The Seductive Danger Of Half Measures

Editor’s note: Guest contributor Aaron Harris is a co-founder of Tutorspree, the marketplace for tutoring. Follow him @harris, or take a lesson from him on Tutorspree.

In the wide world of startups, we mostly like to think of ourselves as go-getters, ass kickers, “in all the way” sorts. We also like to think of ourselves as iterators, tinkerers, rapid iterators who test unceasingly. But the combination of those two traits can lead to one of the most dangerous cycles in startup – half measure syndrome (HMS).

Interestingly, HMS starts off as something very intelligent – the team does not want to commit to a single strategy until it can prove that that strategy will create the hockey stick. When controlled and focused, that impulse is an excellent driver of evolution, but when not properly grounded in the reality of where you are, it becomes quite dangerous.

Steve Blank (arguably the inventor of the rapid iteration philosophy) did an incredible job illustrating the dangers of HMS in a post he wrote about a former student who, despite having achieved product market fit, refused to commit his full resources on the found solution – preferring to continue iterating in the belief that something bigger was hopefully around the corner. Looking at his bank account and fearing the prospect of it dwindling to zero, he became locked in a potential death spiral – continually pitching halfsies that did not go anywhere, more desperate each time, rather than committing to the seemingly proven if not 100% certain results already seen.

That mental state makes a lot of sense to me. It is, to a large degree, driven by fear of failure – and not just of your idea. As we build companies, we continually create buy-in from stakeholders – be they friends, family, colleagues, investors, or admirers. That faith in our ability to succeed is, at surface, driven by the particular success of a product. To risk the failure of that product, without the potential recourse of “but we haven’t tried everything” is terrifying. At its heart, it would mean that, fundamentally, you, as a founder, fell short of a goal that others thought you were capable of achieving.

HMS allows a founder to continually list things that have not been tried in total, to believe in the salvation lodged around the corner which they’ll get to before they run out of time. Paradoxically, that faith means that you will likely never uncover that secret – if it does exist (and very rarely is there a single silver bullet for any company).

Committing halfway fundamentally means that you will not fully understand any piece of that halfsies strategy. It means that, should the strategy fail, you will not fully understand the reason for it. While, in some instances, that may mean you avoid a number of bad roads, it will also mean that your ability to identify the right road will be materially decreased.

Then how, really, can you identify whether or not you are pursuing verifiable tests, or are simply caught by HMS? Fundamentally, I believe the answer is in how you approach testing, in the type of framework you build around it. Tests are not half measures when they are designed to prove individual pieces of an overall hypotheses (can I get to 500 tutors in NYC?).

Keeping a conscious eye on what the point of a test or iteration is, not just to itself, but to your overall plan and mission (how building a certain number of tutors in a given area influences student activity and community creation, in my case, rather than just the number of tutors) removes the halfsies quality of a test. Rather than continually shifting a business strategy to reflect the results of a single test, aggregating data across a set of them, and altering your strategy accordingly creates consistent momentum for your company where the success or failure are equally useful.

Within that framework, there needs to be set decision points – moments where you predetermine that, based on given sets of data, you will make a decision. This is, in truth, the most important aspect of not falling to HMS. Create whatever forcing function you need around those decision points – whether a giant whiteboard, a commitment to your cofounders or employees, or an agreement with your investors or board. At each stage, map out what your confidence interval is/will be. Know whether or not you need complete data on any single iteration to make a decision, or if the aggregate will suffice.

And when that decision comes, make the hard choices necessary. Get advice on those decisions if you can, but make the decision. Don’t push it off because, now that it is here, it is scary – that’s what HMS does. Take the most objective point of view you can, and go. Because, fundamentally, your most dangerous enemy at a startup is time, not any single decision. Every minute you spend not deciding is a minute you’re not learning and not evolving. It may feel like being intelligently deliberate, but it might also be half measure syndrome.

Photo credit: JK B