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Are You A Hedgehog? Or Are You A Fox?

CULTURE can be considered the fabric that holds the team, vision and processes in organizations . Most of the literature out there on organizational culture is focused on big business. Thankfully a lot more people are starting to pay attention to how one builds culture in a startup/small company. Something I believe is of great importance to culture is the ‘mindset’ factor in building culture in startups. One idea for startup mindsets that I’m coming to like, and is already being preached unintentionally is the ‘Hedgehog vs. Fox’ concept. I discovered this reading ‘The Million Dollar Parrot’, a fascinating book on mindsets.

The 1950’s philosopher Isaiah Berlin, in one of his essays, divided writers and thinkers into two categories: Hedgehogs and Foxes. At it’s simplest form those who view the world through a single defining idea are Hedgehogs and those who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to one single overriding idea are termed Foxes. It’s not that one is better or worse than the other. They are just different. Applied to Entrepreneurs, Steve Wozniak (Apple) and Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway) would be Hedgehogs while Jack Dorsey (Square and Twitter) and Richard Branson (Virgin Group of Companies) would be considered Foxes.

Nicholas Kristof (Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times) applied this same hedgehog/fox analogy to financial experts in 2009. But his spin on it was that the prevailing mindset of experts in an industry drives how things get done in that industry. So if the experts in a sector are all ‘hedgehogs’ (single idea pursued with a strong conviction) then most up coming non-experts in that space will start to think the same way. Imagine a case where the ‘experts’ are charlatans and what the effect will be on the up and comers in that space…

We don’t need to make a great leap to apply how experts work to the startup space. First time entrepreneurs (like any newbie) listen to those who ‘know more than we do’ and proceed to frame our own decisions from the experts’ worldview. We might even start to make our plans based on the experts’ guidelines and frameworks. And, we inadvertently become students of a particular ideology or perspective – for better or worse.

To avoid ‘startups are supposed to be a certain way’ groupthink I’d suggest founders

-       Dig to the core of who you are as a founder and clarify what your value systems are. Ignore the experts at this stage. You mustn’t lie to yourself.

-       Communicate this to your co-founders and team. I can assure you that those who don’t share your values won’t stay with you on the journey

-       Do a regular ‘value check’ to help you stay the course because startup events or milestones will make you lose sight of what type of company you are trying to build.

Be your own Hedgehog. Or your own Fox. Just don’t do it because you feel expert startup folk are telling you to become a hedgehog or a fox. The experts won’t help you run your startup or clean up your mistakes. You will…maybe with the experts help but it’s really all on you.

Ps: Another point for startups is that in the early days of any venture the most likely way to succeed is to focus on one thing and ‘look at the world’ through the lenses of this problem you are trying to solve with your startup.  You become a hedgehog. Only that way can you totally understand the need that the customers have and hence solve their issue e.g. help customers find cheaper electricity suppliers or sell shaving sticks like Dollar Shave Club.

Only when you get a critical mass of customers, and can start to play about with additional ways to provide value outside of the initial premise, do you start to play the part of a fox. At this point you can look at the world through the many lenses your customers can be viewed through e.g. you sell your customers laptops and modems for wireless connectivity or run a department store.

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