Confronting the Brutal Facts of Your Startup’s Reality

“This is a very important lesson.  You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

- Admiral James Stockdale [1]

Fundraising is distracting because much of it is about framing facts about your reality rather than confronting the brutal facts of your reality.  For us, that meant coming up with a plausible story for not sucking when we did mostly suck. [2]

Some startups try to handle this by juggling two different stories: the one they tell investors and the one they know to be true.  That sounds easy enough, but it can get very confusing and that confusion results in friction.

That was especially the case for our team.  I used to be a lawyer, and it’s a lawyer’s job to put different frames on facts and argue why a given frame is closest to the truth.  An engineer’s mentality is to find the closest frame to objective truth. [3]

When the team got down emotionally, I would try to persuade them that reality wasn’t as bleak as it seemed.  I laugh thinking about it now.  The guys would tell me, “You can’t persuade me of the pitch because we helped come up with it!”

The problem is that I was operating under the mentality that a team needs to be motivated to get more done.  It turns out that my attempts to frame reality for the purpose of motivating was extremely demotivating to the team because it distracted our attention away from confronting the brutal facts of our reality.

Jim Collins in Good to Great and Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in The Progress Principle both interviewed hundreds of managers and employees, analyze thousands of employee journal entries, and concluded that motivation is a waste of time — employees aren’t motivated by motivation.  Rather, the right people are self-motivated and the key is just to stay out of the way and focus on not demotivating people.

Not dealing with reality on the part of management is a huge demotivator.  When you confront the brutal facts of your current reality, you’re able to conduct an autopsy in earnest, and then execute — a process that’s invigorating and self-motivating.

Notes

[1] Jim Collins, Good to Great (2001).

[2] Ironically, the best investors are those that want to confront the brutal facts of your current reality with you and that’s what value-added is in that context.  They’ll find you difficult to talk to if you engage in sales talk rather than confront the truth.  The funny thing is that practicing pitching with the average investor may lead you astray with exceptional investors.

[3] All of this is somewhat ironic because iDoneThis is a tool that shows you the truth.