Seth Godin had a post today about origin stories, noting that each of the successes he cites has a different origin story. They didn’t follow the same path as someone else to achieve wide spread recognition.
That reminded me of a similar passage in one of Joseph Campbell’s books where he recalls a particular story about King Arthur and his knights setting out on their Grail Quest.
“‘They thought it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group. Each entered the forest at the point that he himself had chosen, where it was darkest, and there was no way or path.’
“No way or path! Because where there is a way or path, it is someone else’s path.”
I have actually used this quote before, but it has been about 7 years. It is far overdue to be mentioned again.
One of the toughest things about running a business of any sort is being able to balance between embracing best practices and slavishly replicating case studies in success.
Following best practices prevents you from wasting valuable time and energy developing processes and repeating the mistakes someone else has already encountered and overcome.
On the other hand, attempting to replicate someone else’s wild success by imposing their apparent development framework/pathway upon your own company will probably have the same uncomfortable, non-productive results as trying to wedge your feet into their custom built shoes.
Part of the problem is that even when the founders of the wildly successful company talk about their path to prosperity, they aren’t telling you the full story of all the dynamics at play. They may not be entirely aware of all the factors that fed into their success, or they are ignoring and omitting some details that don’t make for a good founding mythology.
In the opening segment of a This American Life episode titled, Origin Story, they discuss the “started in a garage” mythology for companies like Hewlett-Packard (whose origin Godin cites) and Apple.
This is from a promotional video that Hewlett-Packard put together after it spent millions to buy and restore the original garage where its two founders started what is now the largest technology firm in the world.
In 1938, in a garage in Palo Alto, California, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard set to work to start a new company. They had a few hand-operated punches, a used Sears Roebuck drill press that had just made the trip west in the back of one of their cars, and they had a rented flat with a garage.
Even Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard weren’t exactly outsiders. They studied electrical engineering at MIT and at Stanford. Packard had worked at General Electric. A former professor of theirs from Stanford gave them leads and hooked them up, for example, with a firm called Litton Engineering. He let them use equipment that they didn’t own themselves yet. Just as, decades later, the founders of Apple Computer, 21-year-old Steve Jobs, was already working at Atari, and 25-year-old old Steve Wozniak was at Hewlett-Packard when they started Apple in Job’s garage.
And, for example, in the case of Steve Jobs, he benefited greatly from the support that he got from the Atari people, because they introduced him to investors.
If you listen to those first few minutes of the episode or read the transcript, you’ll see that a bit of romance gets injected into the founding stories of a lot of companies.
This is not to say that there wasn’t a lot of sweat and creativity invested in getting these companies off the ground. Just like the hot new artist that explodes on the scene, no one really talks about the years of testing, revision, hustle and lucky breaks that went into the impressive debut (a.k.a Draft #250).
There is a lot of valuable advice you can take by paying attention to someone else’s process- performing due diligence, avoiding undesireable contract stipulations, generating appropriate plans and budgets and being bold with marketing plans.
Just don’t expect to achieve the same results by following exactly the same steps as someone else. You have no idea who or what conditions may have been helping mount those steps. Ultimately, you might be better off carving your own steps or even rappelling down an entirely different mountain instead of trying to climb behind someone else. (Or simply ignore vague metaphors about achieving things altogether.)
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