Startup founders: allergic to experiences they should learn to love?

Do startups fail as a result of the founder’s attitude towards doing things they don’t think they need to do?

Full disclosure: I’m a startup founder who’s keen to delve into unexplored aspects of startup founder behaviour and motivation.

I want to explore a behavioral tendency of startup founders which sounds highly commendable and appropriate to their mission, but may in fact do them much more harm than good. It’s something that they would characterise as ‘focus’.

Experiential Avoidance is a behavioral phenomenon recognised by a broad range of psychological disciplines including long-established fields like Gestalt as well as more recent offshoots of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy such as Acceptance-Commitment Therapy. 
Here are some key behavioural characteristics of Experiential Avoidance taken from the Wikipedia article (see which of these you think has a relevance to startup founder archetypes and behaviours)
  • Putting off an important task because of the discomfort it evokes.
  • Not taking advantage of an important opportunity due to attempts to avoid worries of failure or disappointment.
  • Not engaging in physical activity/exercise, meaningful hobbies, or other recreational activities due to the effort they demand.

The next few examples of ‘experientially avoidant’ behaviours are much more likely to be associated with the ‘sociophobic’ predispositions of the geek, rather than being generally applicable to the founders as a ‘psychographic‘ group:

  • Avoiding social gatherings or interactions with others because of the anxiety and negative thoughts they evoke.
  • Not being a full participant in social gatherings due to attempts to regulate anxiety relating to how others are perceiving you.
  • Being unable to fully engage in meaningful conversations with others because one is scanning for signs of danger in the environment (attempting to avoid feeling “unsafe”).
  • Inability to “connect” and sustain a close relationship because of attempts to avoid feelings of vulnerability.
  • Staying in a “bad” relationship to try to avoid discomfort, guilt, and potential feelings of loneliness a break-up might entail.
  • Losing a marriage or contact with children due to an unwillingness to experience uncomfortable feelings (e.g., achieved through drug or alcohol abuse) or symptoms of withdrawal.
  • Not attending an important graduation, wedding, funeral, or other family event to try to avoid anxiety or symptoms of panic.
  • Engaging in self-destructive behaviors in an attempt to avoid feelings of boredom, emptiness, worthlessness.
  • Not functioning or taking care of basic responsibilities (e.g., personal hygiene, waking up, showing up to work, shopping for food) because of the effort they demand and/or distress they evoke.

This next one is particularly interesting in the context of ‘being a startup founder’: is it possible that for a geek at least, the ‘startup experience’ is essentially a ‘workaholic comfort zone’ which enables them to ‘avoid confronting (external) reality’? If so, then the Lean Startup maxim ‘Get outside of the building’ takes on a an entirely new, potentially therapeutic dimension

  • Spending so much time attempting to avoid discomfort, that you have little time for anyone or anything else in your life.

Typical startup founder? Let’s get that (cliché?) out of the way first

Background to most startup founders: youthfully-minded, inexperienced (in at least founding a startup, but probably also inexperienced in running a business, and quite possibly even in working in any relevant kind of a business or job, perhaps even inexperienced in the technology, sector or market that the startup’s solution is targeting).

Founder predispositions (more clichés, maybe)

Well, here we immediately encounter the classic ‘founder archetype split’

  1. ‘the ideas guy’ (and it’s unfortunately almost always male) also known as “the dev guy” or just the geek
  2. ‘the business guy’ (almost certainly NOT an experienced businessperson or entrepreneur, but instead someone who lacks the social shortcomings of the dev guy, mostly because they are a lot less geeky and much less uncomfortable with mingling, confronting and negotiating with strangers)

Both founders are equally likely to be:

  • energetic
  • enthusiastic
  • ambitious

The dev guy is also usually:

  • shy, introverted (at the very least they’re extremely unlikely to be a wildly popular party animal)
  • studious
  • obsessive-compulsive
  • perfectionistic

The business guy is, by contrast, much more likely than the dev guy to be:

  • gregarious
  • uninhibited
  • charming
  • persuasive
  • pragmatic

So does this ‘archetypal oppositeness’ of the typical dynamic duo mean that any inherent ‘dysfunctions’ of startup founders ‘cancel each other out’?

Well, probably not, because certain undesirable ‘emergent behaviours’ which are likely to be common to both archetypes, are almost inevitable if you create an environment which is characterised by the following:

  • running a business for the first time
  • developing untried, innovative solutions
  • highly ‘driven’ individuals

The term which in my view best characterises the most harmful of startup behaviours is one which is completely independent of whether an individual exhibiting such behaviour is a geek or not.

I would suggest that the founder’s most virulent and pervasive ‘disease’ is (if we had to search for it in the psycho-diagnostic canon using the criteria above) something known as Experiential Avoidance (see the sidebar)

Instead of being treated as a clinical dysfunction, startups (apart from almost certainly never having heard of it) treat the relevant behaviour which characterises this condition as a common sense (but unspoken) maxim:

“Don’t even think about doing stuff that either puts you off, holds you back, stops you being creative or constructive, slows you down, or gets you down”.

Focus: can it become toxic?

The phrase which stands out in my mind when it comes to systematically avoiding distractions is:

‘don’t even think about it’.

That’s a classic claim in psychology: can we consciously (or even unconsciously) decide that there are certain thoughts that we can and will comprehensively banish from our minds?

The discipline of ‘focus’ in management is ‘a commitment to avoid distraction’, but the question is whether this can get out of control if those who practice it rigorously ‘throw something else out with the bathwater’ as a result of a combination of inexperience, personality dispositions which lend themselves to unrestrained excesses of concentration and a working environment which imposes little or nothing in the way of a counterbalance to practices which are unashamedly obsessive, but which may also be unintentionally self-destructive.

The magic word for startups is ‘focus’ but it has a dark side

Startups, famous for achieving the seemingly impossible using negligible resources in an unreasonably short timeframe, are inevitably exquisitely sensitive (admittedly, mostly unconsciously) to their own state of motivation.

The startup experience is analogous to ‘immersive gameplay’ (the kind of thing that stops a gamer from going to the bathroom until it’s almost too late).

This means that founders, finding themselves totally immersed in the startup game, ‘have their eyes fixed firmly on the prize’: anything whatsoever which they feel could possibly stand between them and the realisation of their vision is remorselessly batted away as distraction’.

Unfortunately, some of the things which are likely to be pushed into the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ zone by startup founders (‘stuff we’ll deal with properly once this thing starts making money’) such as legal issues, book keeping, tax accounting and bill-paying, can be really important, and the consequences of not dealing with them on an ongoing daily basis, even at the earliest stages of a startup, can be absolutely catastrophic in the long term.

You’d probably call it procrastination, but that doesn’t really nail it

‘Putting things off’ or just ‘not getting around to doing things’ is a serious and often dangerous oversimplification of exactly what’s going on in a founder’s head when it comes to certain things that they tend to systematically neglect.

There’s often something like ‘co-operative meta-procrastination’ going on between the founders: not just ‘putting things off’ but more like ‘ceremoniously putting things out the startup’s collective consciousness’ (the ceremoniousness being typically marked by a kind of ritualistic humour: teams inevitably develop a repertoire of Orwellian Double-think in-jokes to cope with anything which needs to be ‘psychically exorcised’).

It’s not just a case of  constantly telling oneself or colleagues ‘we’re not going to waste time or money on that right now’: instead, it’s more like ‘WE don’t even want to think about this’.

You may respond to questions like ‘but why aren’t you doing anything about that before it gets seriously out of hand?’ with answers like, ‘yes, I know, I know, I’m a terrible a procrastinator’, but more than likely, you’ll probably still have no intention of doing anything about it.

Usually ‘just getting someone in to do it for you’ can store up even more trouble

Even if the team finally gets someone to come in to do the administration, there can be serious problems caused by ‘hyper delegation’: simply not wanting to know the nitty-gritty details of the day to day money-handling (and what used to be called, and mostly still is ‘the paperwork’) side of the business is not something that can be ‘fixed’ by just passing it on to someone else whose ‘terms of engagement’ consist of ‘don’t bother the bosses with it unless you absolutely have to’.

‘Solving’ procrastination by ‘delegation’ which is actually abdication

What the administrator becomes in these circumstances is an ‘enabler’ allowing an ‘unbalanced dependency’ to develop.

The very nature of the startup, with its ‘evolving’ business model, is one where ‘merely administrative’ decisions can turn out to require strategic input (i.e., where the founders cannot afford to indulge their preference for remaining ‘undistracted’ which amounts to staying ignorant of potentially strategically important details).

This is because such decisions can often turn out to have a serious impact on the ability of the startup to do things ‘further downstream’ like securing credit and investment, or closing large deals where prospective clients or partners demand statutory compliance which has been rendered unfeasible for reasons which would have been easily addressed if the founders had timely exposure to seemingly trivial options and choices which had potentially decisive repercussions for such things as perceived financial risk.

Delegating administration is not an alternative to management

In other words, administration (any stuff that seems to be outside of the ‘focus’ of the startup team) includes requirements which can seriously clash with the team’s predisposition towards ‘experiential avoidance’ which startup founders tend to feel justified in defending under the hubris of ‘focus’.

Just getting the administrative jobs ‘done’ (by someone else) does not mean that they are being ‘managed’.

Focus is not a justification for avoidance

Avoiding unnecessary distractions is definitely good advice for ‘getting on with a job that needs tremendous levels of concentration’ but in order for this to work, here’s what you can’t do:

You can’t keep on indulging the tendency to treat even thinking about aspects of a business that seem like drudgery (or, in the case of the financial side, seem like unforgivably masochistic self-demotivation) as being ‘harmful to the desired outcome’.

Doing this will almost inevitably have extremely undesirable consequences.

Administration, day-to-day finance and other ‘small details’ of management are not just ‘chores’ that are ‘non-focal’.

They require decision-making which cannot be delegated to someone who is (for example) not in a position to feed back the implications of the available options in a way which will command the attention they deserve.

It’s problematic even trying to ‘pathologise’ avoidance in a startup

Avoidant behaviour, from a psychological perspective, when it is seen as being harmful, constitutes a particular set of behaviours which essentially reflect and support an unwillingness or inability to confront certain unpalatable aspects of reality: it’s a class of ‘thought suppression strategies’ whose consequences potentially introduce unnecessary risk or actual harm.

But in the case of a startup founder, there are no ‘clinical’ criteria that can be applied to the potential harmfulness of the things that they are refusing to think about.

The only way for a startup to ‘solve the avoidance problem’ is:

(a)    have someone on the team who is experienced in running a business and who has a good track record of administrative management (a ‘third founder’ archetype is essentially a competent manager, characterised by possessing the experience and maturity that the other founders tend to lack)

or

(b)    have someone on the team get themselves trained in all relevant aspects of administrative management

or

(c)    get everyone on the team trained in administrative management

(if there is a person who is currently ‘just doing the administration’ but who happens to have (credible but in this case underutilized) management experience, why not consider their eligibility to become a founder?)

Doing this will not mean that whoever is trained in administrative management is the person who necessarily does the admin.

What it will mean, is that the implications of failing to regularly and frequently monitor and confront key admin and financial decisions at a strategic level will be unavoidably clear to the whole team.

This will be because there will at least one founder on board who will now have the training and experience to recognise and communicate the implications of failing to address matters which seem to be ‘outside of the focus of the team’s vision’, but where negligence in such matters would in fact put the realisation of that vision at risk.

Doing this will not mean that any administration, finance or management problems will suddenly evaporate.

What it will mean, is that the inexperienced startup founder’s natural tendency to use the argument for ‘focus’ as a way of justifying not wanting to think about seemingly onerous obligations, will almost certainly evaporate.

So far, so obvious?

For startup founders, experiential avoidance is not just an admin or management thing

Steve Blank believes there are other things that startup founders tend to imagine they can delegate, but that he feels would be ‘toxic’.

The example of ‘delegating research’

Because a startup that is involved in an ambitiously innovative ‘vision-driven’ project is essentially engaged in an exotic form of market research, the temptation exists for the startup to go and get some expert researchers to do the research for them.

Steve rails vehemently against this notion: as far as he is concerned, the main job that researchers should be doing for the startup is to teach the startup do the research for themselves, not because he’s merely encouraging the researchers to do themselves out of a job, but because it’s absolutely imperative for the founders to:

  • be able to do the research themselves
  • have hands on experience of doing it
  • do the initial stages of the research themselves

The founders need to be able to do these things well in order to be in a position to engage, deploy and gain value from externally contracted (or even internally hired) researchers, for two very particular reasons.

Firstly, because much of the research (particularly research into customer needs) that needs to be done by an innovative startup is almost inevitably much more strategic to the direction of the enterprise than it will be for any other kind of business, which is something which dictates the need for the founders to become intimately acquainted with every aspect of how the research was conducted, in order to have sufficient faith in its findings which are almost inevitably going to overturn some of the key assumptions in the initial business plan

Secondly, a consequence of the innovative startup’s discovery process is that in the course of the research, as well as potentially contradicting any initial hypotheses, findings are equally likely open up new possibilities: founders need to have direct personal experience of being exposed to these kinds of discoveries ‘at the point of encounter’ in order to gain the necessary insight into their implications sufficiently quickly to be able to respond opportunistically within the fleeting existential window that is available to most cash-strapped startups.

Additionally, because startup research is disproportionately consequential, disproportionately interactive and disproportionately ‘discovery intensive’, the founders need to be able to recognise when certain types of research are just too critical to be delegated and exclusively demand ‘direct founder involvement’.

The biggest misunderstanding about ‘wanting to be your own boss’

The 3 standard answers to the question below are misleading:

Why do you want to start a startup?

  1. I want to be my own boss
  2. I want to do what I want to do
  3. I don’t want to do things I don’t want to do

They aren’t ‘incorrect’ reasons to want a start a startup: they are reasons many give.

But they presume that being your own boss means only doing what you want to do when you want to do it.

The reality is that in an innovative startup initially, inexperience is your boss.

Inexperience is a truly inspiring thought leader: optimistic, bold and relentlessly challenging.

But whilst inexperience grants the unfettered freedom to indulge your every whim and fancy in the the pursuit of innovation (usually by ‘just building solutions’ rather than by ‘experiencing the conversations which need to shape them’) so that when a crisis results and support is sought, ‘boss inexperience’ has but one response: ‘you’re on your own’.

Meet the new boss, NOT the same as the old boss

Experience may ultimately heal many of the wounds that ignorance, self-indulgence  and impetuosity inevitably inflict, but as your new lord and taskmaster, it’s a lot less tolerant of the kind of experientially avoidant behaviour that the old ‘boss posing as no-boss’ encouraged and disguised as ‘freedom’.

Experience typically arrives unbidden to the ‘vocational founders’, strenuous avoidance notwithstanding, sweeping indifference and cherished but unfounded illusions of competence aside.

Experience is far tougher and more unforgiving than any other kind of boss, but it is usually helpful and provides more practical guidance, despite its brutal and insensitive attitude.

This consideration raises a an even bigger question:

Which of the activities of a ‘scalable startup’ (Steve Blank’s particular category name for the kind of venture that we’re talking about here) do these ‘experiential imperatives’ apply to?

Perhaps the answer goes like this:

Despite the fact that the founders of innovation driven startups are likely to be predisposed to experiential avoidance on account of their inexperience and a tendency to use the need to focus as a justification for avoiding the less attractive aspects of maintaining a financially sustainable working environment, the very nature of their discovery-driven endeavours mandates that all their activities should be governed by, of all contrary things, an experiential imperative.

From experiential avoidance to experiential necessity?

Unlike an employee or even an executive of a conventional business, a startup founder cannot afford to avoid experiencing exactly what it’s like to do anything new that their enterprise is attempting to do.

This is not some crazy claim that the founders mustn’t avoid finding out what it’s like cleaning the bathroom.

Sure, over-delegating the admin and management  is a recipe for disaster for any small business and so indulging any tendency towards experiential avoidance

But for a discovery driven startup, there is an even bigger peril.

When the founders delegate any part of the business process that they are in the process of trying to develop, instead of ‘making it easier to stay focused on pursuing the vision’  what they are in reality doing is putting on blinkers which prevent them being exposed to flaws in the vision.

The innovation explorer’s creed is looking less and less like being ‘stay focused on your vision’.

Instead, it seems to be something even more demanding than focus:

‘experience as many things as you can on your voyage of discovery: your initial vision is almost certainly just a mirage. You will only find your way to the promised land if you experience enough to teach you how to distinguish it from the many other mirages on your journey’.

Therapy? Hardly.

This conclusion sounds more like it is recommending turning experientially avoidant founders into serious sufferers of experiential-compulsive disorder.

Innovative startup founders make up for what they lack in experience with enthusiasm and energy.

Mindlessly relying upon focus as a way of harnessing all that enthusiasm and energy can potentially amount to nothing more than a way to preserve that inexperience and needlessly forestall success.

Startup founders: experientially challenged, experientially avoidant, experientially obliged

If you must focus, don’t focus exclusively upon ‘developing your solution’, focus instead on getting extensive relevant experience. In fact, don’t be too focused on ‘relevant’ either: irrelevant but ‘indirectly connected’ or even ‘inspired by’ is a surprisingly good place to start in your quest to find and ‘put yourself into the experiential shoes of the unknown customer’.