I made many mistakes as we grew Atomic Object. Since we turned ten years old a few months ago, obviously none of them were fatal. For example, not getting help in my job sooner was one of the bigger mistakes I made. Seeing many small mistakes as evidence of a smart strategy is something I’ve just recently come to appreciate.
Mistake is just another word for a failed experiment. The purpose of experiments is to confirm or deny a hypothesis, or in other words, to learn something. Saying that we made a lot of mistakes is also saying that we ran many experiments. For example:
- We built a web CMS product back in 2002.
- We invested time and effort to try an open compensation system.
- We invested in various strategic partnerships.
- We hired someone into a leadership position from outside the company.
- We created an isolated design team.
- We bought an ad in a trade magazine.
- We took over the maintenance team for a large customer.
These are a few of our failed experiments. None of them worked the way we anticipated, but we learned an awful lot from these “mistakes”.
I, like every successful entrepreneur, am strategically brilliant in hindsight. That’s how I like to phrase the reminder that while I’ve done some things right and met with some success, I can’t claim I knew what the path to success was going to be when I started down the road — it only looks that way since we managed to arrive. So while I didn’t have it all figured out at the start, it wasn’t just luck, either. In fact, I think my training in science and engineering gave me a successful strategy for growing the company.
The core of this strategy is the scientific method:
- Form a hypothesis.
- Design a test to prove or disprove the hypothesis.
- Run the test, gather data.
While the scientific method is at the core, there are some other elements we’ve added around it to make a successful strategy for building Atomic:
- Try many ideas.
- Learn from your experiments.
- Keep it small — the failure of a single experiment shouldn’t threaten your survival.
- Adapt quickly when you learn what works and what doesn’t.
- Keep the pressure on yourself to experiment, even once you’ve found some success.
- Pay close attention to clients and the world at large to inspire experiments.
Because I take it for granted, I hadn’t really thought about the scientific method as an intentional strategy for growing a business. It just seemed like the obvious way to proceed given I had no formal education or background in business, and I had business problems to solve.
Listening to Tim Harford describe the common attributes of success helped me appreciate our strategy for what it is. In his book Adapt, he identifies three characteristics that underpin success: diversity, survivability, and measurability. I see those traits in our business strategy. We get diversity from the many different things we try. We insure our survival by mitigating the risk of our experiments and limiting their size and potential negative consequences. Lastly, we take care to regularly assess the results of our experiments.
Strategic brilliance and bet-the-company risk taking make for great stories. But I suspect our approach, with it’s many little experiments and plenty of non-fatal failures, is actually the more common strategy used in successful businesses.
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