It is always easy to be wise after the event and easier still to be cynical. So it proves with the recent demise of the challenger energy company Bulb. Commentators have moved on from observing that management may have been naïve in underestimating risks inherent in the wholesale pricing system to pillorying the startup’s overzealous drive, intense internal culture and non-corporate corporate language.
In a Times piece last week, you could almost see the smirk of cynicism as it was revealed that employees were known as ‘Bulberinos’, that bosses talked of “shaking up a stale industry” and that offices were covered wall-to-wall in expensive plants to symbolise the brand’s ‘green’ promise.
Is that cultish optimism, so characteristic of startups, the reason it went down? If so, the Times was not prescient enough to warn us beforehand. The reasons for failure here, as almost always, can be summed up in a single word: multifactorial. Optimism may, just, have blindsided managers to external risks, but if the business had not got unlucky and had kept up its stellar growth, we would now be feting them as visionaries.
Perhaps realists – those who are only too aware of the potential downsides, of everything, always – would have sidestepped Bulb’s terminal errors. But they would not have got the business going in the first place. A startup’s primary customers are not consumers, or other buyers, but investors. And whether large or small, they need to be knocked out not just by the prospect of the concept in front of them but by the track record and passion of those proposing it.
Yes, it’s daft to talk about “punching a hole in the universe”, but who is going to invest in a team that mumbles: “Well, we think there might just be something in this… There are lots of problems, and it’s by no means clear that all are solvable, but we’ll try.”
If you had two teams in front of you and one expansively talked “moonshots” and the other vowed earnestly to “give it our best shot”, who would get your funds?
Moonshots and marketers
As a marketer, most probably working in a solid, safe corporation, none of this need trouble you. Or perhaps on second thoughts it should. Because, as you may have noticed, CEOs are increasingly apt to call for their marketing teams to “be entrepreneurial” and to “think like a startup”.
They should be careful what they wish for. Are they ready to accept internally the 90% failure rate of actual startups? Are they comfortable with the pitiless cash burn, and the need for constant rounds of funding, without a break-even date in sight? Or are these injunctions merely exaggerated pleas for their marketers to be not quite so stick-in-the-mud?
In my experience, few marketers take the call seriously. But some do. And when they do, it is unfortunately not the brilliant things about startup mentality that they copy: resourcefulness, flexibility, iconoclasm or the creative courage to pivot and go again when the sheer desperation of running out of money kicks in.
What they tend to copy instead is the vaunting optimism and the language that goes with it. That may not go as far as punching galactic holes but will at the very least embrace “busting category norms”. These, often sketchy, ambitions will be backed up by nothing more substantial than declarations of passionate belief.
Internal optimists do not want realists anywhere near them. Up to a point, that is understandable. Self-declared realists are capable of sucking all the energy out of the room with their gloomy “we tried that once, we know it doesn’t work” prognostications, or their sly ‘devil’s advocate’ negativity.
Hitting the sweet spot
I suggest there is room for a different breed in the genuinely entrepreneurial corporate culture – one that could be handy in Bulb-type startups, too. This is the person who accomplishes that most difficult of human challenges: to move away from either extreme and bestride the ground somewhere in the middle without turning into a walking compromise. People who, between the optimist and realist outliers, manage to locate the sweet spot.
I will call them ‘spotists’. And here’s what makes them valuable.
A spotist sees the opportunity but is not blinded by it. Likewise, they see some of the difficulties – and actively probe for others – without either downplaying them or being immediately defeated by them. They are doers, with a practical sense of the need for resolution.
Spotists believe that growth is great, but know that profit, at least inside a corporation, needs to be factored in too. They will not expect endless rounds of shareholder munificence, and will at the very least make a credible plan for future profitability.
A spotist will sometimes be persuaded by an inner belief – or hunch – that a concept will work, but knows better than to offer that to colleagues as the sole reason for resource investment. They are capable of back-analysing their instincts and understanding why they take them in the direction they do. They are also aware that they might not always be right.
A spotist knows how to sell an idea – they have the vocabulary and the passion – but they also know the wisdom of putting in the greatest work on the least sexy part of any proposal.
If you are an entrepreneurially inclined marketer, spotists are great to have around. But they are a rare breed. If you spot one inside the corporate tent, get to know them, have coffee. Start something.
And when you succeed, if you do, it will be a moment to punch a hole in the cynicism of commentators who have never had the courage to start anything big, brave and bold in their lives.