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Take-off or Die

There’s an uncanny similarity between rockets and startups. They either take-off or explode and vanish from the face of the earth. If they persist, by taking off, they go on to do valuable and meaningful work. Startups and businesses or all kind face this predicament during their early stage. I know so, because I have “successfully” exploded my startup before, yet have gone on to be part of businesses which got the recipe right to take-off. I’ve spent a decade witnessing startups.

Optimise for the mission, not the company

Companies are of two kinds, one, who persist in the face of adversity and take-off, the other, who explode when met with adversity. Airbnb, being a classic contemporary startup which has “made it.” They faced enormous adversities like the 2008 global recession and many others. However, it’s unanimously agreed in the tech startup community that they succeeded because they survived the adversities.

Companies like Airbnb optimised for the mission at hand. They didn’t optimise goals or outcomes based on what they can achieve, their engineering constraints or man power constraints. They did whatever it took, to overcome, to innovate, and fiercely breath life into a meritocratic idea that had a shot at solving the challenge.

It might seem like “who doesn’t optimise for the mission?”

Well, sadly the answer is most auto-pilot organisations and teams do. This is so, because I believe we’re wired to. Optimising for the mission demands many coginitively heavy, dealing with unpleasant facts, embracing uncertainty, empathising with the team, and making them visualise the goal, etc. All of which are neither easy nor logical. One has to seek it, develop skills, master it, and apply to even have a shot at aligning towards the mission.

Many missions have imploded. It’s just not common knowledge that the reasons were failing at the above listed! And no amount of celebrity talent or blessings from the startup gods can help a mission that’s optimised for it. Here are a few examples where businesses imploded rather than taking-off while having literally every other recipes figured out.

Quibi - The legendary Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman teamed up to revolutionize media streaming. Although it’s subjective to reason what caused their failure, I’d strongly hypothesize learning from their journey that the legends optimised for “what they knew” instead of “what they need to know to grow.” This WSJ article might help you get an idea about the same.

Atrium - This was Justin Kan’s latest startup, post Twitch. I saw this implode infront of my eyes at South Park, San Francisco. Read more here.

Aereo - Although it’ll seem like regulators killed the company, it was not. The team was insanely resilient to the plethora of banishing from FCC. Read more here.

Rdio - Read about them here.