Getting to "yes" in a world of "no"…

Meeting your peers…

For a startup guy, it’s a bit of an odd experience the first time you properly meet your peer group – by which I don’t mean other entrepreneurs, but rather people travelling parallel to you but just that little bit further ahead.

You see, when you first start out on the whole startup path, an almost inevitable part of your constructed self-image is that of the rebel, l’étranger: seeing the entirety of an industry’s collective mistakes (quite literally) from the outside is liberating, as it gives you carte blanche to fix its key problems in an entirely new way. Before long (if you’ve got any sense) you start learning from potential customers (occasionally pivoting when you realize what a pig’s ear you’ve made of things), while trying hard to keep clear water between the real customer pain points and those that are merely industry mythology: but even so, you’re still essentially an outsider.

Then you start talking to your competitors, and to your surprise discover that they’d like to change the industry too, but can’t see how to do it: and that in fact they look to people like you to make a difference. This is where you begin to understand that the status quo was not foisted upon that industry by cabal-like conspiratorial interests, but was instead the end-result of a semi-random series of incremental evolutionary steps.

Finally, you grasp that evolution itself is a double-edged sword, and that the purpose of startups is to forcefully evolve an industry to a new state specifically by killing off the twisted state into which it has incrementally evolved. Really, the role of the entrepreneur is to call an industry’s bluff, to argue that the way it has become is not fit for purpose, to prove this by constructing a radical alternative that is significantly better, and to monetize this.

(In metaheuristics terms, this is somewhat like simulated annealing: markets tend to cool to local minima, so needs startups to add high-energy ‘kicks’ to help them reach better states.)

Hence when you happen to meet people who have followed this path all the way through, I think there’s a certain kinship at play, particularly when (as happened today at the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Summit in London) their path shares many other industry similarities with yours (“advanced manufacturing” is just a fancy way of saying “not-entirely-off-shore manufacturing”, for the most part). These are your peers: they are you, but viewed through a mirror in time. Do you like them? Do they like you? How comfortable are you with your future self?

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