Starting Up

When should you give up on an idea?

Suppose you launch your new startup and don’t get the traction you were hoping for. How do you know whether to give up or keep going? This is a tough question. There are lots of examples that support seemingly contradictory theories. Instagram pivoted before launch, and Pinterest refused to pivot for years. Many other startups pivoted too early or kept working on dead-end ideas for too long.

If the pre-product/market-fit phase of a startup is about efficiently testing hypotheses, then continuing to test an idea only makes sense if you have a strong theory about what has gone wrong and how things will improve.

Specifically, you should have a theory about: 1) how to modify your product, 2) how to modify your marketing/distribution strategy, and/or 3) how external events (a new technology wave, cultural events, regulatory change, etc) might make your product take off. In other words, you need a plausible argument as to why the future will be different than the past.

Another way to think about this is using what Jeff Bezos calls the “regret-minimization framework.” Imagine you do give up on your idea. Have you explored most of its plausible implementations? Are you confident that another entrepreneur won’t come along and make it work? You’ll regret it more if you nearly created a big company than if you spent an extra six months iterating.

Finally, beware of the temptation to get distracted by new shiny ideas. When you are deep in the weeds, new ideas seem refreshing but this is usually the false signal of “uninformed optimism” that accompanies all new things.


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