You build three machines when you build a startup. Your ability to build these three machines is the Great Filter to your life in the business universe. This post is an effort to describe why some startups fail, why some are small, and why others grow big. The Great Filter The Great Filter refers to a concept that Robin Hanson came up with to explain why we don’t see any evidence of intelligent life in the Universe. One can get a better sense of different scenarios when one considers how many things need to be true for intelligence to emerge, and assigns probability to them. If it’s the case that the coincidences required for life to occur are exceptionally rare, then[…]

I was 28 and sleepless when I encountered a marketing version of the logistic function. It was beautiful. It’s one of those things you’re taught about in one context, and when you’re shown it from another angle, it expands your mind. It was like discovering Pi for the first time. I could use it to check the assumptions of a market penetration forecast, and substitute my own estimates for others. I felt empowered and delirious from being able to produce a solid forecast. It became a tool as useful as btau or the crosstab. There’s a part of that math, a variable called saturation, that worried me from the outset. Saturation is the maximum percentage of adoption that a market[…]

Jon Evans wrote a piece for Techcrunch entitled: After the end of the startup era. In it, Evans writes: We live in a new world now, and it favors the big, not the small. The pendulum has already begun to swing back. Big businesses and executives, rather than startups and entrepreneurs, will own the next decade; today’s graduates are much more likely to work for Mark Zuckerberg than follow in his footsteps. And, Because we’ve all lived through back-to-back massive worldwide hardware revolutions — the growth of the Internet, and the adoption of smartphones — we erroneously assume another one is around the corner, and once again, a few kids in a garage can write a little software to take[…]

What if Total Addressable Market can’t be estimated accurately? What then? What is Total Addressable Market (TAM)? Total Addressable Market, or TAM, is the number of buyers who are Willing To Pay (WTP) for a solution to a problem they have now, or are Willing To Pay (WTP) your firm instead of the firm they’re currently paying to solve a problem. Why is TAM important? TAM determines the life and death of a firm. The leading cause of startup failure, and perhaps all business failure in general, is the failure to penetrate and/or retain TAM (Including bureaucratic capture and rent-seeking). In this context, I’m concerned about the introduction of a new product into the market in an effort to generate both[…]

Bart Gajderowicz delivered a great talk at Machine Intelligence Toronto about how people go through stages in accomplishing a goal [1]. The talk was about homelessness and AI approaches to public policy. I instantly saw a connection to all sorts of tensions that people endure when they set out on a goal. To distill the concept, let’s start off with the idea that people have goals, people have emotions, and that time moves forward. As people make progress towards their goals, their emotions change over time. They start off in a good mood, in a state of uninformed optimism. Then, as negative information overwhelms their ignorance, they enter into a state of informed pessimism. So much negative information builds up[…]

Some work is very clearly product work. It’s work on things where the success and failure is dependent on the users of the thing. Your users pay you. Their satisfaction matters above all else. Optimizing for the satisfaction of end users is a distinct activity. Hypotheses have to be assessed and then tested – because it’s very likely that you’re going to be wrong. There’s technology that has to be set up such that it’s reliable and robust for the intermediate to long run. It’s designed to be effective and persistent, with all of the instrumentation that goes along with that. That might include manual A/B testing, user-focused analytics, and extra special attention on the optimization objective. Clear product work is[…]

Why does it seem like all the unimportant, easy stuff gets done first? Look up The Urgency Bias. Employing simplified games and real-life consequential choices, we provide evidence for “urgency bias”, showing that people prefer working on urgent (vs. important) tasks that have shorter (vs. longer) completion window however involving smaller (vs. bigger) outcomes, even when task difficulty, goal gradient, outcome scarcity and task interdependence are held constant.- Zhu, Yeng, Hsee (2014) Even when task difficulty, goal gradient, outcome scarcity AND task interdependence is held constant, urgency wins. Even when it would be more beneficial to do something important instead of something urgent, even when you’re painfully made aware of those incentives, you still gravitate towards doing the urgent. There’s[…]

A data driven culture isn’t necessarily devoid of creativity or imagination. Just the opposite. They’ll have to be especially patient around brand formation. Brands A brand exists in the mind of a person. It usually costs a lot of money for a brand to be impressed upon the cortex of a person. There are certain economies of scale that kick at scale, but still at a considerable cost. If that feels fuzzy, despair not. The framework below is fantastic:   Brand and CAC The optimization objective of a startup is valuation. To maximize valuation, Customer Acquisition Cost has to be minimized. As previously explored, nature doesn’t cooperate to keep CAC low. The point of the brand is to reduce CAC[…]