I'm a software developer, and in the last five years, I was the technical founder of different companies. This will sound like a cliché, but starting up my first company was the hardest. It was founded in Belgium by my wife and me in January 2008; in February of that same year, our twelve-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer. This ordeal made it very difficult for us to develop our business.
During the long hours my son and I spent in hospital for numerous sessions of chemotherapy, my son started watching House MD. Although I knew the show (and used to like it very much), it was hard for me to share his enthusiasm. Because of the harsh day-to-day reality, I didn't want to see even more doom and gloom on TV. But when I asked my son what he liked about House MD, he answered:
When I watch this show, I see people who are worse off than I am, yet most of them —not all— survive. That gives me hope.
Imagine me, a 38-year-old father, sitting on a hospital chair, being taught one of the most important lessons in life by his son:
"Don't wallow in self-pity, but look forward and have faith."
So we watched all the series back to back, and guess what: I learned plenty of things about doing business from Dr. Gregory House.
LESSON 1: THERE ARE AS MANY DIAGNOSES AS THERE ARE SPECIALISTS
In the television series, Dr. Gregory House runs the diagnostic department of a hospital, and he only gets —or rather: he only accepts— patients that are considered to be "impossible cases." If they've visited an oncologist first, the oncologist diagnosed cancer. If they went to a neurologist, the problem had to be found in the brain. Every specialist visited before, looked at the patient from his own point of view, overlooking the actual problem. In the television series, only Dr. House is able to think outside of the box.
This reminded me of my first attempts to start a business, even before my wife and I founded our first company. I went looking for advice wherever I could find it, but the answers I received were in contradiction with each other.
The developers told me: "Your product needs more features."
The salespeople told me: "Your product needs to be less technical."
The venture capitalists said: "You need funding to grow faster."
They all had a point, but at that time, I had no idea which pain I was trying to ease, I didn't know anything about the market for my product, and if somebody would have given me a million dollar, I would have put it on the bank, not knowing what to do with it.
This is the first lesson I learned: if you ask people for advice, don't expect answers that are tailored to your needs. If you've just created a start-up, you should be very happy if you don't find anybody who can answer your billion dollar question on "how to succeed." That may be a good sign: it means you're doing something nobody else has ever done before.
Also don't allow a single adviser to challenge your ideas. Put different advisers together and let them challenge each other in an advisory board. It's the clash of ideas that will help you discover what is important and what isn't. Having specialists from different areas of expertise argue with each other makes interesting television, but it also allows Gregory House to find the right diagnosis.
LESSON 2: EVERYBODY LIES
Gregory House doesn't believe everything his patients tell him, he only believes the symptoms. Medical facts are more important than what patients say: "I don't ask why patients lie, I just assume they all do." I've found the same reasoning in an article by Scott Anthony entitled: "Combating Four Innovation Lies.":
Lie #1: Target customer — "Of course I’ll buy that!"
Before I founded my first company, I did a survey among the users of my free, open source project, asking them: "If I'd offer commercial licenses and support, would you be willing to pay?" Almost every user who responded was positive: "Of course we would! We like your product very much! It's only normal that we would pay!" So I started my company, and in my hour of need, I asked some of these people: I have a company now, and I can offer licenses, would you want to buy one? At that moment, early 2008, it became clear that it's very easy to get positive response from a user, but it's very hard to turn a user into a customer.
Lie #2: Product developer — "We'll be ready to ship in six months"
Are developers liars? Not intentionally! But I'm a developer myself, and I know that our enthusiasm sometimes makes us overconfident. In our minds, we can clearly see the result. We just don't realize that the path between two points hardly ever follows a straight line. That's why I now have non-technical people helping me to define how much time and effort is needed to develop new features. It's much better that way; I don't have that much stress anymore, because I'm no longer imposing impossible deadlines on myself and on our developers.
Lie #3: Salesperson — "Of course I can sell that"
After the first disappointments, not being able to convert users into buyers, we focused on our son first. Then suddenly customers started calling us, mostly from the USA. So we started a second company in the California, and we found salespeople who were willing to work on commission. Things went very well. That was what the salespeople told me, and I saw money coming in each month, why would I not believe them? But then I thought about House's principle that everybody lies, and I asked myself: "Could they do better?" So I started another sales company in Europe. I made the company in the US responsible for sales in one half of the world, and the new company for the other half. Moreover I renegotiated the contract with the salespeople: the commission would also be cut in two for a majority of leads. One would expect that the sales in the US would go down, in favor of the sales in Europe. The new company was indeed profitable from the start, but on top of that, sales in the US also went up! Somehow the salespeople in the US succeeded to increase their potential.
Lie #4: Senior executives — "We're open to anything"
The best way to avoid this "lie" is to have a mission statement, and a clear definition of your core business. Everything that doesn't fit into your mission statement or that is besides your core business should be irrelevant. Either that’s your opinion, or you don't have a good mission statement. For instance: we consistently refuse doing consultancy work; we focus on our technology. We only make an exception for consultancy assignments that are in line with our technical roadmap. Defining a good mission statement and really understanding your core business isn't simple. I didn't get this right from the start because I was standing too close to my product —my baby— to see what I was actually doing. I solved this by creating an advisory board of people who are not afraid to tell me that I'm wrong. That takes courage, because the boss isn't always right, but the boss is always the boss.
Now that we've established that everybody lies, we know that it doesn't make sense to be angry at people who lie. To quote Scott Anthony: "People who voice these four lies would easily pass a polygraph test. They sincerely believe them. You shouldn't." This doesn't mean you have to turn your back on this people. Gregory House would say: "Truth begins in lies," and also: "The most successful marriages are based on lies!" The one thing you must avoid at all times is to lie to yourself.
I've heard many starters say: "We don't have any customers right now, but we're sure company X and company Y will be our customers in a couple of weeks!" When asked "How can you be sure?" They answer: "We just know!" This type of self-deception is deadly in business. I know because I've been there. I've tried different things that didn't work out, and then suddenly I pushed the right button. Was this luck or was it something else?
LESSON 3: TESTS TAKE TIME, TREATMENT IS QUICKER
The week after our son was diagnosed with cancer was the most terrible episode of our lives. We wanted the treatment to start ASAP! However, that went against hospital policy. The oncologists were 99.9% sure our son had Osteosarcoma, but the chemotherapy for this aggressive bone cancer was so devastating for the human body they needed to be 100% sure before starting the treatment.
We had to wait for the results of a (painful) biopsy, and the results of the first biopsy were... negative: no cancer cells were found. We didn't know if we were supposed to be happy (there's no cancer?) or angry (does this mean our son won’t get any treatment?). As it turned out, the surgeon had missed the tumor by a couple of millimeters. The second biopsy left no doubt: the treatment started with a delay of about a week.
You probably understand why I was reluctant to watch a series where the main character says things like: "We treat it. If he gets better, I'm right, if he dies, you're right." That sounds like very bad advice in medicine. In business however, I consider this good advice.
Want to know if customers will buy your product? Then by all means: start selling!
Nobody is buying? That may be an important symptom! Change your product! Choose another strategy! Try another business model!
Always keep in mind that: "The treatments don't always work. Symptoms never lie." Doing business isn't an exact science. It's about taking away a pain. There's usually more than one way to do it, but it should be your goal to do it in the best possible way, for your customer, for the environment, and eventually for yourself.
I'm not sure if Gregory House is a good example to students in medicine (actually I doubt it), and I fear he would scare away all customers if you would put him in charge of a company. But some of his principles make sense, in business even more than in medicine.
There's one question I need to answer before I close. How is my son today?
The bone cancer has cost him his knee. The Cisplatin took away the higher frequencies of his hearing. The Doxorubicin was bad for his heart. The Methotrexate has probably damaged his kidneys. In short: he'll be handicapped for life, but we're oh so happy he's alive. He has a grand sense of humor. His morale is high and I'm pretty sure he'll have a great life.
As the philosopher Mick Jagger once said: "You can't always get what you want... but if you try sometimes you get what you need."
That's true in life, as well as in business.