Failing before beginning

In the early part of the scientific revolution, Francis Bacon said:

Man cannot do what has never been done, except by means not yet tried.

My understanding is that there are two parts to this; the means and the ends. Succeeding means getting both parts right. The fact that a field is littered with failed attempts doesn’t mean that the aim is unobtainable, or not worth obtaining. Nor does it mean that unconventional thinking is the key to success. It can just as easily be the key to new varieties of failure.

What it does mean, I think, is that taking conventional approaches to unsolved problems is a sure way to fail before you’ve even begun.

Summly’s founder on competition (2012)

17-year old Nick D’Aloisio’s news reading app Summly was acquired by Yahoo last month for $30 million. Matthew Bishop interviewed D’Aloisio at DLDMunich in January of 2012, a little over a year before the acquisition. When asked, “Why can’t Google, with their vast team of engineers, simply knock off what you’ve done and drive you out of business?” He replied:

There aren’t really any real competitors in the summarization space yet. They all keep getting bought out. I’m not worried about Google doing it themselves. For the money they could spend to buy us and implement us, it would be much more worthwhile than hiring 50 PhD guys. We’re already in the front so they would have to play catch up. So, what’s to say we don’t sell to their competitor and suddenly it gets implemented overnight into all these devices, Google’s lost out. I think they realize that if they want to get into the space, they may as well look for other services; either us or one they feel is most appropriate for their business needs.

Later, he added:

The bigger the corporation the less the innovation. It’s really true.

Despite the contradictions in his statements throughout the interview, it seems like D’Aloisio was hoping for a bidding war between Yahoo and Google for his company from the beginning.

Dear failed entrepreneur

You failed, it sucks and it wasn’t your fault.

Investors saw an opportunity the same way you saw one, that’s their game, its a numbers game for them. They invest in lots of promises, they win some, loose more but the wins cover the losses so don’t worry about them.

You did your best and that’s all that matters; the rest was beyond your control.

People fail like you every single day. In fact, almost every successful entrepreneur has a CV of failure much longer than you would have guessed, but no one ever talks about these failures; by the time they hit their big win, the failures are long forgotten.

Only the successes ever make it to TechCrunch and hardly anyone ever gets there on their first try.

So stop beating yourself up; get up, dust-off your shoulders and get to work on your next gig. When you reflect on this experience as you work on your next startup, you’ll be able to see just how much you’ve learnt from this failure and maybe even be able to appreciate it.

Keep tossing the coin and your win, your success, will come soon. You haven’t failed until you quit.

Best of luck.

Happy 3rd Birthday to Sameer’s Eats

Three years ago on this day, my buddy Sameer and I released our very first episode of Sameer’s Eats, a fun and quirky web show highlighting some of our favorite halal restaurants. Since then, we’ve traveled all around the country, discovered new places, made new partnerships and met some incredible people along the way. As we approach nearly 200,000 views with an actively increasing audience from around the world, I’m humbly thankful to our loyal supporters and ambitiously looking forward to growing Sameer’s Eats into something far beyond just another web show.

Below is our first episode featuring one of our favorite restaurants to date, Kabab Paradise.

P.S. If you haven’t heard, we recently announced the Sameer’s Eats Halal Food Tour.

Delicious optimism

Some months ago, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who happens to be an attorney. I used the term “entrepreneurial spirit” when describing my advised solution to a business problem at the center of our discussion.

He started to laugh and replied, “I don’t have that gene.” I will never forget what he said next. He said, “you entrepreneurs have this ‘Delicious Optimism’ — this knowing beyond knowledge that every problem is solvable if you just ‘spray on’ a little entrepreneurial thinking.” I remember this vividly because it stopped me in my tracks.

He was right. I have always been a glass-half-full kind of person and I generally believe that there is a winning outcome to virtually any scenario as long as you are creative, have a vision, and you execute on that vision.

But here I was talking to a major litigator — a man with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of everything that can and probably will go wrong. He gets a daily exposure to humanity at its worst; stealing, lying, being greedy, taking the easy way out, cheating on their partners, hiding their mistakes, etc.

He reframed again, admitting candidly that he actually admired “Delicious Optimism” and wished he had it. Just as I was starting to feel self conscious and even a little bit foolish, he clarified and asserted, “No, the world needs folks like you…society wouldn’t advance without people who take on risk fully expecting the best possible outcome.” I joked by saying, “Of course you like that mindset. It’s the source of your bread and butter.” On that, we shared a good laugh.

But it was the first time someone really pointed out to me that there was something intrinsically different about how entrepreneurs think. He referred to it as a gene which works for me because, while I am certain it can be developed and refined, I think it is something you’re either born with or you’re not. Some people simply aren’t built to be entrepreneurs and this attribute is the key identifier.

I don’t want to live in a world where everyone assumes the worst and trust is a fantasy. Even if it is borderline delusional, I enjoy living in the worldview that we are always evolving and improving — that our finest days are still ahead.

Outside of that view, I think I would find it hard to get up in the morning much less accomplish anything worth noting. I prefer being one of those folks, like Warren Buffett, when he famously wrote that everyday he “tap dances to work.” That’s “Delicious Optimism” for you right there.

Self-awareness

I’ve been struggling with something for a long time — how to be honest with myself about my shortcomings and how to overcome them.

For me at least, it’s been incredibly difficult and at times impossible. I’ve come to believe that there is something deeply rooted inside the human psyche that refuses to completely accept that we are imperfect.

Of course this isn’t always unwanted. If we didn’t have a certain amount of pure egotistical madness, how else would we attempt our dreams? The real trick is to figure out what parts you’ll need help with in order to get there instead of blindly believing we can do it all.

This is probably why most investors prefer startups with co-founders as opposed to those with a single founder. You need someone with a very high level of self-awareness to be able to tackle challenges on their own. I suspect that those individuals are fairly rare.

5 before 5

I want to start the new year off by reminding myself of one of the most beautiful teachings in Islam — one that has wider significance for everyone.

The Prophet (pbuh) said: “Take benefit of five before five: your youth before your old age, your health before your sickness, your wealth before your poverty, your free-time before your preoccupation, and your life before your death.” (Hakim)

Stop giving bullshit advice

I’ve heard plenty of terrible ideas, and I’ve also heard plenty of great ideas that are doomed to failure because it’s obvious that the person presenting the idea is incapable of seeing it through to fruition. In either case, I think it’s my duty — as a friend, a colleague, or in whatever capacity — to be honest without being a dick. It can be a fine line.

People are always going to be seeking validation, and I think you have to accept that as given. Some measure of “Do you approve of what I’m doing?” is always going to be baked into these sorts of conversations. Some folks ask it outright; others merely dance around it or imply it. Either way, politely acknowledge it and then move onto the practical advice.

To that end, I think practical advice can be given. The trick is not giving unverifiable advice on the viability of the concept, but rather, teasing out how well the presenter has thought things through. It’s not about poking holes for the sake of poking holes, but about challenging the person to think about all sides and ramifications of the problem he or she is trying to address.

Some of the best advice I’ve ever received on startups came in the form of what, at the time, I’d considered pushback from would-be investors, friends, or mentors. It took some healthy distance from the ideation/pitch phase in order to receive the wisdom for what it really was. At the time, man oh man, I hated hearing it. But in retrospect, I am glad I did. Some very smart people saved me from some very stupid moves, and I owe them my eternal gratitude.