On Being Stubborn & Flexible

Imagine a future where running a startup was as easy as playing your favourite strategy game  (SimCity, Command & Conquer, Civilization, Factorio...)

If everyone had access to similar tools & resources, how would you bet on the winners? In my experience, grit it is.

Startups are a mix of business and art, and navigating their collision requires grit.

A good business returns multiples on time and capital, while art involves an emotional investment with pains of trial & error to build something great.

Grit is the defining quality found in successful founders. Grit is knowing when to fall back, and when to push through.

Building a startup is a process of trial and error. What guided us as founders was empathy for our users.  When we lost sight of making things that people wanted, we lost our way as a business too.

We failed a lot and succeeded a couple of times, too. The ups are better than the downs, which is why so many people are still doing it.

Our successes were a mixture of the following:

  • seeking for the truth - looking at what is vs. what we want it to be
  • effort - saying less, doing more + doing what you say
  • luck - being in the right place at the right time

Our failures, on the other had were usually caused by:

  • resources (market, capital, tools, people) unavailable or wasted
  • not being emotionally invested - didn't make best quality decisions about where to fold & where to go all-in
  • bad luck - still lost due to other/outside of control factors

When you do new things, people will often reject you. How to interpret that rejection is difficult. I've always wanted to understand where to be stubborn and where to be flexible. Here's what I've learned about it: Most founders, have something that they are not willing to change ~ a stubborn bet.

Here are a few examples:

Elon Musk wants to pursue a multi-planetary civilization.

John & Patrick Collison of Stripe pushed on instant onboarding via a developer first tool. Stripe was initially called /dev/payments

Tobi Lütke at Shopify believes one doesn't need to be tech savvy to build an online store.

If these stubborn bets turned out to be wrong, it would not have worked. When the stubborn bet pays off, it looks so obvious in hindsight.  

Think about what you are unwilling to change. Something you believe to be true, but is not obvious yet.

It has to be something you believe, and are willing to devote significant time & energy to make it happen. That is the one bet that will make your company if it turns to be true.

What you are unwilling to change is the only bet you're making and everything else will be taught by the market. That's your edge.

So what to be flexible on? Almost everything else that isn't your stubborn bet.

Only be stubborn where your vision is at risk

Garret Camp of Uber's stubborn bet was that people will take a ride with a stranger if it meant that they didn't have to hang around awkwardly at their host's place once a party was over.

In the beginning, it was just about getting people a driver faster than others – everything else didn't matter.

Be a curious student of the market, learn from your customers, and success will follow.

In the future, there will be an abundance of of talent, technology & capital for the best founders and winners will be separated by their ability to make better decisions, by being both stubborn & flexible.


Thanks to Saima Nawab, Adnan Haider, Isfandiyar Shaheen, Faizan Siddiqi, Amna Nawab, Haider Nawab, Dave Kim, Aatif Awan & Fawad Farrukh for reading drafts of this.

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