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Radical Experimentation

Imagine that you are a superhero whose purpose in life is to save little startups from dying. What one superpower will you pick for the job?

Seriously, think about it for a second.

The answer is never being wrong. Imagine the power of being able to:

  • Always hire the best person for any position

  • Building killer-features in sequence

  • Getting all your startup assumptions right from the get go

This superpower doesn’t exist, but you can get pretty close by adopting the right mindset. The Experimental Mindset.

This two-part article covers what the Experimental mindset is, and surprising areas where it will make you much less wrong.

The Basics

62 seconds of inspiration by Richard Feynman are a good place to start.

There’s no need to be super scientific about experiments. It’s basically trying something out but with enough intention. A good experiment has 3 steps:

  1. Make a guess (hypothesis)

  2. Predict the future based on your guess

  3. Experiment to compare the prediction with reality

That’s it. Here’s an example:

  • Guess - Milk is not good for my stomach

  • Prediction - If I stop drinking milk for 2 weeks my stomachaches will stop

  • Experiment - Stop drinking milk for 2 weeks and see if you’re still having stomachaches

While this is not a perfect scientific experiment, if milk has a significant impact on how you feel, you are very likely to get to the right conclusion. And if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t matter anyway and you can continue drinking cappuccinos (phew).

The benefits of experiments are big:

  • Truth - puts you in the right mindset to uncover the truth while eliminating bias

  • Decisions - makes tough decisions easy by allowing the experiment to decide for you

  • Anxiety - helps you transcend above tough situations and just deal with them as they are

The secondary benefits are worth noting as well. Experiments make you more outcome-focused, make exploration cheaper, and save wasting resources on things that you are wrong about.

Let’s see the experimental mindset in action.

Your Startup is an Experiment

Worse than failing is failing slowly.

Your startup is no more than an improbable guess about the world. Despite the nice stories about Steve Jobs, you can’t distort reality by working hard or being inspiring. If your guess is wrong you need to adapt it to fit reality or you will ultimately fail. Your startup is an experiment.

How does an experimental mindset help with your startup?

  • Forces you to prioritize testing your guess above anything else

  • Introduces flexibility to change your ideas and assumptions to fit reality

  • Makes the decision of quitting (and starting) less daunting. It is just an experiment after all

My co-founder and I guessed that governments would adopt new and better technologies if they could find and test them easily. We fell in love with this guess before fully validating it. Eventually we adapted it to fit reality, but an experimental mindset could have helped us get there much faster with less anxiety.

New Hires are an Experiment

Worse than a bad hire is a bad hire that you don’t let go.

There is no way to hire perfectly. Getting it right 80% of the time is the best you can hope for. Your mutual goal for the first 3 months is to determine whether your guess was right or wrong. New hires are an experiment.

How does an experimental mindset help with new hires?

  • Forces you to create mutual clarity about scope and goals for the new hire

  • Problems and achievements surface much faster because both of you are tracking an experiment that you want to see succeed

  • Firing becomes a natural step in the process. Both sides can see it coming in advance

I dislike firing because I get attached to people quickly. This approach is the only one I’ve found that made firing natural while putting my emotions, and the employees’, out of the way.

Experiment with Goals, But Still Try to Meet Them

Worse than missing your goals is trying to meet the wrong goals.

Demotivating the team, not aiming high enough, and going in the wrong direction altogether--incorrect goals can create damage in multiple ways. This is why guessing your goals right is more important than meeting them. Your goals are an experiment.

How does an experimental mindset help with your goals?

  • Encourages you to uncover the true goals that drive your business, instead of using generic ones

  • Prevents you from setting unrealistic goals that will demotivate your team, or easy goals that would leave progress on the table

  • Makes you seek the reason behind missing a goal, instead of someone to blame

I recently pressured my team to meet a goal before getting the goal right. The goal was to run more projects with our customers, but the pressure trickled down to our customers and resulted in pissed customers instead of more projects. We asked why and found out that nothing was wrong with our execution or our customers, we simply optimized for the wrong thing. Without the experimental mindset I would’ve insisted on the goal and blamed execution, and you can guess where that would've taken us.

Obsess about getting your goals right first and meeting them second.

More Areas for Radical Experimentation

The second part of this article covers radical experimentation with roadmaps, customers, fundraising, and you yourself. It also highlights the four pitfalls of radical experimentation you want to be aware of.

Give it a read. Just think of it as an experiment.


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