I’m a big believer in intellectual honesty.
Having said that, I also think founders need to be capable of lying to themselves and others – painting a picture of a present and future world where their vision is realized. Call it “exaggeration” if you’d like. Or a “reality distortion field.” Founders have to be at least a bit delusional; there’s no other way to get through the roller coaster without falling off completely.
So now we have “delusional honesty” (which is a term I just made up). Or maybe it should be “honestly delusional”… I think I’m both.
Often, the truth is hard to understand and accept. We know the truth is sometimes ugly, so we tend not to rush out and seek it as much as we should. It’s also a moving target – what was true today may not be true tomorrow.
But at some point, founders need to draw a line in the sand and be emphatic about what’s going on.
When I say “this much I know is true” to myself, it immediately resets my “delusional honesty” meter. Anything I think, say or write after that better be true. Or at a minimum, I better have significant evidence and learning to back up my claims. If I can’t justify saying it, I’m able to step back, re-evaluate and decide what to do next. Maybe I didn’t do enough customer development, and I need to re-engage with more customers. Maybe I need to stew on my ideas a bit longer or do more research. Or maybe I just need to make a tough decision.
Saying “this much I know is true” out loud in a meeting may feel cheesy (go ahead and rephrase as you’d like!), but I like how it sets a certain tone and expectation. We’re not just brainstorming, riffing or making shit up. We’re peeling away the necessary “armor of delusion” and being honest and bold.
There’s a time and place for waving your hands around and sprinkling founder faerie dust.
But this much I know is true: you can’t run a startup on delusion alone. You need to build up a strong core based on intellectual honesty, strategy and pragmatism. Then you layer on the delusion, so you can plough through the craziness of startup life.