Uncertainty: startups’ unfair advantage

I just read a review of a new Wiley book Design a better business which argues that:

better businesses are ones that approach problems in a new, systematic way, focusing more on doing rather than on planning and prediction

For them, of course, the point is that design thinking is that ‘new, systematic way’, but this sentence made me think of startups, where the emphasis is very much on doing rather than planning. Since Eric Ries wrote The Lean Startup in 2011 smart founders have understood that the best way to progress is to get onto the ‘build-measure-learn’ loop and iterate to success. That’s doing rather than planning.

Whilst doing rather than planning has been a hugely successful tactic for entrepreneurs and their investors, before I go any further I want to note that as with everything you can take it too far. To get the best chance of achieving huge success, and avoid getting stuck at a local maxima, a certain amount of thinking should be done before building starts. There’s a balance to be struck and whilst best practice is definitely to maintain a bias towards action in our experience an increasing number of f0unders are starting to build product before they’ve done enough thinking, sometimes encouraged by investors who want to play with product before they invest. Many of these founders end up failing when with a little more customer research they might have built a slightly different product which would have resonated much better and allowed them to iterate to success.

The reason that Design a better business advocates doing rather than planning is that the world is becoming increasingly uncertain. Consumer habits, technologies, and other trends are uprooting once-thriving businesses and disrupting entire markets with an ever increasing cadence. In this environment every year gets more difficult for those who like to plan, whilst it gets easier for those with a bias to action.

The increasing engagement of big business engagement with the startup ecosystem through accelerator programmes, incubators and acqui-hires is a reaction to this trend. However, these small-scale programmes don’t solve the fundamental challenge of every business leader, which is deciding which actions to endorse. At good startups it’s easy (or easier..), all action is directed towards achieving their vision. Larger companies have a much more difficult challenge. They need to launch new products, attack new markets, or take radical steps to defend existing revenues, they can only put significant resources behind a small number of projects, and anything that won’t reach the scale to impact their financial statements isn’t worth doing. Historically planning has been the tool they used to figure out which projects have the best chance of moving the needle for them, but as planning is becoming less effective they have increasingly less confidence that putting resources to work will generate the scale of returns required.

That’s a problem startups don’t have. At least not to the same degree. Most founders want their companies to be huge successes, but if it turns out to be a medium sized success that’s still a worthwhile endeavour. A business that grows to £10m in revenues over five years and sells for 1-3x that amount can still be a life changing event. For large companies that’s not the case. If a £200m turnover business goes after a new market and it only adds £10m to the top-line after five years the project will not have been worth the effort.


This is one of the reasons why companies are increasingly buying back shares instead of re-investing profits.

In summary, increasing uncertainty is an unfair advantage for startups. And it’s an advantage that gets stronger every year.