“Success has many fathers.”

When I was younger, my own father would always says this when he saw someone take credit for a team's victory. He'd laugh and tell me no one truly owns success.

When you’re on a winning team, it’s natural to believe that you were the difference maker. That without your contributions, the team would not have emerged victorious. This can lead to many people claiming credit for the win, even those who just happened to be along for the ride.

My younger self used to write it off as one of those “things dads say.” Now, I’m older and I’m a dad. I say those kinds of things. Having been on some winning teams, I get it.

Success can mislead in other ways. Beyond determining who is key to success, it is unclear what is most responsible. Attributing success to the wrong factors can be a grave miscalculation that leads you from the top of the mountain down a treacherous path.

The success paradox: The bigger the success, the harder it becomes to parse which inputs were most vital. Attempts to repeat success often lead to emphasizing the wrong factors.

I’ve experienced this cognitive dissonance firsthand. After being on the winning team that led Bleacher Report to a successful exit, I struck out on my own to build a new digital media company: Inverse.

My thesis was simple: take the successful playbook from BR, remove the superfluous aspects, and repeat the success in a more efficient way. In 2015, I launched Inverse with my confidence riding high. It turns out, though, that many of my assumptions were wrong. Since then, I’ve learned proven approaches to re-setting my thinking and avoiding the success paradox.

Organized chaos

Building startups is an insanely complex process. Founders start out with one central unifying vision, but that’s rarely where they end up. Most startup teams exist in a constant state of experimentation and iteration. Test and learn. Throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.

Over the course of vying for product-market fit, the team will test and optimize around many different theses. Layered on top of that, different team members often have competing ideas about which direction to go. They may need to execute a pivot. Or a series of course-corrections.

With the right combination of luck, timing, and ability, eventually things start to click and the business achieves liftoff. But if the entire concept of building a startup entails a massively chaotic multivariate test, how do the managers identify the actual reasons for success?

Oftentimes, they don’t. Sure, it’s easy to tell which ideas totally bombed, and to quickly axe them. But like with any split test, sometimes illusory short term gains lead the founders to draw the wrong conclusions.

Some people use the analogy of spinning plates to describe managing a startup. Others take the more pessimistic view of a house of cards. Whichever you choose, the implication is that creating a company out of nothing requires grace, delicate balance, and many tenuous but critical support structures to keep things upright. If the founders lose focus or remove a critical piece, the whole thing could come crashing down.

This fear of collapse creates the underlying conditions for the success paradox. Reluctant to make any sudden moves and upset their equilibrium, startup managers err on the side of caution. They take the approach: first, do no harm. If a process or function doesn’t detract from the growth of the company – and may potentially contribute to it – they decide to keep it around. Despite all the conventional wisdom about startups requiring relentless focus, the fear of losing balance can obscure founders' thinking. Better to waste a little effort to keep the plates spinning.

When a founder is fortunate enough to succeed, they'll probably be able to point to some key reasons for what got them there. But as they collapse in exhaustion at the finish line, they may not pause for a post-mortem analysis. If they do, they’ll find that their conclusions may differ from their co-founders, collaborators, and board. Even the acquiring company’s reason to buy could contradict the real keys to the victory. Over time, the startup’s story takes on its own mythology, divorced from reality. The success paradox sets in.

I know the success paradox well. I’ve fallen prey to its intoxicating effects. After building Bleacher Report to a massively positive outcome, I set out to repeat the cycle. I possessed a playbook to building a dynamic and profitable digital media company, and guiding it to an exit. With the added wisdom provided by age and experience, I believed I could avoid the wrong turns of the BR experience. I could eliminate waste and achieve a more efficient outcome. How wrong I was.

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