This space is living.

This space is living.
Photo by Bechtold Csanád / Unsplash

Somewhere around 7th grade, at least here in the U.S., we learn that on a flat plane (let's call it ... Iowa), two miles east, then two miles north will land you at the same location as two miles north, then two miles east. Not only do you get to the same place, the order of your travel didn't affect the distance, much less the terrain.

Shortly after starting a startup, we begin to learn, mostly through hard lessons, that the space between having an idea and P/M-fit behaves much less predictably and uniformly. Whether you get to your goal at all appears to be at least partially determined by the order of your steps, and the shape of your opportunity once you get there is heavily influenced by that order as well.

The people that sell entrepreneurship for a living don't really want to talk about this.

They portray it with mountains: so wooing, grand, difficult, and powerful! Look at you go, climbing that trail! See you at the top!

Or arenas. Those competitive spaces with strictly-defined walls and combatants wearing uniforms, playing under a set of pre-defined rules.

This is what people who haven't started a business think starting a business is like.

In my experience, this world we've entered is a swamp. Less Degobah, more Everglades. Consuming, wet, infested, and pathless. Signs dangle from bent limbs overhead; but whenever their words are the same, they point in opposite directions.

When we do choose to push forward through the waist-high water, the consequences of our actions ripple outward. We discover we're not just a visitor to this world, we're a part of it, altering it as we go. Our influence changes not just the things we can see, but also the things we can't, below the waterline, near and far.

Why do we choose to live and work in such an environment? A space that robs us of the demonstrable cause-and-effect we crave as reasoning primates? The law we infuse into everything through sense-making stories with plot lines. Confidence, meaning, and certainty follow, as naturally as the footprints we leave on the trail.

Entrepreneurs leave behind these comforting thoughts to pursue a deeper understanding of how the world really works. Even if we find out it doesn't work the way we wish it did. We'd rather know, because knowing gives us some tiny chance of writing our own story.

This starts easily enough. We begin poking things: our job security, our retirement account, our plans to settle down. We start something new. A freshly incorporated company with a business checking account and a name we chose appears out of the ether.

Oh, yeah. Oooh, ahhh, that’s how it always starts.

Then the illusion starts to unravel. Something else out there is calling the shots. Our sphere is smaller and less influential than we thought.

Then later there’s running ... and screaming.
Dr Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park

The company you used to work for? It was much more of a closed system: if you conformed to and won by the rules (secret or not), you got the reward. You had a career path!

Now you're in the open world. Yes, you're causing things. But the effects just aren't clear anymore. I built the feature — why aren't they buying?!

WHAT'S THE MATTER? I'll tell you "what's the matter!" I go out of my way for you! I do everything to try and make you happy. I feed you, I clean you, I dress you, and what thanks do I get? "Oh, you bought the wrong paper, Annie, I can't write on this paper, Annie!" Well, I'll get your stupid paper but you just better start showing me a little appreciation around here, Mr. MAN! Annie Wilkes, Misery

Unless we want to become the victim or the villain, we have to reclaim our agency with a revised understanding of cause and effect. Yes, there are conscious causes (decisions), but there are also unconscious ones, things that happen because of prior decisions or decisions that got made because we didn't consciously intervene.

Similarly, there are effects we see, and those we don't. And the effects we don't see make up more of the difference between success and failure than those we can.

There are more of them, after all.

Consider the bűvös kocka, or Magic Cube, brainchild of Ernő Rubik. What makes Rubik's cube so puzzling are the unintended consequences of a rotation. Rotating one column in front of you necessarily changes 3 faces out of view. The path you take to solving one face determines the arrangement of the other faces. Your triumph of getting all of one color on one side? There was more than one path to that. And if you do get that far, are you really 16% of the way there?

The open world is similarly beguiling thanks to the invisible effects of our unconscious choices.

But there is hope: we can learn to see these by intuition.

To illustrate, let's assume our first waypoint is one happy customer: a specific individual, named Anne.

If Anne has "Problem X", and you build a product for her to solve it, you will end up in a very different place than if you had built a core technology, optimized it to solve "Problem X" for anyone who has such a problem, and then found Anne, who appreciates it deeply.

Both paths get you to the place where the one and only Anne is a happy customer! And in both cases you solved Problem X. Both of your marketing sites make it clear you are The Solution to Problem X. But because of the order of your steps, your state of affairs — what lies in front of you and around you in your opportunity space, is very different.

If you're a developer, this may seem obvious: 'Of course, the code will be different! The design spec on those two paths would have been completely different!'

Yes, but what about the interface? Even though Anne is the same, and even though you're solving the same problem for her, your interfaces will harbor meaningful differences; some variation of Conway's Law is in effect.

Okay, but what about the business?

The first path will have gotten to market faster and revenue sooner. The second path will have been much slower. But it's also plausible, even likely, that the narrow scope of the first product path will have lead to a different, lower revenue plateau. You didn't architect it for those add-ons sales is suddenly asking for. 'Anne never said she wanted those when we laid the foundation.'

As Rick Rubin explained the creative process:

If you think you know what it is before you start, that limits what it can be.

In both cases too, Anne pays you for it. But will she pay the same price? You're solving the same problem for her ... so shouldn't she?

In theory! But in practice the way you framed the problem and pitched the solution were quite different. On the second path, you started with a grand vision and were hellbent on the idea that this isn't just a tool, it's the emerging leader of a world-changing software category, sweeping up evangelists and visionary adopters. Along the first path, the product was a fast, straightforward way for her to solve her problem. This difference directly affected Anne's value perception, and who else you spoke to within Anne's organization influenced her willingness to pay.

And so on, and so on ...

As you descend, you become increasingly aware that you've unconsciously rotated your P/M-fit cube many more times than you ever knew possible. All over the web, you were sold stories that flattened this rich, N-dimensional space into something so much simpler.

That simplification created tidy, shareable stories. But those tales didn't teach you to just how many decisions were at your disposal as a founder. There are so many that you can be certain you've made most of them unconsciously.

The maps (stories) you've bought into it, while inspiring and helpful, aren't your territory. They can't tell you the distance to your next waypoint, let alone how to get through your opportunity maze.

So where should you start?

If you want to tell someone where you are, but you don't know where you are, you can start by describing what's right in front of you. In doing so, you become consciously aware of things your brain had previously considered less-than-noteworthy. That should be easy, right?

"Our product is ..."

"We believe that ..."

"For us to succeed, these 4 assumptions must remain true ...".

Okay, this is in fact very hard. But it doesn't matter how your first drafts sound. You've only begun articulating! What do you expect? Write them down anyway.

Now compare your observations and beliefs to those of your teammates, or yourself from a week ago. Are we perceiving our surroundings the same way? Are we investigating them? What has changed since last week? What hasn't? What did I learn? How do I know? Did we all learn that? What are we going to do differently now? Did we follow through?

It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself. CD

Yes, the market can filter you out. But it can also select you in — if you choose to adapt in time: "in which it finds itself."

Find yourself. Record your observations, re-orient, lead your team to follow through, and repeat.

Lean into conscious and deliberate progress.

🍫 Treat yourself to two minutes of marveling at the adaptations of the wheel spider of the Namibian desert.