In a couple of days, we start the boot-camp for the 5th cohort of the Startup NOW accelerator program that we started 2 years ago.  We sat down and went through all the applications to decide who enters this round. We make it a point that the business ideas presented address a real problem, solving it in an innovative way. After the orientation session a week ago, I was able to chat with a few of the applicants individually. All of the ones I spoke to had identified a problem, and had a solution to solve it – except for one. For the ones who have a solution, upon admittance to the program, it becomes their job to validate that the market wants this solution, and they will have to figure out how to get it to market and make it profitable. It will take a good 6 months to do that.

One of the applicants which I had the pleasure to meet, approached me to discuss the problem she had identified. It is in the women’s cosmetics / beauty space, and it is a problem that, as she described, truly exists. I had no idea about it, but was able to validate it by pulling another lady I already knew in the room into the conversation. The interesting fact about this was that she had ideas on how to solve it, but none were immediately sensible in terms of practicality. It will be interesting to see where these ideas lead. We have seen big departures from original plans before. We are currently follow-on mentoring an entrepreneur that successfully completed the program months ago, with a great business idea, which is a radical pivot from where she had started.

Am I optimistic that she will find a practical solution to the problem she has identified? I truly do not know. It makes me uncomfortable because this doesn’t happen often. Not knowing whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic, it makes me uncomfortable. I do not want to sound illogical – you will find out why in a few minutes. I guess it is because I do not know enough about this space, and have not had time to consider it enough, that I don’t know what to think.

When having to formulate their opinion about the likelihood of something happening, some people look at cold hard facts and rely on an objective line of strict scientific reasoning to come to a conclusion such as: “Yes, I think she will be able to find a solution to this problem.” If that were me in this case, I would be labeled an optimist.

In another scenario, depending on which of the cold hard facts I choose, and using the same strict reasoning, I could conclude that I believe she has no chance of finding a solution to the problem. I would be labeled a pessimist. In both cases I can argue I would be applying pure analytical thinking devoid of human subjectivity. My stance would solely depend on the facts that I choose to count or omit. Are you feeling uncomfortable yet?

We could classify a pessimist as someone who thinks things will maintain their course. Whatever is will continue to be. The problem, for which there seems to be no practical solution, will stay without one. The pessimist will omit the facts that undermine his or her reasoning. On the other hand, the optimist will also choose his or her facts.

After some pondering, I realized that optimism and pessimism both come from a lack of logic. In both cases there are branches in the decision trees that we are not taking into account. We cannot remove human subjectivity from our reasoning . We can also not extinguish testing all outcome possibilities because our processing and recall capacities are not of the kind scientists have tried to build into supercomputers and the software that runs in them for the past 50 years. Nevertheless, supercomputers cannot worry, dream or love. Thank God for that, let me stay a human, let me stay fallible.

Our life is like riding in one of those metro or subway cars where the front and the back are indistinguishable from each other, the type that can ride the rail in both directions. In the continuum of their life, pessimists ride sitting in the back and have a set of binoculars pointing to the back, to the past, to the rail already traveled. Optimists walk the length of the car. They sit in the back and look back for a while. They stand up, walk to the middle and hold the hand bar to avoid falling with one hand as they hold their binoculars and take a 360 degree view around. They let go of the hand bar and walk and sit in the front and look forward to see how far they can make things out through the lenses. They get up again and move. They repeat the cycle, and they also move randomly. They look at everything; they try to take it all in. In their mind, they really want to fill out their decision trees with the most possibilities they can come up with.

As I mentioned before, as with the pessimists’, the optimist’s thinking will lack logic, but he or she will have better information – which will nevertheless not lead to mistake-less decisions. Optimists will project courage and hope, and will influence those around that share the car ride. Ultimately, with their behavior, they are the ones that change the world.

Do I think my new entrepreneur in cohort 5 will find a practical solution to the problem she has clearly identified? I still don’t know. Don’t label me. I haven’t moved around back and forth enough. It is her task to do exactly that, and if she does, I’m optimistic she will have a chance to change the world.

Our View from the Top – May 22, 2018