Entrepreneurial Process vs Epiphany

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epiphanyGiven my criticisms of the lean start-up literature, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Steve Blank’s blog post a couple days ago titled Blinded by the Light – The Epiphany.  He starts off by relating the story of a recent meeting with an entrepreneur:

Luis, one of the CEO’s from our first National Science Foundation class, came in to speak to our next class. We had a couple of minutes to catch up between sessions and the conversation got strangely awkward when I asked him how their startup was going.

“I’m kind of embarrassed to tell you, but we dumped the entire business idea and are doing something else” he said, avoiding eye contact.  “Oh, you pivoted when your team analyzed customer feedback?” I said as I grabbed some coffee.  He looked uncomfortable. “No, I was standing in the shower when it just hit me that our nano-materials technology should be used for something completely different. I didn’t change a few business model components, I changed all of them.”

I guess my jaw dropped a bit because Luis just continued. “I’m feeling guilty because I was using Customer Development and the Startup Owners Manual until I had that insight. But there was nothing in your book that prepared me for what just clicked in my head. I just saw our entire new business model in a flash, all of it at once. I’m now having the company execute on what came to me in the shower. A small part of me is confused whether I’m doing the right thing, but mostly I’m just convinced it’s as right as anything I’ve ever done. But there’s no chapter in your book or anyone else’s on this.”

I tried to stay calm as I realized what I was hearing.  “Luis, you need to pay attention to me very carefully. You just had an epiphany. If you’re lucky you may have a few more in your career. But while epiphanies are extremely rare, they are immensely important and need to be listened to. What you had was no accident. You were collecting enormous amounts of data on one side of your brain, but it was the other side that recognized the pattern. No one knows if epiphanies are always right, but people who follow them tend to get rich, famous or both.”

There are several aspects of this post that are striking.  First and foremost, I was surprised to see how accurately Steve Blank describes the phenomenology of epiphany, particularly by reference to unconscious data collection and pattern recognition.

That begs the question – Why does this side of the equation get so little attention in the lean start-up literature, including Blank’s other writings?

Blank uses terms like epiphany and insight liberally but rarely in context equivalent to anecdote above.  [He did title his first book Four Steps to the Epiphany but in that context he seems to mean something very different.]

Part of the answer can found in the statement, “If you’re lucky you may have a few more in your career. But while epiphanies are extremely rare they are immensely important and need to be listened to.

If you assume that epiphany arrives only a few times in a career then it is reasonable to emphasize other factors that the entrepreneur can influence more readily.

But is this a valid assumption?  Are epiphanies “extremely rare“?


I would argue that Blank’s assumption is only partially true.  Epiphany is not universally rare.  Rather, the lean start-up movement has become self-selecting.

The methodology has been formalized in such a way that it attracts people who think like Steve Blank (and the other leading figures of the movement).  It encourages people who are execution oriented and discourages people who are insight oriented.

Self-selection is evident in Blank’s anecdote.  Luis, the entrepreneur, is obviously conflicted by his recent moment of clarity.  Despite expressing conviction in his decisions, he also describes himself as “embarrassed” and “feeling guilty“.  Blank refers to Luis as “avoiding eye contact“.

That is the attitude we would expect of someone for whom epiphany is an infrequent and uncomfortable occurrence.   While Luis’s reaction may seem typical within the start-up community, he is certainly not representative of the general population.  Let’s define epiphany as:

a spontaneous realization, produced through unconscious pattern recognition, that suddenly enters conscious awareness

By that definition I have small epiphanies almost every day.  Larger epiphanies – those that spur me to reconsider major foundational assumptions – arrive every few months.  That is not meant to imply that I would be a particularly brilliant entrepreneur.  [I have my fair share of shortcomings in other areas.]  On the contrary, I am not particularly exceptional in favoring intuitive pattern recognition over methodical deliberation.

Using the popular myers-briggs personality typology as a guide, nearly half the population (Perceivers) will tend to trust the former over the latter.  If epiphany is extremely rare in Steve Blank’s experience, it has more to do with the company he keeps than the phenomenon of epiphany itself.

Courting Epiphany

If epiphanies truly are as valuable as Blank believes, then it might be worth trying to attract a bit more cognitive diversity into the entrepreneurial community.  At first blush Blank seems to agree:

While we can describe an epiphany, we don’t know how to teach it or make it happen. But we do know how to set up the conditions for it to occur.

First interact with lots of people — the more they are different from you with different ideas, and different perspectives the better.

Unfortunately, he immediately qualifies that statement by reverting to a methodological orientation:

(Getting out of the building in the Customer Development process guarantees you’ll do just that.)

Let’s be clear, the Customer Development process absolutely does not “guarantee” that you will be introduced to different perspectives.

Perspective is conveyed through high bandwidth communication.  Hypothesis testing may help you confirm, invalidate or revise existing perspectives, but it cannot inherently suggest new perspectives.  Any empirical data gathered is just that – data – until it is interpreted through a new perspective.  To that end, entrepreneurs need to be having real conversations, not just the metaphorical variety.

Secondly, if those real conversations are all taking place within the SV/SF echo chamber then the entrepreneur isn’t accessing a meaningful diversity of perspectives.  Truly new perspectives will only be found by stepping outside the self-selected community.

To some extent Blank seems to recognize the value of introducing an entirely different modes of thinking:

It can be challenging for an entrepreneur to slow down, disengage from the relentless pace and smell the roses.  But making this kind of time for your right brain to process what your left-brain has learned can bring you insights you’d never uncover otherwise.  (emphasis mine)

Unfortunately, that is as far as he goes.  He does not entertain the possibility of making space for more right-brained people in the start-up community.  Sometimes we have to be content with baby steps…

If nothing else, Blank’s post is small step in the right direction at a time when the perceived value of ideas has been diminished to near zero.  Though one blog post hardly signals a paradigm shift, at the very least it is encouraging to see the focus on execution circumscribed, so that entrepreneurs like Luis need not feel quite so guilty about embracing their own insights.


photo by Norma Desmond

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  • Gene Linetsky

    Blank just lost the last crumbs of my respect. He sounds like a second-rate shrink, pandering to the patient’s insecurities. Ew.

  • Alex Ragus

    This is such a difficult question because we have no language to describe the “feeling” of epiphany.  Moments of mental “clicking” or “visualization”  or “sudden-understanding” happen all the time, but it’s an amorphous phenomenon to notice how often they turn into brilliant ideas, or just fizzle, or just become “newly obvious”.  We usually forget about the ones that fizzle rather than regret them for years afterwards.  Selective bias.  

    Epiphanies are just insights that turn out to be both correct and unique.  But you can’t distinguish between the two until you try the idea out.

    • http://OnTheSpiral.com/ GregoryJRader

      In my definition and usage of ‘epiphany’ I’m not including any judgement with regard to the value of the ideas produced.  I am allowing for the possibility that you might have epiphanies (sudden understanding or moments of clarity) that ultimately prove to be incorrect or simply inconsequential (“newly obvious” is nicely phrased).  So we seem to be using the term slightly differently…

      The factor that I meant to emphasize is that “sudden realizations”, whether correct or not, are produced by different cognitive faculties than deliberate analysis.  The fact that such insights are recognized *suddenly* clearly indicates that they are derived from variables that our conscious deliberate faculties are not tracking.  

      As such, epiphany offers the opportunity to step outside a given set of methodological assumptions.  

      • http://www.quora.com/Alex-Ragus Alex Ragus

        “epiphany offers the opportunity to step outside a given set of methodological assumptions.”

        So in order to do brilliant science, you need to step outside your methodological assumptions, have your epiphany, and then go back and confirm it using established methodology. 

        Word.  :)

    • BillSeitz

      I agree, and what I found bizarre about Steve’s post is that it sounds like Luis, having had his epiphany, is now jumping to full-speed execution without any sort of Customer Development validation process. Did you read it the same way?

      • http://OnTheSpiral.com/ GregoryJRader

        I think you could read that both ways.  It does sound like he is turning the whole ship all at once, but maybe the new idea isn’t something that can be implemented on a piecemeal basis.  Presumably, whatever it is that he is executing on will still be exposed to customer feedback before going into full scale production.  

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