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The Black Hole

The role of intuition and luck when starting a company

A startup company should only be focused on one idea at a time and learning to trust your gut when making decisions will help your team stay on track.


Last month, I was an invited lecturer in a workshop on innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership held by the International Mentoring Foundation for the Advancement of Higher Education (IMFAHE). While this session was very well received, the discussion that ensued was particularly insightful and warrants exploring.

The first of these posts can be found here:

I have paraphrased questions raised in the post-workshop discussion for succinctness and clarity and included my responses below.

“Why did you choose to start a new company rather than building a second theme in your existing company, taking advantage of the reputation you’d already achieved?”

Fundamentally, a company is a vehicle to execute an idea – ideally one idea, sometimes a second one too. A third or fourth idea can become very distracting to a company because they often compete for the same resources. As a result, there is a serious risk that every subsequent idea a founder introduces into a company will prohibit the team from operating at full efficiency on its existing ideas, which makes the team less likely to succeed.

A company, especially at early stages, needs to succeed, and do so very quickly. Anything that distracts it or consumes resources unnecessarily puts the company at risk; and there is already a tremendous amount of risk associated with any core vision. Risk is not additive, it’s multiplicative  and it is generally better to wait until the company has already succeeded at its core vision and consider a second idea as a follow-up rather than run two ideas in parallel. If it’s time-sensitive –which was the case for me – it’s also better to create a new vehicle for that idea. As a company is being built, its founder is instrumental and necessary for the company’s core success. But as you start building up the team, you should ensure that the company is not reliant on any single person. If you are successful at this, you should be able to step away without affecting the ability of the company to perform.

“What is the role of intuition and luck when creating a startup?”

There is always an element of luck, but what I consider luck is a combination of circumstance and preparation. There may be opportunities presented to you, and everyone has opportunities at one time or another, but being prepared to capitalize on them is what a lot of us refer to as luck. It is important to recognize what you can be doing now to work towards that end.

In terms of intuition: this is about trusting your gut. Intuition is a combination of your experiences and quick calculations that you are making on the spot around a set of circumstances. Unfortunately, when you are more junior and your intuition is telling you to do or not do something, you don’t know whether that intuition is good or bad yet. You will not know until you start acting on it. Once you have more history and experiences under your belt – especially if those are positive experiences – you will start to recognize good outcomes and learn how to increasingly trust your intuition. Conversely, if you have more negative results, you can look back and realize you might need to dig in and think about things more before jumping to conclusions. That takes time, so make that first decision when it feels right. Keep making decisions and you will begin to see a pattern in the outcomes that will help develop your intuition.

Jonathan Thon
Jonathan Thon is a serial entrepreneur and founding CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon founded Stellular Bio where he served as CEO and chief scientific officer. Before Stellular Bio, Dr. Thon was an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
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