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Avoid the Ahab syndrome in your startup thinking

January 4, 2016

I went to the cinema over the holidays to catch Ron Howard’s latest film, In the Heart of The Sea, a swashbuckling account of the real life tale behind Moby Dick, a novel by Herman Melville published in 1851, an outstanding work of American literature and romanticism.

Ever since its publication in 1851, Moby-Dick has sparked the imagination with its prophetic, digressive and dangerous themes. A sailor called Ishmael narrates the obsessive quest of Ahab, captain of the whaler Pequod for revenge on Moby Dick, a white whale, which on a previous voyage destroyed Ahab’s ship and severed his leg at the knee.

Although the novel was a commercial failure and out of print at the time of the author’s death in 1891, its reputation grew during the C20th. D. H Lawrence called it one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world, the greatest book of the sea ever written. Indeed, Call me Ishmael is one of literature’s most famous opening sentences.

The true story the novel is based on – that of a vengeful whale taking out a whaling ship, is told by Nathaniel Philbrick’s maritime history of the event. The story goes like this. On August 12 1819, the Essex, an 87ft, 238-tonne whaling ship, set sail from Nantucket. The captain was George Pollard, a man whose subsequent experiences were destined to haunt him as much as his fictional counterpart Ahab, while his first mate, Owen Chase, became the role model for Ahab’s first mate, Starbuck (although better known now for the global chain of coffee shops named after him).

By 20 November 1820, the Essex had reached the Pacific equator. The voyage had been uneventful. That morning, the weather was fine and clear, and a pod of whales was sighted by the lookout. The men set to with gusto – whales meant dollars, after all. The slender, fast, whaleboats were lowered from the sides of the ship, and the harpoonists set off in pursuit of their prey.

But one of the small boats – that of first mate Owen Chase – was smashed to pieces by a whale’s tail. The crew returned to the Essex, whereupon, according to Chase, they saw a large sperm whale about 85ft in length heading directly for them as if fired with revenge.

The whale struck the Essex, wood splintered, the whole structure of the ship shook. Then, after swimming off to leeward, the whale gathered its strength and came thundering towards the Essex again, even faster than before and when it rammed the ship a second time, it was obvious that it would sink.

Hurriedly, the crew of twenty took to the three remaining whaleboats. As the Essex sank, they rescued what they could – hard bread, three casks of water, a musket, powder, tools. Chase also managed to salvage his sea chest – and with it paper and pencil with which he would record their ordeal.

Having fashioned sails, they set off in the three small cedar boats. They were at the mercy of currents and winds, often they drifted, lost on the infinite sea. Chase calculated that their food would last 60 days – but the bread got soaked and, once dried, its saltiness merely increased the men’s thirst. At night the boats would drift apart in the darkness, desperately signalling to each other with lanterns. Suddenly, on December 20, a month after they had been wrecked, they sighted land.

But it was no tropical paradise. It contained little fresh water and they had soon killed all the birds they found, so they decided to try to reach South America – now 3,000 miles distant. The sailors were soon far out at sea again, burnt by the blazing sun during the day, at night sharks swam about the boat. On a stormy night, the three boats got separated, and one sunk.

With only three days’ food left, extreme hunger was depriving the men of their speech and reason, wrote Chase. They reconciled themselves to the inevitable. None, though, was prepared for the appalling choices they were going to have to make in the days and weeks that followed.

As the body of the first to die, Paterson, was committed to the deep, Chase realised that they couldn’t afford to jettison such a source of sustenance again. As the next man, Isaac Cole, succumbed to madness and death, the decision was made to eat him.

After almost three months at sea, Chase’s boat sighted a sail – a London brig, the Indian, and was rescued. Five days later, Pollard and the only other survivor in his boat, Charles Ramsdale, were rescued by the Nantucket whale ship the Dauphin. Just eight of the Essex’s crew had survived. In all, seven sailors were consumed.

One track I’ve taken from Moby Dick is the singular obsession Captain Ahab had about pursuit of the whale. It hounded his thoughts and kept him up at night. It became all consuming, so much so that his judgement, decision making, common sense and rationality were blinded, his experience counted for nothing by the fixated, blind pursuit of the whale for revenge.

Entrepreneurs often have their own white whales, causing them to stay awake at night thinking of only that one thing. Your startup may lack the drama of whale hunting, but whether you’re trying to out fox the competition, scale your business, implement a new idea, or making sure your vision is realised, you must avoid falling into the Ahab syndrome. There is a thin line between focus and dedication, and unhealthy obsession.

In a startup, a founder who’s blindly passionate about an idea is likely to misread whether a large potential customer base for their venture exists if their passion becomes an obsession. Whatever your goal, don’t let it turn you into an Ahab. His obsession lost him his ship, most of his crew, and ultimately his life. And the whale got away.

I call it the paradox of entrepreneurship, the very thing it takes to start a business often ends up destroying it. I’ve spent the past eight years working with people who started companies, and there’s a consistent theme among the 100+ founders I’ve analysed. It’s passion. Founders believe in their ideas so strongly they throw aside comfortable jobs and risk their life savings to chase their dreams. They have such contagious enthusiasm they can convince others to sign on, whether it’s co-founders or venture investors or early employees or early-adopting customers.

But that’s the positive side of passion. Another constant I’ve seen is that if there’s anything that can sink a new business, it’s passion. It blinds entrepreneurs, leading them to get overconfident and make bad choices at the worst times, potentially dooming even the most promising startups. Only then do founders appreciate that the origin of the word ‘passion’ is the Latin word for ‘suffer’.

Passionate entrepreneurs are so impatient to move forward with their favourite new idea that they get too optimistic about how would-be customers and investors will see it. Since founders are so committed to the enterprise, they end up blindsided when key team members lose interest and drop out.

Ahab, the obsessed and crippled whaling captain, makes his first appearance about a quarter of the way into the novel, pursuing his dumb vendetta against a whale. The story progresses the theme of his pursuit until the fatal third chase. Here’s a list of critical junctures I’ve created where founders often let passion cloud their judgment, and how you can avoid the Ahab syndrome in your startup, strategies for staying clear-eyed.

Don’t be obsessed by vision Of course, you need a vision to drive your purpose, but you also need to be flexible in the pursuit of your vision and an awareness and ability to make adjustments, fine-tune the tactics, and adjust the direction in response to feedback. Don’t be fixated on your vision to the point of inaction, which was Ahab’s downfall.

Don’t obsess, plan. Don’t wander through the early days of your startup with thoughts running through your head like a helicopter background noise in your dreams. Take a few deep breaths. Whilst plans themselves have little use once crafted, the act of planning gets a lot of things out of your head and clarifies thinking in terms of priorities. When you wake up at night obsessing, go to your planning. Write it down. Relax, and go back to sleep.

Take note of the experience of others Ahab was fully aware of the harm that Moby Dick could cause, two sister whaling ships had fatal encounters with the whale, but this did not stop Ahab from carrying on with his dangerous quest. Ahab could not view his goal and weigh the risks with clarity. He wanted to harpoon Moby Dick at all costs, but never considered that the whale would drag him down. Not learning from the experience of others is a common trap of the Ahab syndrome.

Remember there’s always another white whale There will always be another opportunity, another goal to consider, and always something to work toward. There will always be another whale, so don’t waste all your resources and deplete your psychological emotion and energy on an obsessive single dream or goal.

Have buckets of patience Working on a startup requires a level of patience that can’t be imagined before you get there. Your patience will be tested. You will have a nailed-on customer drag on for six months longer than you thought to close, to the point you are worn out just thinking about it. You may even have a key team member lose faith in you. Ahab showed no patience, he saw the red mist and simply threw himself headlong into the challenge, with no guile or reflective thinking.

Avoid the cult of personality Most entrepreneurs have a strong personality, but it isn’t your most reliable leadership tool. Ahab was able to establish a strong psychological bond between himself and his crew. They believed in him. The problem was that they so believed in him, and were so energised by him, that they never questioned his ideas and became yes-men. Enamoured with his personality, they were incapable of seeing his weakness.

Beware of groupthink Entrepreneurs want their organisation to have a culture that embodies their values and mirrors their ambitions, they want like-minded people working together sharing the same ideals. But if you have too many people aligned and following the same thinking, you’ll have too many with the same ideas. Outliers and people who see things differently can help you get a better perspective on your goals and ideas.

Listen to your team Captain Ahab was deaf to his crew. He didn’t hear what they wanted. He only promised them gold if they found his white whale, it was incentive enough, but as the journey grew perilous, Ahab wasn’t able to heed the warnings from his crew. He stayed blinkered on his personal ambition blinded to reason, and as a result of failing to listen, failed in his goal.

Keep a balance and sense of perspective For every successful entrepreneur who cites sacrificing health and family as the key to success, there are ten others who say the sacrifices were a tragic mistake. Another logical flaw: millions of people sacrificed health and family and weren’t successful. All their sacrifice did was ruin their lives. Nobody quotes them. They call that survivor bias.

Understand that you make mistakes. Acknowledge your mistakes, analyse them, and them package them up in your mind and store them somewhere out of sight, somewhere where you can access them occasionally to help avoid making the same mistakes again, but, on the other hand, where they won’t just drive you crazy and adversely impact your decision making.

A business is focused on maximisation of financial returns – that is to say that business exists to make money. It is the yardstick by which business measures success.

However, startup entrepreneurs aren’t focused on this as a single indicator of success – for me, money is the applause. They are motivated to chasing meaning, often addicted to recognising and solving problems, seeing them as opportunities to create value and delighting customers.

In fact, when you get down to it, most entrepreneurs became entrepreneurs in the first place because of this possibility of freedom of expression, challenge, sense of self-worth and personal achievement it provides rather than the chance of financial gain.

The motivation for successful entrepreneurs is purely internal.  A desire of mastery and the challenge of doing something better or new is what drives them, giving them the energy to keep pushing through the long days to keep them inventing and growing.

Given this, it would be a first-class mistake to build your success like Ahab based on a single metric as a measure of success, because as we see, this drives a blinded, frenzied and myopic set of behaviours to its achievement. So heed the Ahab syndrome and don’t become obsessed with your startup. Breath, share, reflect, listen and learn. Maintain your sense of perspective, balance of views and have patience.

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