About seven years ago, the leaders of Evernote, maker of memory-enhancing productivity tools (and Inc.'s 2011 Company of the Year), met to select the company's logo. Of numerous choices offered by the designers, the sentimental favorite was a stylized elephant head--elephants being the creatures that never forget. But Evernote's smartest leaders hesitated. The elephant would be seen as unserious, they worried. It would limit the company's ability to launch new products. One feared that Indian users would find the elephant symbol offensive. In the end, recalls CEO Phil Libin, the team settled on a bland snippet of abstract art. No one liked it, exactly. But no one was offended.
If you've ever sat through a soul-sapping "brainstorming" session, the dysfunction in Evernote's decision making is all too familiar. Cognitive scientists call it negativity bias, the hardwired human tendency to see risk around every corner. The Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman (watch his video interview on Inc.com) actually measured it and found that people regret mistakes twice as keenly as they relish successes. That helps explain an odd reality of executive group dynamics. "When you point out what can go wrong, you sound smart and sophisticated," says Libin. "When you emphasize what might go right, you sound naive."
Even so, Libin figures that the worst decisions he has made tend to be ones based on fear, not optimism. As a result, Libin now insists that his managers emphasize the positives of any proposal. "Fear will creep into the discussion regardless," says Libin. "So I'm less worried about making a reckless mistake than I am about missing opportunity." Oh, about that logo: Libin eventually overruled the committee and chose the elephant. Fittingly, given Evernote's mission, it's a lot more memorable.
Every entrepreneur does battle with negativity bias, and that struggle resonates throughout this issue of Inc. How many reasons would a smart group of executives find to doubt that cover subject Bert Jacobs could build a $100 million business out of $200 and a used van? (Jacobs's own feelings about negativity bias are captured in the title he has given himself: chief executive optimist.) Elsewhere in these pages, you'll meet the founders of five other successful companies that launched with less than $10,000; plus, a married couple shouldering their way into the crowded market for flavored whiskey; and a scrappy automotive startup that is leading Google in the race to realize the first commercial self-driving car.
The default state of the human psyche is doubt, fear of failure, and avoidance of regret. For some reason, entrepreneurs aren't wired that way. Thank goodness.