Sticking with the good ideas; abandoning the bad ones

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Entrepreneurship is exciting: it makes life dynamic and, when used to harness inventions and new technologies, changes both its daily nature and quality. But in becoming an entrepreneur one is humbled by the impossibility of knowing whether the business idea at hand is the “right one”. It just does not have the aura of inevitability that one senses in the stylized retrospective accounts of others’ successes. It is one thing to explain the past, but another to anticipate and embrace the future.  So, what is one to do? On the one hand, going forward is fraught with irreducible doubt about the chosen path. On the other hand, turning away is marred by counterfactual regret; what if … The balance perhaps lies in taking manageable steps forward, while staying alert to the evolving signals about the market feasibility and economic viability of the pursued opportunity.  Judging the merits of the opportunity is not a one-time exercise, but a continuous process.

In a recent study, I examined what happens to people – nascent entrepreneurs – who set out to pursue their business ideas. The data came from the Panel Study of Entrepreneurial Dynamics (PSED), the largest and most representative study of this most elusive part of the entrepreneurial process. The results show that the entrepreneur’s confidence in the opportunity at hand occupies centre stage in the process: where confidence is strong a viable venture is more likely to emerge; where it is undermined entrepreneurs are more likely to call it quits. More importantly, factors that are typically perceived as instrumental for entrepreneurial success, such as prior experience and proper planning, matter inasmuch as they help the entrepreneur learn about the opportunity at hand. Active exploration of the merits of the opportunity can provide a basis for more informed judgment and timely termination of venturing efforts with poor prospects.  In this sense, planning can be an important learning tool for the nascent entrepreneur.

Even the most skilled and knowledgeable individuals can run after “bad” ideas; it is just that they may be able to realize the futility of their efforts more quickly and efficiently. Arguably, every idea deserves a chance when first articulated and this is what makes entrepreneurship both exciting and difficult to manage as a rational decision process. That many ideas would ultimately fail should be considered an instrumental feature of the process. As A.G. Lafley, former CEO of Proctor & Gamble, says, “the key is to fail early, fail cheaply, and don’t make the same mistake twice”. In other words, we need to recognize and celebrate both the successes and the well intentioned failures.