Our Origin Story

Like every superhero (#Glass and thanks @StanLee @Marvel), every startup has an origin story. We shared a few pieces in our first blog post, Click to Send - which documented the moment of truth when we actually committed to being done writing so that @MorganJames could begin the publishing process. With the final book on its way, we thought it might be opportune timing to share our own origin story with the genesis of The Titanic Effect idea.

But first, an update on our journey -- last week we received (and signed) our first set of “pre-release” printed books: 

Signed copies of The Titanic Effect.jpg

Yeah, pretty cool—or at least we think so. But before we could get to this phase of the journey, we had to start with something.

Every startup begins with an idea. Whether it is a response to a need or problem, or a light bulb that goes off to create a new widget or gadget, ideas are a critical part of the origin story. Here are a few well-known startup origin stories:

  • @RandyHetrick of @TRX – had a need for training tools in a remote area of the South Pacific while on a special forces mission

  • @ClifBar’s @GaryErickson - was on a multi-hour bike ride with only cardboard-tasting snacks for sustenance

  • @Mei Xu’s inspiration for @ChesapeakeBayCandle came from hours spent touring Bloomingdale’s while working in New York City and wanting to bring fashion to home goods

For our “startup,” the idea came from discussions Kim and I had with co-author @MichaelCloran about technical debt.  He’s a serial tech-entrepreneur and co-founding partner of DeveloperTown. In brief, technical debts are shortcuts taken early in the life of the startup to get to MVP (minimally viable product) that limits potential later. Software development firms like @DeveloperTown help clients limit or at least manage technical debts to enable future success.

But technology is not the only source of these debts. As Professors of Marketing (Kim) and Management (Todd), we recognized that decisions in other domains have similar challenges:

  • The co-founders you bring on board

  • How you allocate equity 

  • The advisors and investors with whom you engage 

  • The branding and logo you begin using to build a brand 

  • The value proposition you initially propose to customers and others

All have the potential to enable, or hamper, future potential.

This led the three of us to reimagine and broaden the technical debt idea to a more holistic notion of hidden debts—debts that limit growth or even sink the most promising startup. They are the necessary consequence of making decisions under uncertainty. These debts span marketing and customer relationships as well as the people you engage with to help launch and grow. Technical debt now had siblings in the forms of human and marketing debt. With our respective expertise in technical (Michael), marketing (Kim), and human (Todd) elements, we had chief navigators who could help startups in our respective oceans. But could we bring the narrative together beyond a shared passion for education and assistance in the startup community? Would the origin story lead to a single one-off episode as part of someone else’s tale—or a storyline with multiple issues?

As we prepared to present at the Innovation Showcase in Indianapolis, Indiana in July of 2015, we had to give shape and a story to our envisioning of hidden debt. The very visualization of things hidden -- and what lies beneath the surface -- led to icebergs, which of course led to the TitanicBut was there substance there?  Further investigation revealed that The Titanic Effect was not just a catchy title. The Titanic’s own origin story was full of hidden debts due to founders, investors, and employees, aka Human Debts. The White Star Line, owner and operator, had to make many decisions regarding design and production akin to Technical Debts—including having subpar rivets for key sections of the ship’s bunkers, and a redesign for luxury with catastrophic ramifications. Some of these design changes were driven by the Marketing Debts of serving two very different customer segments and fulfilling a change in strategy that focused on luxury over speed.

In summary, our origin story emerged as we realized we had a contribution -- a product idea that was more than smoke and mirrors, an audience of hundreds of entrepreneurs and investors to pitch to, and a diverse founding team willing to set sail together. In a future blog, we will share how these beginnings led to the book and other tools we hope will help entrepreneurs—and how writing a book has many parallels to a startup. But for now, we hope that understanding the genesis of the book and our origin story helps set the stage for our work helping founders and their supporters—YOU are the superheroes in our venture community.

So, superheroes – share your origin story in the comments below.