Natural Vs. Unnatural Acts
What Michael Sikorsky, George Bernard Shaw (and others) can teach us about successful startups
You could feel the energy in the room following the 2017 Venture’Challenge pitches. The five startups, each at different stages of maturity, had been closely challenged by the competition judges.
Michael Sikorsky’s keynote presentation, Natural Vs. Unnatural Acts (what George Bernard Shaw taught me about startups) was the perfect anecdote to capture and inspire the sold-out lunch crowd waiting for the winners to be announced.
Sikorsky, a serial entrepreneur and innovator (with the record to prove it) blasted through his presentation with the energy of someone who understands the importance of timing and sticking with the plan. He was quick to respond when asked the main point he wanted the audience, comprised of many startups as well as investors and supporters, to take away.
“Don’t quit. That’s all there is. You won’t always have the results but you have to keep moving. You can’t be too slow turning assumptions into knowledge. Why would you want to wait to learn something in two years that you could learn in two quarters? You have to get it right and keep moving.”
Sikorsky set the tone at the start of the presentation. “I want Canadian success stories. Everything I’m saying is in that vein.”
He started with stating the George Bernard Shaw (GBS) can teach us many things because he was such a deep rationalist. “This allowed him to think through most unusual business models no problem,” said Sikorsky. Shawisms used throughout the presentation highlighted the iconic playwright and political influencer’s brilliant form or rationalism.
Sikorsky’s presentation looked at the unnatural acts, those things that generally don’t bring value, that are not going to work out no matter what you do. One example he cited were efforts to remove risk because there is always risk. In scene one of his presentation he states “Risk multiplied by Risk is still Risk…”
He cautioned against many other things entrepreneurs do that fit into the unnatural act spectrum: being capital intensive vs. capital efficient; being slow to scale the business idea, failing to develop systems for your business, over complicating what the company does, and more.
Another such unnatural act was incremental vs. continuous innovation. In Sikorky’s words, “You can never iterate your way forward.” He emphasized the importance of incumbency in business success. “I invented something now my whole job is to exploit it as long as I can. Why innovate when you can just keep scaling what you invested in in the first place?”
Scene three of his talk looked at the speed that things are shifting in the marketplace compared to many decades and even centuries ago. It took 800 years to determine that we should be putting space between words in written text and another 250 for the invention of the printing press. It’s taken just 18 years from the beginning of the Internet to the invention of the iPhone.
He observed that while technology is accelerating, humans are still slow at adapting. But this acceleration is what’s driving the vast number of big success stories so it’s go fast or go home.
“How do you capture more of the innovation that’s coming faster and faster?” he asked. “You have to have a lens on the future – and have to be in on it early or you’re already too late.”
On this point, he highlighted the law of diminishing advantage and posted a quote by Henry Ford that much summed it all up: “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘Faster Horses.’”
Like Ford, Sikorsky suggests successful entrepreneurs need to believe the future’s going to unfold in a specific way—one they are optimistic about and aligns with their personal preferences. This is important Sikorsky said because it’s feeding the “addiction” that drives the entrepreneur forward day after day, even when things get tough.
On that high note, Sikorsky brought the audience down into scene four and what he called “the trough of sorrow”. He says every entrepreneur will spend some time here once such things as the novelty of their idea wears off, there’s been some bumps in the sector, a few releases haven’t gone as planned or there’s a “crash of ineptitude”.
As GBS said however, “After all, the wrong road always leads somewhere.”
Sikorsky said that while every entrepreneur will likely and should feel this pain (and it can last as long as four years), there is a way through:
“If you put the time in you win.”
“If you play the piano long enough of course you’re going to get good.”
“Fall down seven times stand up eight.”
In scene five, entitled Chicken farmer. Pig farmer. Not chicken AND pig farmer Sikorsky expounded on his firmly held belief: “None of the world’s greatest restaurants are buffets.”
He actually said this was the number one thing he thinks about all the time. “We all want to generate business in every country, in every industry, in every market but how often does that happen?”
He pointed to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook as a great example of how success unfolds when we pick something—not everything—and own it.
In scene six of the talk, Sikorsky focused on the role of the founder and CEO in designing and upholding a successful startup. He said, “Thinking about the design of the business on the inside is very important.” He likened the CEO, who is often the founder as being the racetrack and all the talent in a business being Ferraris. While it’s hard to not let the Ferraris race wherever and whenever they want, it’s the CEOs job to keep them all on the same track.
The founder’s/CEOs role is critical to creating the culture for a great company as well as for deciding where the business is going to go. And sometimes that may not be the obvious choice. Sikorsky suggested, “The secret to success is to offend the greatest number of people. The last thing you want to do in business is be in the middle. You have to pick something, offer it and stand behind it.”
He added that while it’s the founder’s responsibility to steer the ship, talent is key if you want to do things on a big scale. A slide quoting author Antone De Saint-Expuery emphasized the importance of creating a culture where everyone feels like they’re invested in the company. It read: If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
This supported Sikorsky’s final point on the importance of meaning, morale, and money but in the end, it was once again GBS who can teach all of us everything we need to know to be a successful startup: