Startup general interest

Fear slows you down

By May 12, 2009 7 Comments

Eric Ries has a great post today: Fear is the mind-killer.  Speed is the best weapon that startups have and Eric describes how fear can slow down the develop process by putting the focus on avoiding embarrassment rather than quickly building great product. 

Eric is ex IMVU where they employed a continuous development process (at least at the start) – deploying direct to production with every commit without extensive testing (more details here).  This is pretty radical at a time when most startups are enjoying the benefits of agile software development when compared with traditional waterfall methodologies, and the challenge they faced at IMVU was getting developers comfortable with the risks associated with deploying direct to production – most notably the fear that they might take the whole site down.  To get over this they asked all new developers to deploy something direct to production on their first day – a kind of shock therapy if you like – and sometimes the site did go down as a result, but overall development moved much more quickly than if they had avoided this risk.

This story captures how fear can slow down development at two levels.  Firstly at a corporate level the fear of embarrassment can result in safeguards being put in place that slowdown product development.  This is often described as having an emphasis on quality and a desire to protect the brand, both of which are laudable ambitions but need to be traded off explicitly against speed of progress, something that doesn’t often happen as fear is an emotion that is frequently denied.

Secondly fear of failure (e.g. taking the site down) can paralyse workers in all fields, and developers are no exception.  If the consequence of introducing a bug is unknown, and could include getting the sack, then it should come as no surprise that some people will be over-cautious and hence move slowly.  As Eric says mitigating the consequences of failure and forcing people to engage in the feared activity more often (e.g. releasing something to production on day one) will help a lot here.

Fear of failure is, of course, not limited to developers and these thoughts apply right across organisations.  The most effective individuals in startups are those who experiment heavily and when they fail make sure they do so quickly and inexpensively.  That way they put themselves in the position to be lucky.  The same is true with startups which usually need to try many different options before they hit on the winning product feature/marketing campaign/market niche/business model etc.etc.

Operating like this requires a confidence that comes naturally to some people and needs to be fostered in others.  Those of us that are involved in the management/direction of startups will do well to seek out people to embrace this modus operandi and to encourage the development of environments that allow others to fear less and move more quickly.

Life in a startup can often seem like living in a pressure cooker and the pressure to deliver short term results can often take the focus away from the bigger picture of building value over 3-5 years – which is enough time to absorb some mistakes.  Twitter is a great case study here – they persisted with a flaky site for a long time and put the emphasis instead on growing usage.