[Editor’s note: Spoilers for The Walking dead throughout.]
It’s bleak and we both know it — the kind of soul-crushing downer that goes way beyond “horror” and into something more existential and emotionally haunting.
The twists are exciting, sure, but it’s not so much the unexpected that scares us; it’s the stuff we saw coming… or (in retrospect) the stuff we should have seen coming. There’s happiness from time to time — bright triumphs of human spirit and social ingenuity — but if we’re honest, those moments, just like everything else, are short lived.
According to the Startup Genome Report, the survival rate for startups is a mere 10%. Put more starkly: 90% of all startups die within their first three years. (Oh, did you think we were talking about something else?)
As Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar and Veniam told Foundr Magazine: “Startups are really hard. Every successful one had terrible hurdles and setbacks that they had to overcome. These challenges are the norm and not unique to you and your startup.”
It’s bloody, sweaty, tear-filled work… but once you’re hooked, good luck turning away.
The question is: What do startups have to do with a pop-culture phenomenon like The Walking Dead?
Turns out, everything.
In fact, there are at least four lessons everybody’s favorite post-apocalyptic horror-scape can teach you about surviving as a startup. Here they are in all their unsettling glory.
Never fall into a coma (or get caught sleepin’)
Rick Grimes’ nightmare — like most zombieland protagonists — begins with a wake up. He’s alone, disoriented, and (as usual) oily. The world has changed, and not for the good.
The lesson here is obvious, but many startup founders still ignore it. Whether your niche is B2C, B2B, SaaS, or old-fashioned ecommerce doesn’t really matter — the world changes fast. Everyday a new technological evolution emerges: Drones, self-driving cars, holograms, dynamic online personalization, VR, AR, AI, and a host of other acronyms. And that doesn’t even factor in trends in the wider culture.
Daniel Marlin from Entrepreneur and the Huffington Post puts it like this: “The same rings true for the changing landscape of start-ups. Consumers evolve, corporate hierarchies adjust and sometimes cease to exist altogether in favour of a more dynamic structure.”
The best way to stay awake is to combine two approaches. First, take advantage of social-listening and online alert tools to systematize paying attention, both to your industry and pop-culture trends. Barring this automated approach, new developments will inevitably fall through the cracks.
Second, regardless of your niche, service, or product, do whatever you can to move towards an “agile” workflow. First used in car manufacturing and then applied to technological development, agile prioritizes iterative testing, runs on tight feedback loops that include real users, and puts decision making in the hands of the people who are closest to the problem being solved.
In truth, these two steps are the only way to ensure you don’t wake up to a future that’s passed you by or one that’s stalking your death.
Never hesitate to murder your darlings (even if it’s your mom)
In a show full of heart-wrenching scenes, few stand out like the death of Lori Grimes. Matricide is a bold move for any plot, but immediately after giving birth… well, brutal doesn’t really do it justice.
And yet, however brutal it may have been, one of the keys to surviving The Walking Dead is to do whatever’s necessary, when it’s necessary, sometimes to even those we hold most dear.
The same is true for startups.
Part of what fuels startups is the belief in an idea. Such belief is crucial when it comes to enduring the inevitable ups and downs that confront all founders. The trouble is that belief — especially dogmatic, hard-headed, “despite what everyone says I know it’s brilliant” — has a darkside you might not expect: Love.
When we come to love our ideas themselves, not the solutions they aim to offer, we become blind. We lost sight of what really matters: not products, not promotions, not methods… outcomes. In his 1913-1914 Cambridge lectures, “On the Art of Writing,” Arthur Quiller-Couch was the first to coin the phrase “murder your darlings,” and Stephen King took it one step further, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
As hard as it is to watch on the small screen, following that advice is even more difficult in the real world. Brittany Berger — head of content and PR at Mention — offers this advice as an antidote: “You need to remember that you do not matter. Separating myself from my work has been key in helping me make decisions based on business instead of emotion.”
Case in point, one of Brittany’s darlings was Mention’s weekly Twitter chat. As a social media startup, that makes perfect sense. The only problem was, it didn’t deliver any bottomline results. Popularity can fuel our egos — and certainly has a role to play in marketing and PR — but if it doesn’t deliver, it’s time to break out the machete.
37Signals’ founder Jason Fried nails this fundamental principle: “Start getting into the habit of saying no—even to many of your best ideas. Use the power of no to get your priorities straight. You rarely regret saying no. But you often wind up regretting saying yes.”
In other words, be ruthless with the ideas you love. The more you love them, the more dangerous they can become.
Never make a bad situation worse (and it can always get worse)
As disturbing as Carl Grimes’s matricide was, Season 7’s premiere — “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” — took it to a whole new level. After the long-awaited arrival of Negan, Abraham’s folksie, profanity-laced wisdom was the first to fall victim to “Lucielle.”
Bad situation? Yes. But does it gets worse? Indeed.
In a fit of justified outrage, everybody’s favorite unfortunate son, Daryl Dixon, rises up. He can’t help himself, and we get it. Unfortunately all the righteous indignation in the world won’t help when you’re outnumbered and outgunned. Driven back to the gravel, we wait for the hammer — or, more accurately, the bat — to drop.
However, in lieu of Daryl, Glenn is the second to go (complete with some serious eye-bulging and character-breaking guilt for Daryl).
The lesson? No matter how bad a situation is, our tempers, resentments, fears, and especially our mouths can always make it far worse. What’s more, the stress levels inherent to startups makes this an even more pressing concern.
Lively discussion is one thing. And fostering a culture of disagreement is essential. But those two ingredients only take shape in the shadow of another: Safety. Combining two unlikely sources — the first cast of Saturday Night Live and Google — Charles Duhigg calls attention to the crying need of safety in successful organizations: “[M]ost important, teams need psychological safety. To create psychological safety… team leaders needed to model the right behaviors.”
These behaviors include deceptively subtle habits like not interrupting team members, ensuring everyone has equal time to participate, and — especially — calling out intergroup conflicts and resolving them through “open discussion.” Notice that each is about what leaders don’t say, biting their tongues and pushing back against their own knee-jerk reactions.
It’s obvious you don’t want to be a Negan-style leader, but the Daryl’s inside all of us are far more likely to make things go from bad to worse within a startup.
Never go in alone (ever)
While the previous lessons all come from some specific high points in The Walking Dead, we could easily locate this one in every episode ever. Dodging zombies might get you out a sticky situation now and then, but finding food, fire, shelter, weapons, medicine, and transportation is not a single player sport. And that doesn’t even include the threat that comes from other people.
Simply put: If you go in alone… you’re not coming out.
As with zombies, so with startups. Launching a successful product or service is just the first fight. You also have to develop sales, marketing, and public relations as well as run bookkeeping, accounting and finance. There’s funding, operations, hiring and firing, building and then maintaining QA on a website, customer service, and — most daunting — scaling. The list goes on and on and on.
In the words of Leonard Kim, one of Inc. Magazines top digital and youth marketers: “If you’re thinking of doing a startup yourself, then you have absolutely no clue what you’re in store for. I’ve spent most my adult life doing startups and and if I can admit I don’t know how to do so many of these things, then it’s okay for you to do the same.”
Admitting our ignorance doesn’t just apply to teams, it also applies to partners. After getting burnt early on in his career by a bad choice, Mashable contributor Josh Steimle took a hardline and decided to go it alone in his own agency. As he explains: “I struggled for the next 10 years, never really getting anywhere. Finally, in 2013 I relented and brought in a partner. A year later revenue was three times larger than it had ever been before because I invested in the right person that excelled where I couldn’t.”
More than just “surviving”
Of course, at the end of the day, you want your startup to do more than just outlast the 90% who don’t make it. You also want to thrive.
How? By paying close attention to what might at first appear to be an unlikely source: The Walking Dead. First, stay awake to trends and innovations. Second, say no even to your most-loved ideas. Third, cultivate safety instead of making bad situations worse. And fourth, surround yourself with people who can address your own weakness.
There’s no denying it’s bloody, sweaty, tear-filled work. Robin Chase was right: “Challenges are the norm.” But if Maggie Rhee can bring new life into an all but dead world… so can you.