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5 Apr

Startups can’t be orchestras.

The conductor stands in front of an ensemble of hundreds of musicians — all sitting stoic and ready with their instruments, ready to go on the conductor’s signal.

And how they play! Not one among the hundreds is offbeat. They’re all perfectly synced and in tune, and just marvelling at the sheer harmony between such a large group of humans coming together is a large part of the orchestra experience.

Well, startups are not an orchestra. They can’t be.

We would all love them to be an orchestra, but they aren’t.

Nothing is ever in tune.

And the fewer things that need to be simultaneously true and in sync for the startup to succeed, the better it is.

Startups function on “OR” logic, not “AND” logic.

If your startup needs a healthy market, and good word of mouth, and good customer education, and a killer product proposition, and a kickass tech team, and… sigh. It’s too many things. It’s too many things needed for it to be successful.

It is a bunch of “ANDs.”

If the probability of each of these going according to plan is say 70% (a generous estimate), the probability of your startup succeeding is still a measly 0.7^5 = ~17%.

It’s not a good recipe.

So, can you reduce the number of things that have to go right for your startup to succeed? And can you make sure the probability of these things going right is closer to 100%?

For example, if you pick a large and growing market, that’s a large part of your success equation already solved.

With Stoa, we already knew that the target market and the opportunity were huge. And education is a pursuit no one ever discourages or says “no” to. Those are two huge pieces of the success equation already solved, even before we began.

But the point is that you need to:

Convert your “ANDs” into “ORs.”

Your startup cannot be an orchestra, where even a single musician falling out of tune can ruin the whole performance. There cannot be too many clauses, where every clause needs to be satisfied for the contract to stay valid.

Think about the marketing mix — only one or two of your channels need to really work. It’s a bunch of “ORs”. To survive, you do not need all of them to work, just one or two will do.

This is also true of clients, vendors, product features, your team… you only need a few to work really well for you to succeed. And your success cannot be contingent on all of them being in tune at once.

This is also why marketplaces are doubly difficult to build; you need both supply and demand sides coming together, along with the platform. If either the buyer or seller is disinterested or doesn’t find value, the marketplace fails. And a large part of the value in marketplaces comes from scale and network effects, so even the value is quite hard to generate in the initial days.

It’s not a surprise then that most marketplaces do not succeed. They have too many “ANDs.”

For a startup, optionality is strength.

By having a vision that needs many things to come together and fall in place at once, you are lowering your probability of success. But by stringing together a bunch of options or “ORs”, you are increasing your surface area for luck.

Luck isn’t really luck. If you’re smart, you can math your way out of it!

P.S. — This is not a problem just relevant to startups. You can easily fall prey to the same mistake while making product decisions or managing your team. Have you faced any situations where you were hoping for an orchestra? Reply back to the email and do let me know!

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