“Bring your whole self, and hold it lightly” – Tim O’Reilly
I had the great privilege to hear Tim O’Reilly speak to the 2012 fellows at Code For America on their first day of a year-long program. This was an unrehearsed speech – really just some introductory remarks for a small audience – but the above phrase, uttered with Tim’s trademark casual brilliance, has lingered with me for several days. It’s wonderful life advice, but his intent was to give the fellows a pep talk on how to collaborate effectively with the teams in which they’ll be working throughout the year.
This one sentence sums up a beautiful paradox for a fruitful life: bringing our whole selves means being self-aware, stepping into our power and recognizing our weaknesses – and living in integrity with everything we are. Holding our selves lightly means practicing at least some degree of non-attachment – to outcomes, and to our egos.
So if we apply these words to business – or entrepreneurship – what does that look like? The answer might lie with another of the CfA speakers, the wonderful Eric Ries, author of the best selling Lean Startup (and a kindred spirit – the world needs more business book authors like him). He argues that every new business is, at its core, a hypothesis waiting to be tested (i.e. that there are customers willing to pay a particular price for one’s product or service) – and that the wise entrepreneur develops a minimum viable product as early as possible in order to test that hypothesis. This may sound basic (and at its heart, it is), but it can be wildly difficult it is to put into practice.
Why? Because doing so requires that we put aside our entrepreneurial egos – which can delude us ad infinitum into believing our vision can and will come to fruition despite all evidence to the contrary – and make room for the reality of what customers actually want.
It requires us to bring our whole selves to our work – all of our creativity, intelligence, and empathy (the better to put ourselves in our customers’ shoes) – while holding our selves lightly enough to be willing to change course based on the feedback we receive. (Ries notes, importantly, that he’s not talking about focus groups or asking people what they want – rather, he strongly recommends using harder data, i.e. actual sales figures, usability tests, and other mechanisms that allow you to measure exactly how competitive your product is.)
O’Reilly and Ries are both techies, but their wisdom applies equally to entrepreneurs in other fields – I spoke to Eric after his talk and he said that some of the most interesting feedback he’s received on his book has come from people running businesses that have nothing to do with software. If you read just one thing Eric has written, I suggest this post, and in particular the section titled, “Starting with just a landing page.” Now that’s a simple, dirt cheap test anyone can try.
It goes against just about everything you’ll glean from the average business book, CEO profile, or networking event, but “holding oneself lightly” may just be the best business advice around. If you can take your ego out of the equation long enough to really listen to what your customers are telling you, your odds of finding a profitable niche go way, way up.
(On a related note, I’m dying to see what Lane Becker’s upcoming book contains – my guess is that it will be a great complement to Ries’s, given Lane’s focus on customer service as the new marketing, via Get Satisfaction. But we will have to wait and see…)