Bad Romance: When Your Business Idea Doesn’t Love You Back

With Valentine’s Day coming up, I’ve been thinking a lot about love.

And in the entrepreneurship world, I see a lot of love – only people call it “passion for an idea.” And just like love in the real world,

you may love your idea, but your idea may not love you.

Let me explain.

There’s a certain disease that entrepreneurs have, and one of its symptoms is thinking about an idea. Incessantly. Passionately. Give an entrepreneur a good idea and a few days, and she will think every permutation and nuance through to their logical conclusion – which inevitably leads to changing the world and becoming exceedingly rich. For most entrepreneurs, the more thinking an idea receives the better it gets.

Of course, smart entrepreneurs also think about the risks and downsides to their idea – and what could be done to mitigate those downsides. That thinking becomes part of the narrative going on inside our heads. On balance, we see the risks but conclude they’re nothing we can’t overcome.

In the end, we often decide we have something wonderful and earth-shattering on our hands and can’t wait to spend all our time with it. There’s no question this feels a lot like love – the endorphins are probably identical. This idea gets mixed up with our opinion of ourselves and our self-worth. We imagine the day when our idea (love) is revealed to the world and all is sweetness and light.

Here’s the problem: love is blinding. When you fall in love, the object of your affection may be (oh I don’t know…) dating someone else. But such obstacles rarely stop us from being in love – they just become things to overcome. Love will conquer all!

The same thing happens in entrepreneurial thinking: our own hopes, biases, and wishes get wrapped up in our thinking and “analysis”. They can creep in in subtle ways, leading us to reach conclusions that are out of whack with reality. I call these “thought mistakes.”

Sometimes your thought mistakes can be baked deeply into the very premise of an idea (as in “people really want a new way to inflate their tires!” ) and go largely unchallenged as our thinking wears on.

Declaring Your Love

Of course, the good entrepreneur talks about their idea with many people to try to weed out those thought mistakes early. But there are some traps in doing that:

  • First, no one is really sure your thought mistakes are truly wrong. No one can predict the future, and few people have direct, recent evidence to contradict a specific thought mistake in your pitch, so feedback is often presented in a qualified manner. “I’m not sure everyone wants a new way to inflate their tires,” seems like an opinion. Which leaves the besotted entrepreneur a variety of rationalizations: What does this person really know? Have they thought about it as much as I have? Are they really experts? And if they are, maybe they’re biased by the status quo!
  • Second, people tend to be polite about your thought mistakes. “Well you’ve certainly put a lot of thought into this, but you might want to get some evidence that people really hate the old way of inflating tires”. This can make it easy to dismiss or explain away feedback.
  • Third, we’re really good at denial. Even when you get firm, credible negative feedback, your brain tends to fight it – and it fights even harder when the implication of that feedback might suggest you abandon or radically change your idea. After all, you’ve invested a lot of thought (and sometimes more) into this idea – it would be such a waste if that were for nothing!
  • Fourth, our egos often tell us that for us it will be different.Sure, the world has so far failed to embrace a new tire-inflation device, but the story will be different for me.” I call this the American Idol Effect.
  • And finally, sometimes our thought mistakes simply don’t occur to anyone else. I’ve heard entrepreneurs tell such a convincing story that the fatal flaw doesn’t occur to anyone listening for weeks or months afterward, and then it’s so obvious you wonder why no one said anything.

She’s Just Not That Into You

When we finally get our idea out into the marketplace, the real world doesn’t care what we’ve been telling ourselves (or our friends or our investors), or what thought mistakes have led us astray. It just is. Sometimes this evidence is subtle or gradual, and we can find ways to dismiss it at first. Even when the evidence is overwhelming, it’s often very easy to rationalize away.

A mature entrepreneur sees their passion for what it is and holds something back during those heady romantic days when he’s flirting with an idea. Mature entrepreneurs will tell you three things:

  • Be willing to wait for proof. Remind yourself all the way through the thought process that your conclusions are always subject to revision until they’re proven. Understand that evidence is the only thing that matters, and don’t mistake confidence, planning, or even the strong opinions of others for that evidence.
  • Be willing to change direction. When you catch yourself saying, “that may be true, but if it is I don’t want to be in this business,” recognize you may be in trouble. That’s not to say you should run a business you hate, but you should recognize it as a sign that your own biases are taking priority and may be blinding you.
  • Be willing to try something else. In the end, if the thought mistake you’re discovering fundamentally challenges the very nature of your venture, be willing to walk away. Don’t be the American Idol auditioner that clearly can’t sing but promises the camera that they won’t give up. Part of us wants to respect them for their passion, but often it’s just pity.

In the end, passion for your idea is critical to your success as an entrepreneur, but too much of it can blind you and leave you heartbroken. But in the end, it’s the love that makes all this worthwhile.

“Where there is love there is life.”  ― Mahatma Gandhi

Michael Sattler

With a career spent in founding and technical leadership roles with new and enterprise-level organizations, Michael Sattler is a veteran in technology strategy, operations, and product management. He’s spent decades in B2B and B2C SaaS product development, software and application design, engineering operations, new venture creation, and innovation practices.

He has scaled and managed technical teams from 2-50+ across three continents, led large-scale cross-functional program management, and founded or co-founded six companies.