Acting with incomplete information in a startup

Written on 27th March, 2011
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As a fledgling entrepreneur in the midst of a growing startup, I try to read quite a lot around the subject. I’ve been deeply involved in startup culture for around two years now and I often find myself reflecting on my learning and relating it back to articles I have previously read. Recently this happened again for me in the topic of making decisions based on incomplete information.

Incomplete information

I first came across the phrase “acting with incomplete information” in a blog post Mark Suster wrote over a year ago titled "What makes an Entrepreneur? Four Letters: JFDI". In the article he writes about the importance of moving forward when you don’t have complete information:

Entrepreneurs make fast decisions and move forward knowing that at best 70% of their decisions are going to be right. They move the ball forward every day. They are quick to spot their mistakes and correct.

I’ve only recently realised the true importance of this concept, and what it actually means in reality. It is one of those things which I’ve read and thought I understood, but I’ve realised how different it can be when you’re actually experiencing it.

What about the lean startup?

I’m scientifically minded, so when I first heard about the lean startup concepts pioneered by Eric Ries, I was completely hooked on the idea. The concepts are fantastic, and the way Eric Ries has distilled them is hugely beneficial for anyone trying to build a startup. I’ve used them myself to great effect. However, with descriptions of lean startup such as the one below, it can be easy to assume that you should make decisions only based on facts and never based on opinion or incomplete information.

Build a company-wide culture of decision-making based on real facts, not opinions.

What I have realised over time is that some of the aspects of the lean startup are more useful at certain times than others. For example, when you are just getting started and have only a trickle of traffic, you really can’t gain the volume of data you need for A/B testing. In the early days, talking to customers and gaining validated learning is one of the most useful things to do, but even if you gain a huge amount of feedback you cannot be 100% sure of anything. In the end, you have to take the leap.

Mark Suster is right: almost all of the time you have to make decisions without knowing what the outcome will be. I’ve mentioned that my mind is wired to think about things in logical ways, so “acting without complete information” is one of the things about doing a startup which I have struggled with the most.

Stop fearing acting without complete information

Over time, I have realised there are some ideas which really help me to be better at acting without complete information. Here are a few of the things which have worked well for me:

Create a fear of not shipping

When you think too much about the fact that you have to take the leap and act without complete information, you can start to fear what the consequences might be when you ship. There are all sorts of things that could go wrong, after all. I the past I have really feared shipping, but gradually over time I have started to question what the worst thing to happen could be, and I’ve actually developed a fear of not shipping.

Realise that everyone has to act without complete information

One useful thing to do is remind yourself that whilst history has some rhythms, it never repeats itself. Even the most experienced entrepreneurs have to assess things with a fresh mind when they embark on a new venture. It could even be argued that having less experience is sometimes a good thing. Whatever your experience is, remember that everything you do is new to a certain extent, and your situation is different to any other situation that has ever occurred.

Remember that failure is the best way to learn

In some cultures failure is more accepted than others. I live in the UK, and especially in business it is often seen that if you fail once you should just give up. I have realised over time that failure is not really a binary thing, so it is never as bad as you might think. I have also realised that “failure” or “something not working out as imagined” is one of the best ways to learn something.

"Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm." - Abraham Lincoln

Are you acting without complete information? Do you think you need to do it more? I’d love to hear about your thoughts and experiences.

Photo credit: espressoDOM