Monday, October 24, 2016

The Hero's journey is no substitute for a product

A hero's journey is not a substitute for a product.
Each entrepreneur goes through a sort of hero’s journey.  If they are lucky, once that journey is finished they will emerge out of the other side stronger, wiser, and accomplishing something amazing.  It is no secret the technology world uses the language of science fiction and fantasy.  That is why a company which becomes extremely profitable it is called a unicorn.  As an agilest and entrepreneur, I convince myself that I am lucky and smart enough to aspire to this status.  It is the story I tell myself.  In the dark moments, it is what keeps me going.  This week, I want to talk about when story telling crosses the shadowy line from inspiration to deception.

Carl Jung, one of the founders of psychoanalysis, articulated the idea the human species has a “collective unconsciousness.”  This collective unconsciousness is the common characters or myths humans use to describe themselves.  The collective unconsciousness also describes what the human species aspires to become.

Joseph Campbell then built on Jung’s work in 1948 with his book, “The Hero with A Thousand Faces,” which talks about the similarities between the mythologies of western and tribal cultures.  Roman Gods were compared with the traditions of Native Americans and Australian Aborigines.  The similarities were too hard to ignore.  We had academic proof that the human species has a common story telling tradition.

Now that this knowledge was out in the open it did not take long for others to exploit it.  One of them was a University of Southern California graduate, who just has a hit film entitled “American Graffiti.”  The other was a technology entrepreneur who cultivated the image of a mystic shaman while he sold music players and later phones.

To be successful, a company needed a story and a heroic figure to pitch that story to the media and client.  It was a way of cutting through the clutter and getting the message out.  That lesson was not lost on Elizabeth Holms who dropped out of Stanford to found her company Theranos.   She created an image which was a frittata of Hitchcock’s icy blond, Steve Jobs techno shaman, and the elegant intelligence of Meryl Streep.  Her story was simple, she was going to change the world making blood testing affordable and less invasive.  She was smart enough and stubborn enough to found a company and make it happen.

The technology press swallowed the story hook, line and sinker.  Soon she was featured in press write ups, on television promoting her company, and receiving millions of dollars in venture capital.  I will not go into the details of Theranos and the fraud they committed.  Vanity Fair Magazine has already done an outstanding job on that front.  Suffice to say, Elizabeth Holms had a good story to sell but didn’t have a product.  Her blood testing tool was nothing but fantasy.

The lesson here is that every story should have a grounding in reality.  You cannot change the world with your products if your products do not work.  The rumpled engineers have to build something before the myth makers in sales and marketing come along.  Telegenic good looks and a story are not a substitute for business acumen and a product.

Anyone who grew up during the stupid and giddy time of the dot.com bubble should have known how this story was going to end.  They chose to ignore it and suspend disbelief because the story was good.  Instead of a hero’s journey, what the public got was a true crime story of fraud and greed.
It is a sobering lesson for an entrepreneur and consumer.  I hope that we are smart enough to recognize it before it happens again.

Until next time.