Many entrepreneurs, like Steve Jobs, create a “reality distortion field” that allows them to sell their vision to potential employees, investors and partners. Is an RDF compatible with the lean startup?


An entrepreneur’s reality distortion field (RDF) can be a powerful asset. Steve Jobs used his RDF to inspire those around him to make his visions of the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad a reality. For the rest of us, the danger of referencing Jobs to defend our own RDF is that it didn’t always lead him in the right direction. Despite his amazing successes, Jobs’s RDF also led him to create products such as the Apple III and the Lisa, both of which were unequivocal failures. At Apple, Jobs had the capital and resources to absorb these sporadic failures- a luxury that few startups have.

On the one hand, an RDF is almost required to recruit co-founders and employees to a startup; how else can you get good people to leave steady jobs to try and start something from scratch? On the other hand, the RDF is a potential liability from the get-go, as it can give the venture tunnel vision, and limit its ability to pivot (or terminate) when appropriate. This is where the lean methodology comes into play. As we saw in the Aardvark case, the goal of a lean startup is to maximize learning, as embodied by the build/measure/learn principle. A strong RDF can lead entrepreneurs to discount quantitative data gathered in the “measure” step, thereby inhibiting their ability to learn and adapt to what their data is telling them. It can even eliminate the collection of objective measurements to learn from in the first place (case in point: the Lit Motors festival test).

Worse yet, a founder’s RDF may be so powerful that it may fill them with unwarranted confidence in their vision, and cause them to abandon the learning-based focus of the lean model entirely. Regretfully, I’ve seen this happen to one of my closest friends. Whenever he told me about his idea and its progress, he was clearly passionate and driven by his vision, but he could never sell me on it. He had only sold himself on his vision. Because of the strength of his RDF, that was all that mattered. It didn’t matter that he had been unable to interest any potential investors other than a few close relatives, and it didn’t matter that he hadn’t objectively tested any hypotheses that were fundamental to the success of his idea. As a result, he spent two years trying to build the “perfect” product before launching it to the public. Before that could happen, the little seed funding he had dwindled to nothing, and he had to call it quits.    

LTV has hammered home a valuable lesson for me: should I ever pursue my own venture, it will be because I have created a RDF around a vision that I truly believe in. Knowing this, I will use the scientific foundation of lean to balance out the gut-feel-driven nature of my RDF. An RDF will be the engine to drive me day in and day out, through the highs and lows of a startup; lean methodology will be the steering wheel that keeps my venture headed in the right direction.     


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