We were having a team meeting this week about characteristics of our most successful portfolio companies. What these companies and their leaders show is a distinctive mix of certainty and change. At every moment, when tested, their teams have a clear and decisive view of what their focus needs to be. But that certainty yields to the realities of the market, the behavior of the customers, and the dynamics of competition. In short, our most successful companies always believe, but always change.
“Strong opinions, weakly held!” shouted out one of my teammates.
That’s exactly it, I thought.
I was startled that the power of this simple phrase had never dawned on me in the context of our portfolio. I had, in fact, been aware of this coinage for almost exactly a decade. The aphorism has filtered over those years through many blogs and, famously, in an interview with Marc Andreessen last year (min 6:10).
The actual source of the phrase is Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future. In 2008, Paul wrote about how predicting the future is often based on incomplete information. Holding out for perfect data would often lead to no prediction at all. So, a futurist has to make the best prediction possible with the available information. Often, that prediction stinks. But that failure produces new information that can fold into another imperfect prediction. And so, through a chain of imperfections, a futurist, in the end, might get close to the truth.
So it is for entrepreneurs. They have no choice but to make choices, often with little or uneven information. Those choices might work; more often, they don’t. If the entrepreneur stops there, failure is certain. Instead, the great entrepreneur powers on, learns from the failures, and chooses again. And in that way, moves the company herky-jerky toward eventual breakthrough and success.
I’m certain that our portfolio CEOs should have strong opinions, weakly held!
By Managing Partner Mike Edelhart