To Make Better Startup Decisions, Tolerate More Pain

If your company gets a negative review, or a journalist pans your company, or a customer stops using your business, it’s going to hurt. In a small company, people notice these things even more. It’s no small matter for a customer to leave you, or for an average user to take the time to write a deeply negative review.

There are a lot of immediate responses you could make to sources of startup pain like this. And as long as you react now, most everyone will be happy. You could respond to the negative review, create a statement, create a research paper, or make a product change.

Let’s assume, though, that you really want to solve the core problem. Let’s also assume that you know what the core problem is. If you want to provide the best prescription for the problem, it helps to consider how pain works – and how it doesn’t.

Pain should typically cause you to stop doing the old things that are causing you damage. It should not necessarily cause you to start doing new things right away.

For example, it makes sense to pull your hand away from a grease fire when it starts – you want to stop the burning, after all. It does not make sense to then douse the grease fire with water, as intuitive as it might seem.

You get the picture.

It makes sense to stop breaking your product, or to stop irritating customers with upselling, or to stop dumping toxic waste into the local river a la evil corporation. But that’s the part everyone overlooks, because everyone wants to jump straight to the reaction – the new thing.

But the typical reactions to startup pain often fail.

Immediately committing to responding to every negative review with a review might be good policies for some companies – but for yours, it may be an unsustainable overcommitment.

Creating a statement to counter a rumor may drive the rumor mill further and open up new questions.

Changing your product will demonstrate a lack of steady planning and conviction, making your service less appealing to other customer and more subject to future business pain.

Even if acting on your first impulse or your first hypothesis doesn’t actively make things worse, acting on an incomplete hypothesis or an unsustainable course of action will just spin your wheels. Your real cost will be the opportunity cost – the time you’ve lost in which you could have taken a response to the core issue that could be scaled and sustained at multiple levels, for multiple customers, by people other than just you.

The factor that makes it hard to think effectively in these situations is pain intolerance. Because many business decision makers cannot tolerate temporary pain, many business decision makers may choose the reactive approach – and they’ll even get away with it for a while.

If you want to make better decisions about startup problems, you have to live with startup pain without medicating it away with reactive “busyness.” You have to be the person in your organization who can put up with the discomfort of negativity longer than anyone else – and so buy yourself (and everyone else) time to think of a response that solves not just this problem, but the similar problems of past and future as well.

Of course, pain tolerance is no guarantee that you’ll find this real solution to the real problem. But it does seem to be a requirement. When the next shock of pain comes, take a breath, put it into context, and consciously notice your desire to react. Move immediately not to act, but to think and consider. Be prepared to defend your “inaction” (maybe have a few examples ready of ineffective knee-jerk reactions from the past).

These are steps toward pain tolerance, which is a step toward effective next steps.

Photo by Matt Wildbore on Unsplash

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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