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The Antifragile Startup

December 21, 2012

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Nassim Nicholas Taleb is idiosyncratic, smug, and self indulgent; but you can’t deny he comes up with some gems.  The Black Swan was one; Antifragile is another.

“Antifragile” is a neologism he intends as the third vertex in a kind of triad:  when you expose things (people, systems, companies) to random attacks and shocks, then “fragile” things break down, “robust” things remain intact, and “antifragile” things get stronger.  The idea is sort of like “adaptability,” but more positive.

This is a clarifying concept for startups.  One way to think is that startups ought to be as robust as possible.  The best ones, according to this theory, have strong backing, so they don’t run out of money if there’s a glitch, they have experienced entrepreneurs, who know, at least in general, what they’re in for, and can plan for it.  And they have multiple options, so if one market or technology bet doesn’t work out, they can find another.

In contrast, an antifragile startup embraces the iterations and pivots, rejections and delays, personnel melt-downs and product failures, and above all, the lethal indifference to your product, that adds up to life in the startup lane.  You embrace all this misery not because you need to be tough and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  You embrace it because you’re lost without it – according to Taleb, what doesn’t at least try to kill you makes you more fragile.

So which would you prefer to put your money or your life into?  A robust startup or an antifragile one?

From my point of view, that depends on how early it is.  A really early startup can’t be robust, so trying to be (or worse, trying to look) robust is a bad path.  The things that make a startup seem robust, like super experienced and talented entrepreneurs or great IP, are in fact liabilities when they’re part of a startup without a discovered market.  These are the sorts of things that entail commitments. (We’ve got great IP – let’s exploit it in our product; our CEO is great at managing or getting people to make things or selling or raising money – let’s hire people and make and sell stuff and raise money.)  In this situation, the company suffers twice – it suffers from the illusion of being robust, when it’s actually just a vortex of liabilities.  And worse, it suffers from the illusion that it ought to be robust and resistant to shocks.

That’s a death sentence.  Remember that the only thing a startup necessarily does is spend money.  A robust startup is one that keeps its form and goals intact, despite the blows from the market.  Do that for a while, and the money will be gone. It’s no accident that Steve Blank’s proverbial definition of a startup starts with the words “a temporary organization.”

On the other hand, transforming a startup into a company is the process of building something organizationally robust – something that can consistently do real jobs for customers despite forces that knock it off course.  How do you get there without building in robustness?  A startup’s job is to drag facts into the building, as the saying goes.  But a business model canvas full of validated hypotheses still isn’t a business.  There’s no neat endpoint of the startup process, where a company just flips a switch, from fully validated business model to smoothly humming business.

Maybe a baseball metaphor works here.  A startup is like a new team showing up at spring training.  Its job is to get knocked into shape to play the game, so being antifragile is the key to success.  Once the season starts, they don’t stop practicing, and lessons learned in games constantly feed back into practices, but winning requires robustness.  How robust is your business?  How antifragile?

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2 Comments
  1. Pedro Bandeira permalink

    Awesome article! The secret of customer development is to try invalidate guesses instead of validating those. This mindset turns you into an “antifragile” entrepreneur.

  2. Thanks. But again, see the April 9th post. I think that invalidating guesses is necessary, but not sufficient.

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