How to tell whether you’re a visionary or a lunatic?

For a while now, I’ve been asking myself: if you are pursuing a dream that nobody else can see, how can you be sure – after a while of trying – that you’re not crazy? That you’re a visionary, and not a stubborn lunatic that keeps believing in something that’s obviously not going to happen?

Only now I’m realizing that even phrasing a question this way is already a mistake. If you’re this far down your path and you have no proof that your idea is right, chances are, you’re up for a big, unpleasant surprise.

My favorite radio show, “This American Life,” had an episode a few weeks ago  with a story of a guy running his family’s well-being into the ground over 3 years, all while trying to launch his own TV show. He had essentially zero traction. He kept getting himself further down the hole since the day he started.

Rand Fishkin, a wise and successful man, gave an outstanding speech about making mistakes at a conference this year. He showed a graph of his net worth – falling through the floor for several years in a row. He kept doing the same thing with the same sad result. And only when he realized his mistake, his career turned around.

It’s curious how our culture romanticizes perseverance, sticking with the ideas once things go sour, and pushing through all the obstacles. There’s certainly a healthy dose of stubbornness that is necessary for an entrepreneur to succeed. But all too often, I see this idea taken all too far – instead of healthy tenacity, the belief of the founder turns into arrogance, and no fact in the world can change their mind.

Einstein said this best: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Stop sticking to stupid ideas, dammit. At the very least, accept the fact that you can possibly be wrong. And search for proof – quantifiable, objective proof – that the assumptions your idea is based upon are indeed correct. Eric Ries makes a powerful pitch for this concept in his book Lean Startup: formalize the foundational assumptions of your business; then, systematically test them – as quickly as possible.

In other words, if you have a smart idea, don’t bet your entire farm on it. Hedge your bets. Accept the fact that you can be wrong. Bet a little bit of time/money on your idea; prove out its most salient points before you mortgage your house and quit your day job. Why? Because too many ventures result in

 “achieving failure”: perfectly executing a flawed plan.

You might argue that true visionaries like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates kept pushing even when nobody believed in their ideas. I will challenge you to fact-check: Steve Jobs had an order for 50 Apple I computers when the company was in his parents’ garage; Bill Gates famously sold IBM something that he didn’t have when he was 25 years old.

What are some of the ways to validate the assumptions in your technology startup?

1) Use non-code methods. Find a way to replicate the core of your idea – even at 50% efficiency – using a human being. Make it a point to write ZERO lines of code. You’ll be surprised to see that you have a great amount of data just a day or two later.

2) Use statistics! Just because option A did better than option B in your survey doesn’t mean that your customers prefer that option. Learn about statistical significance (you’ll be surprised how non-trivial these concepts are!) and run real A/B tests in both human-process and technology experiments.

3) Walk a fine line between “explore” and “exploit”: in optimization theory, there’s a well-known issue of a local minimum: if you exploit what you know about your problem space too much, without a healthy dose of open exploration, you’ll likely end up with a sub-optimal result. Keep your eyes open for possibilities in the nearby spaces; openly experiment in areas where you aren’t strong. Continuously invest time into exploration.

Use these methods to continuously validate your own ideas – no matter how great they seem at the outset – and never find yourself wondering 6 months into the effort: “am I even on the right road?”

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