Creating order from chaos in a startup

March 6, 2011starting up

I’ve been pondering recently about how my latest venture has very much felt like cycling between creating order from chaos and then ending up with chaos again. I wanted to share my experiences and I hope to hear your thoughts.

Chaos in a startup

Since launching my latest venture around 3 months ago, I’ve had some incredible highs and some low points too. It’s been said many times that creating a startup feels like this, and I can now fully understand why - it is not possible to have full confidence about everything you are doing. I had experienced it with my previous startup, but this time it is even more apparent.

So what contributes to the chaotic nature of a startup? I believe there are two fundamental aspects which create a lot of the chaos in startups.

Understanding people

The first is the various activities which users are carrying out on the apps or platforms we have created. How do we make sense of what people are doing? How can we know how useful they are finding our product? How do we know whether they are having problems? There are many unanswered questions, and at times it feels like a huge struggle to make sense of what is going on.

The lizard brain

I believe that the second main contributor to chaos in startups is what Seth Godin calls the Lizard Brain. He sums it up nicely:

"The list of excuses is long and getting longer all the time."

The lizard brain is the part of us which makes us think about everything that could possibly go wrong, and makes us over-analyse everything. It can be overwhelming, and it is a real challenge to quieten it and to ship things without paying much attention to all the factors which could affect the outcome.

Creating order

So how do we create order out of all the chaos going on? How do we understand what users are experiencing and how they feel towards our product? How do we quieten our lizard brain and stop it halting our progress? How do we reach a state of calm and reach a position where we can be confident we are doing the right things?


I doubt many of us are asking for feedback as much as we could. In my latest venture, I have done much more customer development than in any of my previous ventures. It is amazing what an email or phone call with a customer can reveal.

Early on, qualitative feedback is potentially more useful than many forms of quantitative feedback. You most likely have collected email addresses, so just get in touch with people - they will be glad to hear from you.

I’ve also found that extracting data from my database and presenting it in different ways can create order from the chaos. Cohort analysis can reveal how many of your users are coming back on a regular basis - something you might have had no idea about.


The second thing, is to know when to stop getting feedback and when to produce and ship results. We can always think of so many reasons something might not work out, and often the reasons are contradictory. The same can happen with feedback, too - one person will want one thing and someone else will want the opposite. The interesting thing is that shipping when things feel chaotic can actually create order.

Are you more comfortable with chaos or order?

People like Mark Suster who invest in us as entrepreneurs tell us that one of the key traits they look for in us is to be able to act without complete information. I see this as acting when things are still somewhat chaotic. We reveal just enough order and then we must act in order to move forward fast. In doing this, we create yet more chaos.

Some of us may naturally thrive on acting when things are chaotic. However, perhaps we act while things are too chaotic and we would have more success if we created more order from the chaos before we introduce further chaos.

Others of us may tend more towards the order and wait too long, in the hope that we can eliminate the chaos completely. We then have a danger of losing a huge amount of time to analysis paralysis. Perhaps we should act more while things are still chaotic?

Photo credit: Juan Manuel Garcia

Thanks for reading

If you have any comments or feedback on this article, I’d love to hear from you. The best way to reach me is on Twitter.

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