What Worked for Them Will Not Work for You.

Startups are exciting. Who wouldn’t want a swanky midtown office complete with dogs and a fridge stocked full of Red Bull — and not to forget that hockey-stick growth, and that oh-so-glamorous exit. It’s a tantalizing atmosphere, one that inspires dreams in lustrous corporate employees who are no longer satisfied with their boring, dogless corporate offices.

These dreams are oft fed by truckloads of method-prescribing, advice-giving content created by the startup elite, and aimed at the world’s future company-builders. It’s not then surprising to discover that most of these aspiring entrepreneurs (content consumers) will underestimate the difficulty of actualizing their entrepreneurial dreams: their conceptions of startup life are guided by others’ experiences, often ignorant to the enigmatic complexity of their unique context. It would now be contradictory to recommend anything objectively to a founder, however, it is appropriate to conjecture this: what worked for them will (probably) not work for you.

Firstly, it’s important to note the keyword in the previous sentence: work. In whatever activity a person endeavours in, the fact that he or she endeavours at all suggests that the desired outcome is success, or for the thing to “work,” generally.

(CONTENT WARNING: the following is a bit abstract.)

If success is clearly defined and reachable, there must be at least one viable, truthful path to it. This path includes an unfathomable amount of key decisions and circumstances made optimal enough in order to reach success. A person who has previously reached this same success point may have had a completely different set of decisions and circumstances that lead them there, and, unbeknownst to the newcomer, this exact variable set is only partially visible, or is impossible to replicate in it’s entirety (because of timing, and / or competitive factors, etc.).

Additionally, it is extremely unlikely that a close approximation of this successful instance will also result in success given the sheer complexity of the two respective decisions and circumstance sets. This problem, called the Curse of Dimensionality (Donoho), is described ad nauseum in the field of mathematics.

For instance, a Bloomberg Businessweek (Stone) article describes two very successful companies: Airbnb and Uber. These are two multi-billion dollar technology startups in the sharing economy space, founded at around the same time and headquartered down the street from one another. It does, at face value, sound like these similarities played a part in their success [1], however, a scratch below the surface would reveal that they had many more differences than similarities in their company culture, operations, etc. If either company attempted to imitate the other it’s likely that the imitator would not nearly be as successful as they are now.

Both of these companies are as successful as they are because they found their own success, through their own novel decision-making. A Harvard Business Review article describes a (politically-relevant, yet I won’t discuss) philosophical dilemma in How Do You Know What You Think You Know? (Bearden). In summary, Bearden talks about knowledge as a junction of truthfulness and a justification in truthfulness.

For example, a lot of founders claim to know what will work for their company. In reality, the reason why their endeavour “worked” (truth condition is true) might have been for a different cause (justification condition is false) altogether. In these cases, because the truth and justification conditions have not both been satisfied, the founder cannot say that he knew what worked. The same logic can be applied to content creators and content consumers: neither can know that the creator’s advice or method will work in the consumer’s case.

This is dangerous because it’s all too easy for a consumer to hold the assertions of a content creator as fact without proper justification. The author suggests to incessantly ask the question “How do you [or I] know that?” (Bearden). How does a founder know that their method, or this Medium writer’s conjecture, is valid in their case? In short, they cannot know because of the Curse of Dimensionality. The decisions and circumstances that lead up to the creator’s and the consumer’s current positions are too different to justify prescription.


[1]: Success is defined differently at every company and for every founding team. For simplicity I am considering, erroneously in some cases, that a multi-billion dollar valuation is the definition of success for high-growth startup companies like Airbnb and Uber.

Works Cited

Bearden, Neil. "How Do You Know What You Think You Know?" Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business Review, 07 Aug. 2014. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.
Donoho, David L. "High-dimensional data analysis: The curses and blessings of dimensionality." AMS Math Challenges Lecture 1 (2000): 32.
Stone, Brad. "How Uber and Airbnb Fought City Halls, Won Over the Citizenry, Outlasted Rivals, and Figured Out the Sharing Economy." Bloomberg Businessweek 30 Jan. 2017: 44-53. Print.