Getting to "yes" in a world of "no"…


For want of a better phrase, you can think of ‘anti-knowledge’ as something passed off as the truth despite not actually being true. Of course, an outright lie would clearly qualify (duh), but probably the most dangerous type of anti-knowledge is a persuasive story built around a lie, particularly ones which serve to define an entire way of thinking.

I discussed a few such startup stories in the “Mythologies” section of my recent UCL entrepreneurship guest lecture, e.g. the cult of the “winner entrepreneur”, or the cult of the “powerful idea”. In fact, the more I looked at the whole entrepreneurship rationale, the more I concluded that it was nothing less than a sprawling minefield of (plausible-yet-false) anti-knowledge. The curious Zen gatekeeper challenge facing entrepreneurs therefore seems to be to find ways of unlearning these stories so that you can tackle the (arguably even greater) real challenge – of making money in a partially freefalling global economy.

Yet even this doesn’t quite sum up the extent of the problem. My wife pointed out this evening how a number of startup ventures I’ve been involved with over the years have been planned around (and built upon) the truth of various plausible-sounding stories about their business context, only to find (once I’d committed the venture to action) that the people telling me that story had deliberately not disclosed the whole story… a certain product wouldn’t ever get CE marking; a certain route to market would only open up once you had three products, not just one; and so forth.

But how can you ever test the truth of persuasive-sounding stories, short of actually relying on them? Startups have few enough positive assets that it’s extraordinarily tempting to treat these accumulated stories as a kind of knowledge capital, when they can just as well – if they are built around a lie or deliberate omission – turn out to be a kind of knowledge liability.

Perhaps there’s a core weakness of human nature at play here, a desire to trust despite the untrustworthiness of the folk business knowledge that surrounds us: and perhaps the entrepreneur’s biggest Achilles heel is when this desire becomes indistinguishable from a need. For we somehow need those manipulated anti-stories to be true in order to believe that we stand a chance of beating the odds… yet we will likely be brutally disappointed when the mine embedded in it blows up under our feet.

This is broadly the same snake-oil business schools sell their students too. That is, that the stories learnt in the entrepreneurship module lectures will help them beat the startup odds – really, that the deluge of positivistic “history as told by lottery winners” case studies and abstract models washing over them will yield some kind of ‘trickle-down’ microeconomic benefit. And business school lecturers would, for their own self-esteem, dearly like the stories they expansively relate to students to have universal resonance and truth, for they would hate to think of themselves as accidental purveyors of anti-knowledge.

But startups are just not like that: last year’s edgy market knowledge quickly becomes this year’s concrete overcoat – as competitors appropriate, adapt and extend ideas, so those same ideas become retrogressive. If you’re not on the shoulders of giants, you’re probably under their feet. What price knowledge then?

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