I’ve always thought most business biographies and case studies as business self-help books. Everyone likes to read them like they will have nuggets of wisdom that will reveal that one secret that will propel us to success, if someone really really wills it. None of that is true. Each success story has its context, its unique combination of time, verticals, technology, and people. Trying to abstract a pithy rule from all that is well…impossible.
Part of it is also what isn’t said. Did the founder’s uncle have an in with partner at a16z? Did mommy and daddy provide a $1M to start out? No one is putting that kind of info out there.
A biography should be written by a competitor. They know what you did or didn’t do. They know what really differentiates you.
But all of this part of risk management.
I view “Best Practices” in a similar vein. Best Practices are work best in specific contexts. It’s a new way of saying “Nobody ever got fired for buying Microsoft.”
We have this idea that if we emulate how successes became successful, we will be too. But it almost never turns out that way. Most try and fail. We are all afflicted by survivorship bias. A great example of this is Product Hunt. There are thousands of startup SaaS products. Most of the products are similar to existing products, with a twist. We can see a competitors tech stack and marketing stack, we can see how and where they advertise, we can tell the type of talent they are hiring. Still, how many startups will survive more than a year? Very few.
Successes are outliers. We may want to be like them, but we truly don’t know what made them successful. It’s a good bet the competitor doesn’t either. Even if we did, do we have the same organizational structure, talent and processes to match? No.
There is a book called Ten Types of Innovation. They call it innovation, but it applies to any business. It’s about deciding what makes one unique. The 10 types are profit model, network, structure, process, product performance, product system, service, channel, brand, and customer engagement. Any success story is really good at a few of them and you won’t be able to replicate it.
Trying to be a success by playing to our strengths is hard. It requires introspection. It requires buy in. It requires risk-taking. None which are strengths of enterprises.
Everyone keeps saying everything will be different after we get past COVID-19. It is an opportunity to reflect and check if our assumptions are right, its a sliver in time when we can try something new. And if it doesn’t work out, blame the ‘virus.