Why startups cannot run on autopilot

Whenever we think about autopilot, we assume that the system calculates the fastest and safest way from Point A to Point B and then sticks to it to give us the best possible route. How much of the time is the plane sticking to the best route create for it? Maybe 90% or 80%? The correct answer is never! Why you ask? Because every second, the system gets data from its receptors to give the best possible route from that point forward. Hence, every second, the system corrects the direction of the plane to give it the best possible route. The best possible route changes from the time the plane takes off to the time it lands. You have to count the effect of turbulence, bad weather, crosswinds, and whatnot.

Even at a more micro level, as our cells divide, they keep retroactively correcting copying errors, failing which we would die of cancer after hours of conception. Even diseases and bacteria are constantly evolving so the body finds different ways to mutate and fight them.

Adapt or die

We all make mistakes. We all fail. We are in a business where 90% of the time, we will fail. If we are used to failure, then why are we reluctant to taking corrective measures? Is it because we interpret every corrective action as a flaw in our plan? Are we so hell-bent on being right that we are okay risking death in order to satisfy our fragile egos?

Plans are nothing

Every pitch we receive is accompanied by a business plan. Detailed, intricate plans by week, month, quarter, and year that all leads to long term value creation, starting today. Sound familiar? Best possible route from Point A to Point B.

What if we tell you that 99% of the plans we’ve seen have not worked out in real life? If even 10% of the plans investors see work out exactly as planned, every investor would be as rich as Warren Buffet, and if we’re being ambitious, richer than Mansa Musa!

But it does not happen. Because a business is constantly subjected to economic turbulence, bad economic weather, headwinds, and whatnot. And the best possible route keeps constantly changing every second.

Does that mean we do not plan?

Planning is everything

A plan is critical because it is the foundation to project objectives and achieve goals. A plan is extremely important to do 2 things:

a) Focus on key variables that matter

b) Measure what matters

A plan makes use of the data from above to understand where are you right now, and where do you need to be. In the long run, where you need to be i.e. your destination never changes. That’s the endpoint. However, your starting point keeps changing i.e. where are you right now. And the variance between your forecast route and the actual route is essential to understand what went wrong in order to take corrective actions.

If you do not measure what is wrong, how can you right that wrong?

Black box thinking

Continuing the example of airlines and planes. The British de Havilland Comet 1 was the world’s first commercially produced jet. However, the jet met with so many accidents where planes broke midair killing everyone on board instantly. Upon conducting post mortems of these jets, researchers identified the reasons – hairline cracks formed at the corners of the square windows due to pressure build-up that led to spreading the cracks across. This is the reason why we have oval-shaped windows today. Effectively, those many people had to die in order to make air travel safer for decades to come.

These crashes led to the installation of the indestructible in-flight recorder called the ‘black box’ in every single jet. The idea was to learn from the failures to not commit the same mistake again. The black box collects thousands of pieces of data per second to make it easier to determine the exact cause of a crash.

Think about it, the airline industry is the only industry in the world that takes mistakes so seriously. Capital Sullenberger, the hero of the Huson River landing wrote “Everything we know in aviation, every rule in the book, every procedure we have, we know because someone somewhere died”. Effectively every crash makes air travel safer.

Walk the talk

If we replace a crashed jet with a failed startup and lost lives with lost resources or jobs, will we make sense? Absolutely! But where is the person to mandate us to install a black box in our startup? If we do not capture the reasons for failure, how will we make the next startup, the jobs and livelihoods of future employees and stakeholders safer? We won’t. If you do not capture and measure what matters, and what went wrong, how will you right that wrong?

We are strong believers in documenting the journey of your startup and sharing your learnings with others via a blog or podcasr. When founders share their journey, their successes, their failures, their learnings with others, they effectively make the learning curve of others in the ecosystem more short and steep. And the steeper your learning curve, the more exponential your growth! Black boxes of the startup ecosystem will definitely make it a safer future.

In the end, it’s up to the founders of today to lay the foundation of tomorrow. We can only be the enabler, you have to be the doer!

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