Do Not Be Afraid, Do Not Be Very Afraid

Throughout my blog, I discuss a number of products and services, some of which are for profit. I want to make it absolutely clear that I make no money nor gain any benefit from extolling the positives of these items, or the companies that produce them. In the event that I would have a personal part in a product or service, I would clearly specify this. Influence on the opinion of a person can sometimes be very subtle, even to such a point that the person him or herself does not realize it. Throughout my medical career, I have tried very hard to make decisions based on the literature and not on my most recent encounter with a product salesperson. I will do my best not to let personal gain (or loss) influence my comments on medical, technological or any other issue.

This introduction is very important especially when I’m about to talk about a very business oriented approach and service. Everyone is looking for the magic bullet that will guarantee, or at least dramatically increase the odds of, having a success with their startup or existing business. There is no such thing as this magic bullet. For every exit that nets the owners of the company millions, if not billions, of dollars, there are thousands to tens of thousands of individuals who have failed with their startup or established business, and some of these people have truly lost everything.

There is the old expression that one should not gamble with money that they do not have. But in the world of business, almost no matter how hard you work, all ventures are still a tremendous gamble. Whether using your own money, or the financial resources of family, friends or outside investors, your failure will translate into both personal distress and possibly suffering of people close to you. For the outside investor, they do not have an endless well of money. Your failure could in fact hurt the investor significantly.

Running a business entails responsibility to oneself and many others. I say all of this because I have encountered people who have somewhat of a laissez-faire attitude towards their own company. I personally do not understand how such a company could even survive if the senior people are not more dedicated to its success. But I have seen it happen.

There is a relatively new approach in the startup world called “lean startup machine”. This link is to one (of many) explanatory pages on the topic. The tagline for this system is along the lines of “fail early, fail fast, fail often and then succeed”. This approach asks of the participant to challenge themselves early on in their startup’s development, so as to find the best path to success as quickly as possible.

For example, one of the components of the system is to present your idea to people who are not personal friends or family, in order to get a more honest assessment of the idea. As simple and obvious as this sounds, it entails dealing with a certain level of fear. We all naturally avoid negative experiences. It is scary to present your idea to strangers who may very well not like it or more so, outright dismiss it as weak or silly or unimportant. Part of the “lean” approach is to overcome this fear so as to be open to hearing the truth, and thus work on improving and/or altering your idea until it does ring of success amongst strangers. In time, the fear of failure or rejection will be less and less of a deterrent. And this is a key step to success.

I was once called in to give my opinion on a technology for securing personal health records. I have actually been involved in this area for many years and have personally seen quite a number of companies come and go for what was arguably obvious reasons. Generally speaking, personal health records as a standalone service tend not to be successful. Even Google effectively failed with its Google health system. Microsoft continues to market its HealthVault tool. But Microsoft has a whole range of medically oriented solutions, such that HealthVault is one part of the far greater package.

In any case, I watched as the technology was demonstrated to me and I was quite disappointed. I have seen similar versions of this technology in the past and they had all failed. The developers spoke of existing success back in their country of origin. But their numbers of users was in fact quite small and if anything, proved that there was not significant interest in their product. I was polite and not completely honest. I spoke of my interest in the technology but warned the developers of the great difficulty in making inroads with their product. I went so far as to ask them if they had a timetable as to when they would abandon this product. When I asked them about funding, I was pleased to hear that they had not “sold the farm” to advance their startup. But throughout the discussion, the developers became very defensive whenever my comments were anything but positive.

Why was I not fully honest? Because I truly did not feel that the developers were ready or able to hear negative comments. They did not ask me to openly critique their product. It was clear to me that they wanted only positive reinforcement and advice on how to move forward, rather than to hear the words “you must take a big step back”. This kind of fear of hearing an honest opinion can be destructive. Was I wrong for not being “painfully” honest? Perhaps. But I did not want to start a fight with people who struck me as unwilling to accept any true criticism.

I’ve not heard from them since and I have not read anything about a technology similar to theirs having any success. The critical point here is that they spoke at length about the excitement that their friends and other acquaintances expressed when using the product. I was perhaps one of the first people that they had demonstrated their product to, who did not know them previously. And even I felt awkward at being bluntly honest. One of the principles of lean startup is to be aggressive in asking critical questions about one’s startup. Is this a product that people would use? How much would people pay for such a product? If the product requires support or maintenance or just replacing batteries, would people do so? Asking these questions and effectively demanding honest answers, no matter how negative, can spare a startup a tremendous amount of time and money. Unfortunately, many startups do not ask these hard questions and as such suffer failure after much wasted effort and money.

So the idea behind “lean machine startups” is to look for the potential of failure early on and aggressively, in order to modify your product to better suit public demand. You might have to face the fear of dropping the product entirely, or at least majorly redesigning it. But by “failing early”, a startup has a much better chance of identifying basic problems with their technology that may be easily corrected if done so even before a prototype has been produced. Once however one is close to actual manufacturing, discovering that the expected audience for the product simply does not exist, is obviously devastating.

There is a formal course given on this approach and it is being offered in October here in Israel. I, and my son, have signed up for the course. It is an intensive three days which I hope, if nothing else, will make me a better consultant to others.

Thanks for listening

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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