This series of articles explores the connections between entrepreneurship and the history of philosophy and literature. Each article traces the influence of a specific thinker or school of thought upon the development of both my business philosophy and practice--in particular, my experience building my most recent start-up, Uptake. As I share these ideas with you, my aim is to draw attention to the profound resonances between two worlds that are typically considered worlds apart.
Every successful business begins its life as an idea. The exhilarating journey from idea to reality is the essence of the entrepreneurial endeavor--and yet, most ideas never complete this journey. For every idea that triumphs, there are a thousand that fall by the wayside. As someone who believes that human innovation and entrepreneurial action is among our highest callings, I constantly ask myself: How do I know if an idea will succeed?
One of the key methods I use to gauge potential is what I call "Killing the Idea." To kill an idea, I challenge it relentlessly, search for its weaknesses, uncover its vulnerabilities, and seek to discover all the reasons why it won't work. The foundation of this process is a relentless search for relevant data, prior efforts and their results that help contextualize the practicalities of successful execution, academic and related experts, and people who have had direct experience in the given domain. While I put trust in these findings, the real value is to use these learnings to test my assumptions, not just to prop them up.
Risk is always a part of a new venture. But by trying to kill your idea, you will find yourself mindfully limiting the emotional and decision bias that is part of being a human being. And when you do take a risk to start something, it will be well calibrated, and you will be more fully aware of the tactical and execution risks that you must overcome.
"Kill the Idea" has two basic principles:
1. Once you have an idea for a venture that you think may have promise, do everything in your power to understand the reasons it won't work (rather than convince yourself why it will work); and
2. If the idea cannot be killed, it begins to take the form of destiny, which is when you know you must pursue it.
The process requires mindfully avoiding bias, examining all facts that arise without emotional or psychological prejudice, and scouring the earth to ensure that you are accessing every possible source of relevant input and feedback. Ideas that survive this grueling process become stronger and more dynamic, which is the trigger to make it a reality.
A primary intellectual influence for this "Killing the Idea" approach is the French philosopher René Descartes. What I find most inspiring about Descartes' philosophy is not necessarily what he thinks--for example, the belief that mind and matter are separate substances--but how he thinks, his methodology. In The Discourse on Method (1637), Descartes offers four core principles for thinking through a difficult problem. Principle No. 1: Never accept anything as true if you lack evident knowledge of its truth. This means refusing to accept any unexamined opinion, regardless of its source. Further, Descartes recommends that you break down an idea into its component parts; proceed systematically from part to part, from the simplest to the most complex; and achieve a comprehensive view of the idea. Overlooking any part of the whole will compromise your judgment.
In Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), Descartes puts these principles into action. In his quest to attain certain knowledge, Descartes employs his famous method of doubt. Starting out from a position of doubting everything, he discards every belief that "admits of the least doubt," regarding even probable beliefs as "completely false." While this is extreme, it is relevant because it provides philosophical context for an entrepreneur - most entrepreneurs believe "if what you say supports my idea, then you must be right," while I believe the appropriate perspective is to proceed with a bias of "prove it to me" as you receive feedback on an idea.
My recent enterprise, Uptake, is the result of my most rigorous application of "Kill the Idea" to date. For two years prior to launching Uptake, I focused on the idea of bringing predictive analytics to large industry. The data has always been there, unseen, unheard and uncollected. Now, however, technology and connectivity unlock the ability not only to capture it, but also to transform it into actionable insights. Harnessing the power of this data in the form of real-time predictive recommendations can help companies solve problems before they happen--thereby optimizing performance, minimizing downtime, and enhancing safety. And this all leads to value creation on an extraordinary scale.
When I first considered pursuing this idea and starting a company, I applied Descartes' method of doubt and set out to prove that this idea for a business would never work. My initial enthusiasm yielded to an intense skepticism. In good Cartesian fashion, I broke the idea down into its many parts, and began systematically attacking every part from every possible angle. Think, for example, of everything you need to understand in order to build a predictive analytics platform for the industrial internet. You have to understand the data itself, the data sources, and the data science that will transform all this information into real-time, actionable recommendations. To create value in multiple industrial verticals, you also need to understand the business processes vital to the success of a given industry, and the workflows underlying the operations of each industry. Not to mention questions of integration. What about the potential culture clash between an agile startup that innovates by the hour, working alongside industrial giants with product development cycles that can take years?
Seem like a daunting process? It did to me. To kill an idea this complex, cutting across so many different industries and domains of knowledge, I needed help. So I created a team of experts, composed of the best minds I could find in business and academia: CEOs of industrial corporations, data scientists, professors of statistics and applied mathematics. I learned everything I could, as fast as I could. I questioned everything. And then I doubted everything all over again. I also scrutinized my current and potential competitors. For most industrial companies, predictive analytics remained secondary to their core business--it was hardly a priority. Perhaps no one recognized the full potential of the opportunity; or, perhaps, there was a flaw in the idea that I myself couldn't yet recognize.
Despite this deep scrutiny, the idea remained impregnable to doubt, immune to my most merciless skepticism. And the siege lasted for two years (2012-2014). I couldn't kill it--to the contrary, the intellectual rigor created a framework that led me to understand that I must create it. So I started Uptake. We now employ over 600 people and our growth continues with pace.
"If you would be a real seeker after truth," writes Descartes in the Principles of Philosophy (1644), "it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things." For me, once is not enough. Every great idea deserves to be killed--if only for the sake of its ultimate survival.