Adapt Or Die: Lessons In Learning

“What do you look for in the startups you invest in?” Many investors, when asked this question, say they look for coachability, because they want to have the option to provide inputs to their startups/portfolio companies and to then see them adapt their course of action accordingly.

But the desirability of this trait can be something quite misleading. While coachability sounds great on paper, it can lead you to only invest in weak founder teams. From my experience, the best teams have a very clear picture of the future; they know exactly where they’re headed. This might mean that they’re not coachable at all, and will instead always listen to your inputs with a grain of salt — this is because your perspective, though no doubt shared in good faith, may in fact be too far removed from their core business’s operational reality.

Forcing compliance in this regard may even turn out to be harmful, as even the most well-intentioned advice, if not properly founded in data and experience, can lead companies astray.

Understanding, Not Memorizing

Instead of looking for coachability, what you should really be after is the ability to learn. What do I mean by this? By learning, I mean the ability to test new ideas, reflect on the data collected and make the right changes based on what you concluded. You can also learn from other people — for instance, you can talk to other startup founders that have worked with the same kind of product, and by doing so you’ll hopefully be able to avoid making the same mistakes. Though do keep in mind that circumstances change, and that mistakes made 5 years ago may have very different ramifications today. Either way, you should make it your golden rule to always take outsider input with a grain of salt and think critically about what to apply to your situation and what to discard.

Self-reflection is key. This isn’t about finding someone to teach you everything, accepting their input in blind faith, crossing your fingers and hoping for the best. A rock-solid learning ability is based on thorough reflection and a commitment to data-based decisions — that is how you learn and improve: by seeing what works, understanding why some things didn’t work, and then using this information to steer your company in the right direction. And you better believe that this constant adaptability is crucial for long-term startup and business success.

(In)Adaptability In Action

I’d like to tell you about a great example I experienced first-hand when working for a Swiss startup in the fitness industry. The guys I worked with had some experience, were older than me, and overall were great people. In fact, I still admire and am fond of them to this day. But they just were not able to change their course. Now I’m not saying they weren’t coachable, as they did listen to very specific set of people, but they still ran into the same mistakes time and time again — even into some that had been pointed out to them several times before.

In short, they thought they already knew all there was to know about the field. The company was launched with a very rigid mindset — “I know how it works, I know how to fix things” — despite the fact that nobody at the company had ever done these things before; and, well… big surprise! Their approach didn’t work. Reassessing their strategy didn’t do them much good, either: they more often than not tried the same things twice and ended up running into the exact same mistakes.

The Art of Communication

Another thing to keep in mind is the team’s setup and communication style. You should always address issues the very first time they arise, so that if (or when) those same issues crop up again, you and your team members will know what to do, rather than wallow in hesitation and avoidance. I mean… newsflash! Problems don’t fix themselves.

I say this because the people I worked with — while having good faith and genuinely wanting to build a strong company — were unable not only to accept failure as part of the learning process, but also to learn how to fail fast, and later make better decisions based on the gathered knowledge. And from my point of view, lacking this ability is a big red flag in the startup world — because no matter how great of a person you are, or how amazing your product is, if you are unable to adapt, it is only luck that can save you from certain failure.

Critical Thinking Applied

So, don’t be afraid to do some self-reflection! Think about your behavior and your habits. Ask yourself: Am I truly taking the time to learn from my mistakes, to constantly innovate and try new approaches? Or am I too arrogant to do this? Or perhaps too comfortable with blindly following the advice of others? Now, don’t get me wrong: you should always aim to listen to as many people as possible. But at the end of the day, your decisions should be made by you and you alone.

I guess the gist of what I wanted to say is this:

  1. Think critically about the situation you’re in;
  2. Gather as much data as you can, through testing and experimentation;
  3. If all else fails, trust your gut feeling.

You’d be surprised how often it’s right! In the end, this ability to learn is a crucial skill for the startup world, so do yourself a favor: don’t underestimate it.