I recently came across a post by Aaron Harris, a partner at Y Combinator, entitled Things that aren’t progress. In his post, Aaron gives several examples of activities that founders engage in that give the feeling of progress, without actually taking you forward. Examples include being mentioned in the press, winning awards, getting into elite conferences, and fundraising.
I think that a more nuanced take is necessary. None of these activities are bad in and of themselves. In fact, each of these activities can be the natural result of making progress. If customers love your product and you grow fast, the press is likely to catch on, you’re likely to be invited to conferences and may even win an award, and you’re likely to have a lot of funding offers on the table.
The problem doesn’t lie in the activities, but in whether these activities are the natural result of reaching your goals or goals in and of themselves. If these activities take place as a result of you building a great product that’s scaling fast, you should welcome them. However, if you’re actively seeking to engage in these activities, in other words if these activities become goals in and of themselves, there’s a problem. In that case, your goal changes from building a successful business to maintaining the appearance of having built a successful business. The more you do of the latter, the less time you have for the former.
As an investor, I watch out for signs that a founder is spending too much time maintaining the appearance of success. It’s a great leading indicator for the eventual actual success, or lack thereof, of the company.