Someone was recently asking me about jumping into new projects or businesses ventures, and we talked a lot about self-employment risk. Having been self-employed since 2009, people often assume a high level of risk-taking in my personal history, but the reality is that I try to let some amount of caution be my guide, and to calculate all risk based on reasonable empirical evidence of a return on investment. I didn’t even pay the $50 for a Business License for Stray Kat Studio until I had secured a contract for my first client (This licensing delay was legal in my situation; I looked it up beforehand).
“Fail Fast, Fail Early, Fail Often” is a Silicon Valley mantra, but I think that saying is missing a vital ingredient, which is “Fail Small.” By that, I mean to fail with isolated and minimal variables to increase the specificity of the results learned by the experiments or new steps. Of course, failure isn’t the goal. It’s the risk taken, an acceptable price of entry paid for purposeful research and development.
If someone fails big, then they haven’t designed a specific enough experiment or based it on solid enough assumptions. They instead “put everything on red”, gambled, and lost. A StartUp or new project shouldn’t generally be a gamble. It should be a series of small, measured, purposeful and educational experiments using Minimal Viable Products and hypotheses for each step, designed to collect useful feedback and gradually acquire knowledge for the growing iterations, until a viable system is developed. Nerdy, I know, but the scientific process seems to apply well in business.
Occasionally a project involves irreducible complexity, or an opportunity is fleeting and someone needs to jump in without the safety of a trial run, but most of the time, at least some uncertain variables can be isolated and tested out earlier, smaller, and more rapidly. One way to do that is to isolate and prioritize the points of uncertainty, hypothesize one or two solutions at a time, and tack that test onto a system which DOES work, rather than invest in building an entire new ecosystem for the test.
An example is someone who creates the best burger sauce ever. Rather than creating a new burger chain, they could instead convince a pre-existing chain to field-test the sauce for consumer response, with the goal of selling the recipe, if that feedback is good. With that smaller success pinned down, it creates confidence, traction, and experiential education for stepping up to another, bigger project.
Another example: If someone wants to be a graphic designer, they don’t have to quit their stable job, rent an office, buy business cards, and gamble away their life savings before they ever have their first client. They can start by doing a few evening and weekend projects for an existing graphic design firm, maybe work part-time as an intern, or network at business gatherings just for the sake of interviewing for information about people’s graphic design needs and thus test their assumptions about the needs of the market. They can reduce their hours at their current job, rather than quitting. They can work from home and at coffee shops rather than renting office space. They probably don’t actually need to buy business cards or pay someone to design a website, especially at first. And if so, make it a simple site at first, and invest in the smallest number of business cards for the first batch. I used a ridiculous font for my first 250 business cards, but I got great responses about the overall design (a 3D folding business card which looked like building). I’m so glad that I didn’t order 1000 of those. Also, my contact information changed roughly around the time I had used up the first 250.
Some dopamine-rich souls could argue that minimizing variables into bite-size and progressive experiments isn’t as exciting as big-roller gambling (I assume this, since I don’t gamble), or that it sounds non-committal or uninspiring, but this slower mindset and gradual process minimizes the new variables involved, and offers categorical educational feedback for a smaller price. It’s also less stressful, and therefore more resilient to outside unpredictability. My personal observation is that family disasters seem to emerge right in the middle of large, high-stakes business ventures. If there are too many and too uncertain of variables, then the proverbial weather of unrelated variables and circumstances can topple the new plan, or at least the personal relationships.
Smaller tests also create more comfortable early traction, which feel good, and offers smaller pills to swallow while learning how to build something new, rather than horse-sized pills of damaging consequences. Aiming to only Fail Small can also minimize the limiting intimidation factor for the less confident of potential entrepreneurs, because it allows someone to “lean in,” rather than jump.
Being realistic about following dreams is essential for turning them into observable reality.