This week we’re featuring a conversation with Noam Wasserman, author of the bestselling book The Founder’s Dilemma and Life Is a Startup.
Noam shares his experiences about the overlap in founder and life lessons, as well as the importance of proactively tackling those issues in our business and personal lives.
People are Just as Important as Product
It was still early in his career when Noam Wasserman recognized the importance of focusing on the people around you. He was just starting out as an engineer when he noticed a pattern. “If we focused on anyone besides ourselves…it was the customers, and a key thing is we then neglected to think about the team we’re building with.”
Around the same time, Noam came across an article about venture capitalists by Bill Solomon. In the article, Bill found that 65% of startups that failed did so not because of product issues, but because of people problems and tensions between founders.
The importance of that statistic stuck with him. In his own experiences as a founder, Noam realized the significance of understanding the people part of the business. Because when it comes to startups, people are just as important as product. In his shift to academia, Noam continued the pursuit of understanding the key areas where founders make fateful decisions — including people decisions — and how they can make better decisions to increase their chances of success.
Key Lessons We Can Learn From Founders
One of the recurring themes Noam has repeatedly found is that “when it comes to people decisions, our gut leads us astray.”
In his research, Noam found that entrepreneurial gut-instinct is often lauded, but it needs to be put in check, or, as Steve Jobs puts it, “follow your heart, but check in with your head.” Because in the early days, [founders] tend to overestimate the positive side of it. And while that may work in the short term, in the long term, it may cause problems.
One of the examples Noam provides is how birds of a feather flock together. “We really like to go and hang out with people just like us,” he points out. But when you build a team that way, you’re surrounded by like-minded thinkers and hear what you want to hear, which can create confirmation bias down the road, ultimately creating larger problems. It’s important to get a wide range of people and ways of thinking on the team to help notice and point out potential flaws in thinking or execution before it becomes an issue that’s too big to handle.
But perhaps a bigger problem with listening to your gut too closely is that it often tells us to avoid or put off difficult conversations and tasks. But that’s only going to create long-term problems. Noam emphasizes the Lean Startup concept of thinking ahead and tackling some of the bigger, dirtier tasks early on. He points out the need to ask yourself “What are the [things] to most likely go awry?” and tackling those items first. You’ll have the confidence of moving forward knowing that you were able to tackle big problems early on, and you can remain better focused on the subsequent tasks at hand.
All of these findings were very relevant and useful to discussions on businesses and startups. But a decade into teaching these lessons, Noam realized their broader applications.
How Business Lessons Apply to Non-Business Life
While Noam was teaching a course called “Founder’s Dilemmas” at Harvard Business School in 2010, he realized that his research into insights of founders had other real-world applications.
During office hours, a student came to Noam and said, “I’m never going to be a founder, but your course has already changed my marriage.” It was then that Noam realized that all of the lessons he was teaching on founders were actually life lessons as well.
It was easy to see how lessons — like tackling the hard stuff first and having difficult conversations — could easily be applied to marriage, relationships, and even job changes. So Noam shifted his research and started tuning into conversations he was having, handing out student assignments where students had to teach founding best practices to someone outside of the course and then bringing up those findings in his class.
All of this began to confirm his theory, but he still wanted to fill in any potential holes in his own research, so he “went to the literature.”
He referenced books on marriages, career decisions, and other walks of life that were coming up in his findings. These materials had already done rigorous research into these issues, giving him insight into pre-existing data on the subject matter.
This extended research not only gave further legitimacy in his own findings, but also speaks to the importance of not just doing research, but doing research well.
The Importance of Doing Research Well
“Teaching researchers how to do research well [is a passion of mine,]” Noam says, pointing out that there are two major buckets of how you should do research: qualitative and quantitative. “One of the great things about each of them is they have flaws, but the other one fills in those flaws,” he says.
He emphasizes the importance of getting out and talking to people. It’s the best way to understand your customers, the people around you, and to know what questions you should be asking. This can either confirm or contradict the assumptions you’re making, but either way, it’ll keep you pointed in the right direction.
Both types of data are important in order to paint a complete picture. Just using the pre-existing data can be misleading if it’s not confirmed with your own qualitative research. Alternately, your own research can be skewed so you don’t use it in the best way if you don’t have quantitative data to back it up.
Because whether you’re a founder building their startup or someone who is looking to make a big life decision, it’s important to do your due diligence to make sure the idea that’s in your head is actually solving a problem, and isn’t just something that makes sense only to you and your gut instinct.
It’s the ability to utilize tools from the entire picture — the ideas, the research, the data, the people around us — that makes our pursuits successful.
If you’d like to read the full transcript of Elliot Susel’s conversation with Noam Wasserman, you may download it.
Thanks to Shannon Lorenzen for contributing this piece. If you seek to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to your organization, Lean Startup Co.can help.