The Epidemic

I wholeheartedly believe in the positive and prolific impact of entrepreneurship, design, and a gritty disposition.  To all aspiring Northwestern entrepreneurs:  I don’t have all the answers, but if you need suggestions or feedback beyond the scope of this article (or just want to chat), please reach out to me at ahren.alexander@gmail.com. I’m happy to help!

During my four years at Northwestern, a pervasive obsession afflicted the student body:  the incessant desire to appear as competent and hard-working as possible in the face of our peers, superiors, and mentors.  To always look like we know what we’re doing.  

This obsession often manifested as passive-aggressive one-upmanship battles between students commiserating about the lengths of their to-do lists.  For example, one student would dismissively complain, “Oh wow, two finals tomorrow?  I’ve got a paper to finish, a presentation to prepare, and work study all afternoon.  Sucks, right?”

Alternatively, in a conversation between two different students, one breezes over a topic the other doesn’t fully grasp.  Instead of asking for clarification, the other student nods and uncomfortably asserts, “right, right.”

Both cases illustrate the same phenomena:  we were allergic to vulnerability, a condition I call insecuritis.   

Its side effects might help you painlessly navigate social situations and spare your ego in a pinch, but I believe maintaining the front of an astonishing work ethic and infallible expertise is dangerous–and exhausting–to employ when building a startup.  The more malignant side effects of insecuritis, such as the fear of looking stupid and unchecked overconfidence, are detrimental to your venture’s product design and pace of development.  

In this article, I’ll demonstrate how insecuritis can lead to failure, pulling from the experiences of some familiar names and my own experience building a company in school.  I’ll describe symptoms to look out for, and I’ll close with specific actions you can take to immunize yourself against insecuritis.

One of the most ego-threatening activities of starting a company is collecting feedback on your ideas and prototypes.  We develop an attachment to the things we worked so passionately to create, and negative feedback can feel like a personal affront.  Customer interviews introduce the possibility of being wrong, and it’s easier to cover our ears than to shatter the illusion that we’re building the right things based on our own aptitude and intuition alone.  Some startups choose to develop in “stealth mode,” ostensibly to attain first-mover advantage. But for most new startups, I believe first-mover advantage is a convenient excuse for intentionally avoiding the likely reality that the dream product they wish to build isn’t what customers are looking for.  

The Segway is the quintessential example.  Led by prolific inventor Dean Kamen with the support of Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, the product was developed behind closed doors and launched with world-revolutionizing expectations.  Instead of selling 10,000 units a week as Kamen predicted, only 24,000 Segways were sold in five years.  Research into what the intended users wanted from the product, what they were willing to spend, and the viability of the product in its intended context was scarce, and the Segway flopped.  The Segway demonstrates the necessity of interacting with your intended customer base and stakeholders throughout the development process and understanding their root problems and aspirations. Tech giants, fledgling entrepreneurs, and everyone in-between all need feedback.

In addition to avoiding feedback, founders afflicted by insecuritis often prioritize appearing fantastically capable over their venture’s success.  Confronted with an impossibly long list of responsibilities, they take on the misguided mentality of  “don’t worry, I’ve got this.”  They forego building a team of complementary skillsets and cynically hoard duties and functions. Ultimately, these founders are left to construct their products without the proper support nor the willingness to accept it.

My startup, Audiovert, and my naive efforts in school epitomize the consequences of hesitantly seeking and accepting support.  I too, fell ill to insecuritis.  Caught up in the idea of “cool, I’m building a startup” and the personal enjoyment of building loudspeakers, I lost track of the mission of spreading impactful music experiences.  Instead, I toiled away ill-equipped to overcome the engineering and manufacturing challenges of building our products.  I selfishly fantasized and focused on being able to say “I built this for you, personally” when delivering the products to our customers.

Upwards of forty people were directly involved in Audiovert’s development–efforts I am forever thankful for.  Regrettably, I was unwilling to accept that I personally could not solve our most critical problems, and I seldom asked for help or delegated tasks related to these issues.  The engineering and manufacturing challenges eventually derailed fulfillment of our successfully-funded crowdfunding campaign, and very few people ever received an Audiovert product.  By the time I truly opened up to accepting the help we needed most, it was too late, and I graduated without the necessary momentum (or income) to justify further development of Audiovert.  My insecuritis plunged the venture into limbo.

My window of opportunity to build a startup in school closed with Audiovert’s task list incomplete.  College is a unique, finite period devoid of the risks and responsibilities of post-college adulthood.  For that reason, it’s important to spend the time wisely.  Continuing a venture beyond school is typically viable and sensible only if some semblance of runway is achieved, whether it’s recurring revenue, investment, or acceptance into an accelerator.  At Northwestern, you are surrounded by extremely capable peers and mentors.  You have access to a expansive network of accomplished alumni.  If you want to continue to operate your startup beyond school, don’t reach the finish line without first having rallied others and developed value worth investing in.

For those familiar or curious, the Audiovert dream lives on.  I’m currently exploring how to employ these lessons in revivifying it.

But enough about Audiovert — how else can you avoid the aforementioned consequences and protect yourself from insecuritis?

  • Reach out to potential mentors about setting up regular discussions of goals and how to achieve them.  The Garage hosts a sea of people especially empathetic toward the challenges of starting a company who will readily assist you.  Pay it forward.
  • Regularly assess what gaps need filling or assumptions need testing in your venture and what can be done to alleviate them promptly.  Remember that you are not the answer to all of your problems.
  • When people talk about something you don’t understand, don’t pretend that you do — especially if that something is vital for you to grasp. When appropriate, stop them and ask them to elaborate on unfamiliar topics.  Take advantage of the opportunities you have to learn something new.
  • Avoid feeding the collective stress and negativity that can put a damper on your — and others’ — Northwestern experience.  Assess what you can control, accept what you cannot, and make change instead of complaints.

Above all else, be vulnerable.  

Admit what you don’t know, be honest about your personal capacities, and welcome opportunities to grow.

Students — chances are, sometime very soon, you will be confronted with the option to pretend like you know more than you do or to set your ego aside and learn.  In that moment, in all those like it, I urge you to choose the latter.  For both your sake and the sake of whatever you’re working on — whether it’s a new company, classwork, or a personal project — I urge you to reveal the chinks in your armor and actively seek how to repair them.  

There are few places more rich with knowledge and enthusiasm for positive change than Northwestern.  If those in your immediate network do not have the answers or “repairs” you need, chances are they know someone who does and who is willing to help you. Through being honest with your needs and being open to others’ feedback — through making yourself vulnerable — you can make your Northwestern experience one of fruitful relationships, meaningful discoveries, and momentous achievements to be proud of.