successful startups do." If you don't understand why they do it, then it's a cargo-cult. But maybe... Maybe imitating successful people is the best you can do when you don't know what you're doing?

You have a point, and I softened up the language in my post.

"Maybe imitating successful people is the best you can do when you don't know what you're doing?"

I've done this before with good results. I think the ideal strategy is to pick someone better than you, imitate them, and then once you surpass them to pick a new person to imitate, and so on. It's only after imitating five or six different people that you're able to develop your own theories, which is ultimately necessary if you want to reach true mastery.

I don't know... I've been walking around in a polo shirt and shorts and my millions still haven't materialized :-)

Thank you for doing that. It's just really rare that people admit their mistakes and actually challenge their assumptions. None of us are right all the time, but we love pretending otherwise. So, thank you.

To tell you the truth I don't agree with any of this. I think that we're dealing with human beings and you just can't find data on this. What you're searching for is a set of emotional traits that leads to this sort of behaviour, but identifying those traits is something really, really hard (try identifying the traits behind Endymion by Keats. We all know it when we feel it, but can we identify it down to certain x variables of y quantities [whatever they may be]? I really don't think so]. Defining them is harder still ( i.e. narrowing them down to 1 pint of magical substance A + another quart of shiny liquid B + a sword that has been dipped into the holy grail...). So, in my mind all you can do is learn and try. Try again.

I hope that this makes sense.

Maybe imitating successful people still leads to success, even though you have no idea why it does. Hell, maybe they're imitating their mentors too.

Just because YC invests successfully doesn't mean this research will be good. It's possible that finding common traits to successful entrepreneurs is achievable, but just wasn't achieved by this team.

NOTE: I'm just pointing this out. I haven't read the report, and even if I had, I still wouldn't be even close to qualified to talk about whether it is valid or not.

This is a small focus-group study that reports qualitative conclusions. It's not like they're trying to calculate statistical significance or something. It's aimed to be a better version of the "folk wisdom" that pops up on sites such as these.

Focus group studies have value. They're a kind of evidence that pushes weakly across a very broad front. Controlled studies are a scalpel: they produce high-confidence answers to very specific questions. Sometimes instead you need an axe. You don't know what specific question to ask, and sitting there doing controlled studies with no real clue about what's going on isn't going to be productive.

I'll put it this way: when you don't know much about a subject, there's an almost limitless number of hypotheses to consider. It doesn't make sense to prematurely promote one of those to the status of "working theory" and start doing properly controlled studies to test it. You have no real reason to believe it in the first place.

I think if you look at their findings as a cookbook recipe for success you won't do well — but if you take what they're saying as advice to be applied if it makes sense then it has some value. Some of their findings I've also heard echoed before (like doing it full time, having a technical co-founder) so there's also a bit of a confirmation value there. Although on the flip side you should keep in mind that "scientific research into success" can be flawed — I keep thinking about reading about Freddie Mac in "Good to Great".

Yeh Good to Great has levered it's validity to the success of those companies. When I was reading it Merck was being eclipsed by Pfizer as the market leader.

This is a very interesting conjecture:

...the world’s biggest problem isn’t poverty or disease or any oft-stated major problem, but that we don’t have enough people engaged in trying to solve these problems.

I'm not sure if there is any way to prove or disprove it but if it's true then we should be looking at those problems very differently. Great concept to discuss on a lazy Sunday.

This also meshes well with this article from the other day:

http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2591367 ("The problem is that we don't understand the problem")

Perhaps we need to iterate over potential solutions faster.

With regards to startups with tech cofounders having more change for success -

One thing I've been wondering lately is how a "technical cofounder" is defined?

I graduated from my college with a degree in economics. My career thus far (in Internet startups and companies) has mostly been on the biz dev and marketing side. However, I have always created and managed websites on the side. I have a deep passion for hacking (more than biz dev & marketing) and I'm pretty good at it.

So my question is - at what skill level can you be considered a technical cofounder? Do you have to be an expert-level coder on the cutting-edge of technology? Is there a cutoff point with skill level to where you would need a tech cofounder?

I know when I create my first startup I will want a technical cofounder. It's not so much that I don't think I could get good enough to code a large-scale website, it's more that the biz dev and marketing stuff comes easily to me so why would I need someone else to do that?

I think "technical cofounder" is usually defined as someone who has the capabilities to create the entire product vision themselves.

If you feel confident that you can code almost anything you can dream up, then you are probably a technical founder with business skills. If you feel like you would need help in accomplishing your vision (like hiring a programer or outsourcing the development) then you are probably not a technical founder.

I would think product vision and actually implementing that vision could be considered separate things, right?

Absolutely. But a technical founder is someone with the capabilities to implement product vision themselves.

That's a good definition.

Why do they use the word "Genome"? I expected an article about startups in biotechnology, but was disappointed.

I find the title of this article to be completely irrelevant to its contents. Dropping out of school and starting a business does not relate to Timothy Leary's famous tagline which was about opening your mind via drugs and dropping out of society at large.

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