I'm Salim Virani. I used to design peer learning programs, and these days I'm having fun building stuff.
You may have heard of Jiro Ono. For those of you who haven’t, Jiro is one of the best sushi chefs in Japan. It is considered one of the greatest honours to work with him. Only those who have the utmost devotion to becoming a sushi chef receive a place as his apprentice.
The first ten years of an apprenticeship with Jiro is spent exclusively on rice. That’s right, those little grains can take up to a decade to master.
Once you’ve worked with Jiro for ten years however, you can progress.
That may sound like a crazy way to do things- but Jiro has revolutionised his industry. He demands more of his apprentices because he wants to be the master of his craft. Even his suppliers have to match his dedication in order to meet his standards and retain his business.
It takes time to develop a true craft. It takes dedication. It takes practice.
This is a lesson startups need to learn because true visionaries change the world by mastering their craft.
At Founder Centric our goal is to help founders get better at what they do. One of the key ways we’ve done this is through Lean Startup- an methodology which focuses on learning and testing your direction as fast as you can, so that you action important changes as soon as possible.
But we have to be careful with Lean Startup too. Startups often fail because they try to run before they can walk. They soon see that if you dive into testing without knowing how to do it, it’s often counter-informative. Testing itself requires skill.
When we think about testing in the Lean Startup setting we’re often looking at things like landing pages or facebook advertising; low cost initiatives which can help us test interest in an idea or concept. The problem here is that if we jump straight into creating landing pages, and those pages meet with no interest, we may leap to the conclusion that our product is no good or that our idea won’t work, when what that experiment may actually be saying is- you’re just rubbish at landing pages. The same is often true for Facebook advertising, building prototypes and even simply talking to customers. The worst case happens ridiculously often - they miss the important learning completely.
We can’t expect to be great at something straight away. If you’re running a marathon you don’t head straight out the door expecting to sail through 26 miles; you train long and hard, working up slowly to your goal.
It’s the same with testing- you need to put in the ground work and get yourself to a certain level before your experiments will deliver accurate information.
I’m personally inspired by Michel Thomas, a famous language teacher who had a new vision for education. He looked at the modern education system and saw that the occassional breakthrough learner should be norm, not the exception. He therefore set out to create a new way to teach languages, whereby people would routinely progress from their first words to a conversational grasp of the language in just 3 days.
He was able to do this because he realised that the tools and approaches of modern education weren’t good enough, and in many cases counter-productive. So he created completely new teaching techniques to acheive his vision.
Firstly, he realised that stress inhibits learning, but that anticipating being taught causes stress. So he had to unlearn what we knew about education - classrooms, lessons, tests, etc. Then, by breaking languages down into smaller chunks, Michel encouraged users to begin to reconstruct the language for themselves; giving them the tools they needed to say exactly what they wanted to say, when they wanted to say it.
Michel Thomas is one of my role models. I’ve applied his principles to teach Customer Development.
At Founder Centric we want startups to truly benefit from customer contact by learning actionable things; information that allows them to adjust course so they head the right way sooner.
Whenever startups talk about how to do customer development they tend to want a shortcut. They ask for scripts, surveys and pre-determined questions. They want to know the minimum number of people they need to talk to. Once they have their questions, they run through the motions.
But customer development really comes down to listening, not asking - so unless we have fantastic listening skills already in place, we’re not going to learn from it.
Here’s one way to measure your listening skills in the customer development context:
When you’re talking to a customer you should hear obstacles, goals and actions constantly coming up, at least two or three times a minute. If you’re not hearing this then you probably need to improve your listening skills before you can fully benefit from what the customer is telling you.
Knowing this, we’ve changed the way we teach Customer Development. We’ve dropped the old approach of teaching process and methodology on a whiteboard, and created workshops that actually build conversation and listening skills.
Once you do start to become really good at your craft you’ll find your tools start to extend you, just as a painter’s dexterity in his fingertips will extend right through to his paintbrush.
Like masters before us, we need to build our own tools in order to really hone our craft and further it.
Take Johannes Vermeer for example. For a long time there was a great deal of intrigue about how he could paint such photorealistic paintings given the technology at the time (the 17th century). The depth of perspective in Vermeer’s work suggests to many that he must have been employing more than an artistic eye, and a leading theory now is that Vermeer may have used a camera obscura, the forerunner to the modern camera which allowed him to paint over a projection; so Vermeer looked outside the typical tools and artistic processes of the time to find new technology which could extend his craft and skill beyond that of his contemporaries.
Skipping forward a few centuries we can find another example of this with Kraftwerk, one of the first groups to popularize electronic music. These days there’s a huge array of kit to make electronic music, but in 1971 Kraftwerk found that the tools just weren’t good enough to create the kind of music they wanted to make. So they forged their own instruments, hacking a keyboard onto a synthesiser and making other kit to create the electronic sound they lusted after.
We need to aim for this level of craftmanship- if we don’t, our vision is constantly going to be constrained by the tools, methodologies and processes that are currently available to us.
True visionaries know what they want to achieve- and know they’ll have to build the tools they need.
If we go back to the origins of photography, the best photographers looked at it from a different perspective. They started with the art- thinking about what shot they wanted to capture, what emotion they wanted to invoke; then they had to build the camera in order to make that shot.
Now, we choose the camera first. There are plenty of options, all complicated, and all requiring a learning curve. You pick your tool and then you learn to use it.
There’s a new attitude emerging: “I don’t care how the tool works, I just care that it works. I want to focus on my art.” In photography, this leads to every professional photographer following the same styles and taking the same type of photo.
Can you imagine an airline pilot saying the same? “I don’t care how the mechanics work, that’s not my job. I can just run auto-pilot and land the thing.” Not only would you hesitate to board the plane, I’m certain you wouldn’t expect this pilot to lead innovation in the industry.
And yet this is the attitude so many technologists take. There’s a boredom and lack of interest towards how computers and software really work.
This seems connected to why free-minded techies oppose mass surveillance, but claim there’s nothing we can do about it. That is, all but a small set of people in the open source and cryptography worlds, who are taking advantage of PGP mail encrpytion and other tools that can help mould the world to their vision of freedom. The more people encrypt their communications, the harder it is to just maintain mass surveillance. Our little techie world has been the crucible of so many societal tipping points before. The fact is, if you know how to install software, you know how to do something about mass surveillance. The tide can be turned, but it takes a DIY attitude. You have to care about tools.
True masters don’t shy away from learning, because even if it’s hard work at times, they understand that figuring out all aspects of their craft is the way to reach their goals.
At Founder Centric, we found that, in the frantic world of accelerators, we didn’t need the Canvas to be a small version of a business plan, or to be a dashboard for success, or to communicate with investors; we needed it to help keep all of the options and possibilities in one place where we could make informed decisions as a team. So we hacked it to create Option Cards - mini-canvases in a card deck, rather than a poster on the wall with sticky notes.
GrantTree offers another example; they’re a great startup business in London. They help startups apply for government funding. You might expect that in order to get their help you’d have to spend hours filling out a forest’s worth of forms. But in order to make this process more efficient GrantTree have borrowed from the tech world and created their own technology. With this technology GrantTree are able to boast that they can “do all the work for you”, an offer which has been fundamental to their success.
This attitude can also be seen in the world of UNIX, the original hacker community, which has an ethos of creating lots of great, focused tools that can be strung together by the user to suit their needs. You learn all the parts, and then you don’t need to settle for apps that sort of do what you want – you can quickly and easily construct something better.
As you become a master of your craft, you’ll begin to gather other masters around you, and eventually you’ll form a team. Your team then starts to become an extension of you; as you begin to find people who share your vision and your values, they become an extension of what you want to achieve.
Look at actors. The pinnacle acheivement for most actors is to become a director. In order to acheive more as an actor, you need to work your way up, and you do this by being able to work well with other actors, and with the entire film or theatre crew. For directors, their team becomes their tool; they learn to manage a team, and the team extends them.
One of the best pieces of management advice I’ve ever been given was that “You’re responsible for your team’s flow”.
When you start as a craftsman your work flows- you can get in the zone, and progress smoothly. But as you progress beyond just doing it yourself, you begin to be responsible for other people’s work flow too. This is a new kind of challenge, but it’s one you need to surmount if you want to be the best entrepreneur you can be.
Steve Biko was an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. He grew up being taught that the best thing he could hope to become was completely unattainable- being a white person. Steve wanted to teach people differently, but he knew that his writing alone wouldn’t be enough to drive the message home. So he founded the Black Consciousness Movement and built communities to extend his teaching further.
Communities have an incredible ability to empower their members.
And we see this in startups too. In the Leancamp community, we want to achieve something great, and so as community leaders we help other community leaders so that our message is spread further.
If you’re a startup trying to change the world in whatever way, it’s all about people. We need to find the people who align with us and work together to achieve our shared goals.
Both Hackers and craftsmen build the tools they need.
Linus Torvalds built Linux with the help of a massive Open Source community. Community was as much his art as code. It’s Open Source community that allowed him to run at such a huge scale that new versions are released daily and thousands of developers are working on it on any given day. As the scale of his endeavour grew beyond the limits of the tools and management techniques of the time, he had to create new code management tools to help pave the way. He looked at the existing tools, and what he wanted to achieve, and saw a huge disparity between the two. He realised he had to be the one to bridge the gap. And so he built Git. It’s become the most popular code management system in the world.
Sangeeta Bhatia is what we’d call a hacker-scientist. She was working in research when she realised the research she was doing needed to create a practical way to help people. So she went into clinics and designed a way to detect cancer that involved a quick injection, eating some yoghurt and then doing a urine test. This was a completely new way to test for cancer as it moved away from the typical huge and expensive apparatus that is normally used. By looking outside common pratice and commonly used tools, Bhatia was able to take a huge step towards making cancer detection affordable around the world.
I’d like to see startup founders acheive their goals faster. In the last few years - teaching at 20-30 accelerators, 10 universities, Leancamp in 15 cities - I’ve noticed that the excitement around experimentation, Lean Startup and learning from customers has led to huge gains in terms of faster startup movement.
This has laid the foundation for faster decision making in startups.
To take on the duty of becoming master entrepreneurs, we need to become master decision-makers.
Studying some great founders, who have shown their mastery by building multiple, successful companies, I’ve picked up a number of Decision Hacks. When I’m faced with a tough decision, I can hear what they’d say. So I’ve started writing these up in a book to share the knowledge. I’ll share a few here, but you can sign up for an early copy of the book for free if you want more.
Stephen Rapoport has grown Crashpadder and Pact Coffee by keeping a constant focus on the data, and using it to direct his focus to the questions it poses. This is a stark contrast to most, who use the data to answer questions, and often jump to a lot of wrong conclusions when interpretting it.
It’s the founder’s job to collect information. If a decision is tough because the information is missing or murky, go and inspect the situation to clarify: Get on the phone. Ask customers what happened. Go to them to see what’s going on. Shine a light.
It’s good to list out your assumptions and risks. It’s sobering. But chances are you don’t know your biggest risk. The big risks are the unknown unknowns, and the only way to flush them out is to do it. So if there’s a way to do it fast, to get the fast information, you can identify risks faster and deal with them faster. That’s why so many successful founders focus on execution - because it shows you your true risks.
We often design experiments hoping for a certain outcome. If that outcome doesn’t happen, we call the experiment a failure, and move on empty-handed. But the data is trying to point you in the direction of a better hypothesis – are we listening?
(If you’d like more, grab yourself a copy of the book at decisionhacks.co)
It’s all about your attitude. Don’t be limited by the tools and practices that come before you. If you want to excel at what you do, you need to be a master.
Dive into learning, and wrap your head around how things are done.
Build your own tools, so your vision is unconstrained.
Create a team or a community, so your reach extends. Start caring about people and management.
Take a long-term attitude to mastering the skills a founder needs - like finance, communication, and decision-making.
Invest in yourself. That’s how you’ll be able to turn your vision to reality.
Written by Hattie Willis and Salim Virani. Based on Salim’s talk “Craft & Mastery”
I’m working on a communication tool for loose community groups and unconference-style interactions. It focuses on individual autonomy rather than top-down coordination.
I recently became a Kernel fellow, where I was exploring models for self-directing communities of care, the history of economic cultural norms, and the connection between mimicry, memes and our sense of belonging.
In the past, I designed peer learning programs for Oxford, UCL, Techstars, Microsoft Ventures and The Royal Academy Of Engineering. I also played a role in creating the Lean Startup methodology, and the European startup ecosystem. You can read about this here.
Choose happiness (2021)
Emotional Vocabulary (2020)
Project portfolios (2020)
The history Of Lean Startup (2016)
Entrepreneurship is craft (2014)