Great Opportunities Don't Have 'Great Opportunity!' in the Subject Line
The natural tendency to look for evidence that an opportunity is exciting can backfire. Popular signifiers like media coverage and recent success stories are often just a distraction.
I had some professors at Harvard Business School who would jokingly remark that whichever industries students were the most interested in at any given moment was a leading indicator for which industries would be overvalued -- and likely plummet -- five years later. For example, in the 1990s, students obsessed over careers at investment banks and IPO-destined internet companies, and then the bubble popped. In the early 2000s it was hedge funds and private-equity firms, and then the global financial crisis took them down. Popularity creates a herd mentality.
Even the small world of high-tech entrepreneurs, famous for contrarian tendencies, succumbs to popular signals. Great engineers in New York and San Francisco often flock to the companies that have raised the most venture capital or have the highest profile founders. But, they are also forgetting that these high-flying companies have inflated valuations (and often egos, too). As successful as their careers may be in these hot companies, they are likely to make more of an impact elsewhere.
Popular signals are hard to escape. When you tune out popular signals, you start to notice companies, opportunities and even entire industries that are operating under the radar. There is an inherent multiplier in the potential outcome of any opportunity you discover that is out of favor. Sure, there is also more risk, but when you unearth an opportunity yourself and find it before others, you reap the benefits. It’s the reward you get for moving ahead of the herd.
Avoid popularity traps.
To think this way, you must liberate yourself from a number of traps that lure you away from great opportunities. When you think, “The consensus says this is the next big thing" or “Everyone wants this opportunity, so I should take it,” question yourself. Outliers don’t run in herds. If you do take the opportunity everyone wants, you’ll be less indispensable, and the excess supply of willing minds will work against you. When you consider opportunities, focus less on where all the money and attention are going, and focus more on the overlooked aspects that excite you. Don’t chase headlines. Real success comes from starting cold, not joining something hot.
Make something that needs to exist.
With every breakout success story in the worlds of tech, art and business comes a wave of copycats -- new projects that are either slight variants or complete replications with a lower price point. And then there are projects started as whims rather than heartfelt interests and validated needs. They materialize into short-lived novelties rather than necessities. They become clutter for customers and burdens for their creators.
I challenge you to think beyond your own fascinations. If you’re an artist, make sure your work comes from as deep within you as it is inspired by what’s around you. If you’re building a business or solving a problem, start with empathy and validate the need for a solution. If you’re looking for inspiration, look for problems rather than ideas. Add incremental value to this vast system we live in rather than just moving value around.
Ventures are better than replays.
There are two types of projects in the world: ventures and replays.
Replays are adaptions of existing playbooks that help you replicate an outcome with similar goals in a similar environment. As an investor, I meet many teams attempting replays. They usually describe their products as “Uber for X” or the “Warby Parker of Y.” (Full disclosure: I was an early investor in Uber and Warby Parker.) The vast majority of projects are, in fact, replays. They are less risky and easier to identify with. But, by adopting someone else’s playbook, you’re bound by the past. The inherent flaw in being inspired by what's worked before is the gravitational pull towards the mean.
On the contrary, ventures move industries and society forward in ways we never expected. Ventures are deviations from what is known, whether it is something entirely new or transforming something that already exists in a counter-intuitive way. The boldest ventures are led by people who refuse to stand idly by and replay the past.
The world sustains on replays and is moved forward by ventures. Of course, there is no cohesive playbook for a true venture: It’s an adventure into the unknown that must be managed accordingly. In my new book, The Messy Middle, I chronicle the insights and reflections from dozens of leaders that have defied norms and, oftentimes, the conventions of their own industries, to change the world as we know it. One common theme among them is a tolerance of being doubted and a willingness to join an unpopular pursuit for which they have conviction.
It’s tempting to define your goals relative to another successful company or project in your space. We all share the natural tendency to look for patterns and favor the paths that have already been cleared for us. But, a playbook is only transformational the first time it is played. Everything becomes a derivation at worst, and comparable at best.
Whether you’re looking for a new job, client, partner or business opportunity, the best option is unlikely to allure you when you first see it. More often than not, the best opportunities look unattractive on the surface. What makes an opportunity great is its upside, and if that upside was explicitly clear, the opportunity would have already been taken by someone else.
Join a team or take an opportunity not for what it is, but what you believe you can make it become.