Enjoying the Bear Hug of Uncertainty

By Kerrie McCarthy

This week, at the Startup Institute, we were given two important but equally jarring facts:

-Nine out of ten startups fail.

-If you wait until you have all of the data, your customers will be dead.

Uncertainty is an inherent, if not often unwelcome part of life, but for those who work in startups it suffuses the entire environment with a frenetic energy that can be overwhelming for the inexperienced. As we attempt to sharpen or even develop our skills at SIB, the utility and ubiquity of deep uncertainty in the startup world is regularly the lesson du jour.

Students came to SIB from far and near with varying motives. But the one thing they have in common may be their willingness to embrace uncertainty with open arms. As we sit in Harvard’s well-apportioned iLab and learn at the hands of Boston’s entrepreneurs, it is clear we have much to learn. For Gordon Alemao, a student in the Technical Marketing track,  the program represents an opportunity to better understand the specific tools integral to helping startups succeed. Gordon shared that, “one of the biggest things that I identified as one of my faults was not understanding specifically what type of marketing was used in the tech world.” The desire to have this knowledge is a manifestation of the growing interest in working in the startup world and creative economy on the part of today’s graduates.

Even as unemployment rates remain high, people continue to seek out work at startups where they feel, like myself, that their impact will be bigger than at a much larger or more established organization. The risks are real, but the chance to contribute is one these students are willing to spend six otherwise employable weeks working towards. According to student Kelly McDonald, “If you want to join a small startup, training and resources are limited; you need to shorten the learning curve. The Startup Institute Boston will help me hit the ground running.” In a time where pragmatism would dictate chasing after every free dollar, the Startup Institute brings into its doors those willing to forgo the likely paycheck and seek out an experience with many possible outcomes and a potentially more rewarding path.

Coming from a risk-averse background, I’ve found it to be a bit of a  process, adjusting to this environment that encourages running headlong into uncertainty. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a scary experience, but I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t like it. Embracing uncertainty is a skill too often eschewed for the security of a known quantity and a plan. Being comfortable with unknowns is what sets innovators, startups and great people apart.  As Robert Krulwich espoused in his 2011 commencement speech to Berkeley’s Journalism School, those who “don’t wait,” are able to find success by simply diving into what it is they want to do. Startups and their employees must similarly release themselves from the information-gathering process and “do” as early as possible, despite that there may be much they still do not know. Over the next 6 weeks, I look forward to learning alongside my classmates how to set aside my inclinations to control the world around me and give a bear hug to uncertainty.