July 22nd, 2017
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
There is one more level of root cause analysis that we can do. Why did we pick a bad market and optimize the product for the wrong metrics?
When I was a little kid I wanted to build my own radio. I made a box out of plywood, threw some metal junk inside, and connected the box to a power cord. I had books on electronics at home, but didn’t think I needed them – I had unwavering faith that I could do it on my own. Eventually I did build a working receiver, but it took me years to finally realize I needed to learn basic electronics.
Early RethinkDB was quite a bit like that. We had no intuition for products or markets, so we’d go through the motions of building a company without actually understanding what we were doing. What’s more, we had enormous optimism bias. Just like physicians know that gifts from pharmaceutical companies have biasing effects for other physicians but believe they are immune from the effect, we believed we were immune from the laws of economics and the math of running a business. The math, of course, eventually caught up with us.
Could we have done anything to avoid these mistakes? Not any more than I could have built a working radio as a little kid. We were unconsciously incompetent, and it took years for that incompetence to become conscious.
A few people pointed out that we would have done better if we had built an experienced go-to-market team. That’s 100% true, but the timing of our personal development didn’t line up with the needs of the company. Initially we didn’t know we needed go-to-market expertise, so we didn’t seek to include it on the founding team. By the time we built up a mental model that maps well to reality, we found ourselves short on cash, in a difficult market filled with capable competitors, and a product that’s three years behind. By then, the best go-to-market team in the world couldn’t have saved us.