Before the Honeymoon

Guy Kawasaki posted another stunning entry today on all the ways a start-up can screw up in its execution (“After the Honeymoon“). It has pitch-perfect advice on how to handle everything from crappy PR agencies to slipped product schedules. But oftentimes execution is the second, not the first problem. The first problem is that nobody wants what you have, & that the entire premise of a company needs to be revised.
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Why is this so unspeakable? Hitting on the right idea is more of a process than many folks realize when they imagine that it’s a simple case of executing against the founder’s vision. The history of successful companies is often re-written to make it seem like they had that vision all along (Oscar Wilde: “history was made to be re-written”). More broadly, historians have glorified “Eureka!” inventors rather than all us plodders who had to work to get it right. In Redfin’s case, we seem to have hit on a doozee of an idea from the start, but before joining Redfin I was a founder at Plumtree Software, and THAT idea needed plenty of work.

Sales blames marketing who blames engineering who blames the CEO who blames the board when what is most difficult to admit is that the company’s core idea needs to be re-thought. You swap out agencies, engineering managers and sales executives without facing this terrifying possibility, which seems unspeakable because it is tantamount to giving in to despair, when in fact it happens all the time, and it isn’t the end of the world, but more like the beginning.

The original idea can just be a way to get a bunch of smart people working on a large problem, who then iterate on a better solution than you had initially imagined. For me what this means is that more than anything else — more even than executing perfectly — a company that has just taken venture funding has to be open to learning quickly, hitting on what works, THEN executing ruthlessly. I know you’re supposed to have the idea figured out before you take money, but nothing ever works out as planned, so you have to keep learning.


  • Sasha

    Ah, Glenn, you are always more candid than you should be, but that’s a large part of your charm.

    In any case, I think you’re right on in this post. One of the hardest things in a startup is to maintain a balance between the following two world views: “we have a great idea that is going to change the world” and “dammit, it doesn’t work very well and no one wants it.” The former belief is what motivates smart people to do rock star-level work, but the latter is what motivates them to make it better. I have seen far too many companies that focus too much on making the “change the world” belief into orthodoxy that can’t be questioned. It certainly happened once or twice at the ‘Tree. Once that happens, the company can’t meet user expectations, because they aren’t willing to question their basic beliefs about the company idea.