Why we lie on stage (and what we can do about it)

Photo by Tim Johnson

Eric Ries has an impassioned plea to entrepreneurs to stop lying on stage and he's spot on, this is a massive problem for first-time founders. Mistaken impressions of how startups worked helped me make terrible decisions and misjudge progress. Almost every startup history I thought I knew turned out to be completely cooked, once I talked privately to people who'd actually been there.

I don't think 'stop lying' is going to be a very effective solution though. If you read diaries by almost anyone living through great historical events, whether they're presidents or foot-soldiers it's just one damn thing after another. The over-arching narrative gets pulled together from that raw material, first by journalists and later by historians. Most of what actually happened gets left out in the telling, because it doesn't fit into the pattern of cause-and-effect that stories require. Really good historians will rescue some of this material by building new and more nuanced descriptions of events, but there's always so much going on and so little space to tell it, inevitably key information gets lost in the compression process.

We're hard-wired to respond to coherent stories, so this sort of lying by omission is never going to go away. The Lean Startup movement itself is built around the story that any company can reach success by mechanically applying some simple techniques to their product development. If you look at the details of their writings this isn't actually what Eric or Steve say, there's a lot more complexity and space for more traditional approaches, but that basic story is what sticks in people's minds. There's endless debates about how much of a cargo cult the movement is, because that over-simplified version is has taken hold of both sides.

The story is so popular because it's an antidote to the traditional 'auteur theory' approach to explaining the success of a startup; pick a charismatic individual and ascribe everything to their brilliant strokes of genius. Customer development's disparagement of visionaries and exhultation of hard, repetitive work is an appealingly puritanical backlash against this classically Romantic picture.

Since we can never truly transfer the totality of our experiences to anyone else, we need to take our role as storytellers seriously. If we're going to reach people, we have to build more truthful stories that win out over the bogus ones. Part of that is encouraging blogging by entreprenuers like Tim Bull. Seeing it unfold before your eyes in realtime makes it both a lot closer to the truth and more compelling . I'm depressed that I don't know more startup founders with active blogs, I worry we're all too concerned about projecting a confident image and afraid to display how imperfect and accidental the real path of most startups is.

Another step is to seriously think about how to incorporate failures into our 'act'. I've usually managed to get a laugh by titling my recent data-processing talks 'How to get sued by Facebook'. I start out my introductions to new business contacts by talking about the 'fruitful failures' of the past two years, all the thousand ways not to build a light-bulb I've discovered and how much that's taught me.

The fundamental thing to recognise though is that we need that Romantic narrative of startup success, or no one would ever persist in trying to do something as crazy as building a company from scratch. As Tom Evslin says, "nothing great has ever been accomplished without irrational exuberance". There's plenty of great raw material that's both exciting and true in every startup's story, so let's learn to be better storytellers and spin that into an gripping tale.

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