“Entrepreneurs need to believe that they can defy gravity.”

By Adelyn Zhou

During Fred Wilson’s visit to our class, one of his most memorable quotes was “entrepreneurs need to believe that they can defy gravity.”  Given the high odds of failure, a founder needs to have boundless optimism and relentless passion for her product and company.

In class, Jeff Bussgang shared with us the famous email thread in which Paul Graham tries to convince Fred Wilson to invest in Airbnb.  Yet Fred Wilson his USV partners didn’t believe that renting out air mattress space was a viable business and passed on the investment.   During their first year of operation, the founders of Airbnb faced countless rejections such as these, and even considered closing down at multiple points.  However, the team’s relentless attitude ultimately paid off; today airbnb is valued at around $2.5 billion.

What gave the airbnb founders the conviction that their idea would pay off?  When should a founder continue sticking to the original model?  When should she pivot?  And ultimately, when should she stop and pull the plug?

To start, Paul Graham once said that “you should change your idea when you 1. have a new one you're convinced that is better, and 2. if it doesn’t cost too much to switch to it (e.g. because it overlaps a lot with your current idea).”  Experienced VCs and entrepreneurs recommend that founders set success milestones such as number of users and level of engagement, and be brutally honest in evaluating their company against these metrics.  Yet what should the users or engagement targets be?  Does an optimistic founder just set lower thresholds that are easier to reach?

For the founder that remains attached to her current idea, it’s amazingly easy to convince herself that “one more feature” is what the product needs to find product-market fit, that she is almost there.  But in many cases, that conviction proves unfounded and she wastes precious time chasing after a fleeting dream.  In these situations, quitting is sometimes the smartest decision an entrepreneur can do.  Despite the negative connotations around quitting, an entrepreneur’s most valuable asset is time, and time wasted on an intrinsically poor startup idea can never be recouped.  That founder’s time is much better spent pursing a new idea.

Nevertheless, despite all the milestone metrics, there still seems to be a bit of luck, a bit of tenacity and a bit of that “I can defy gravity” in the founding of that next billion dollar company.  As Elphaba sings in Wicked,
It’s time to try
Defying gravity
I think I’ll try
Defying gravity
I’m through accepting limits,
’cause some says they’re so.
Some things I cannot change,
But till I try I’ll never know!


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