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August 20, 2021

Operating with a process-based mindset

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Startup
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Philosophy

As a startup founder, everything is about the outcome. Your investors ask about your metrics, your friends ask about how many users you have, people you interview ask about how much money you raised, and your parents ask about how much money your company makes. Everything is centered around the outcome of building a startup — i.e., money, users, customers, etc.

But a startup's journey is not linear. In fact, quite the opposite. It's more like a rollercoaster, with crests and troughs.

Days are filled with a full range of emotions — from exhilaration because you got your first customer to dejection when things aren't going your way. It's very emotional, and it is vital to have a co-founder or someone to share these emotions with. I got lucky because my co-founder, Jonathan, and I always have open conversations about how we feel. Many people neglect to understand the mental state of a founder, when in fact, it is one of the biggest catalysts to their output and performance.

Because everything is so output and outcome-based, when things go your way, it's incredible. You tell your investors about your hockey-stick growth, send your friends a screenshot of active users on your site, and share these achievements with your parents. This stems from wanting to succeed in life — it's what makes you feel powerful and in control. Inversely, that's usually not the case. 95% of startups fail to build something people want. And since everything is framed around outcome in our industry, there is self-doubt, shame, stress, anxiety, and imposter syndrome associated when things don't go your way. You start to believe that your outcome defines you as a person. If your company fails, then you are a failure.

That's what I struggled with for a while; I defined my entire self-worth based on my success, performance, and outcome. But it's what we've been taught all of our lives. We were born in a capitalist outcome-based world. To some extent, it's good because it pushes people to work hard and be rewarded for their impact on the world — capitalism is really good at that. But, on the other hand, we build our lives and careers off of an ideology which will inevitably lead us to our own collapse and downfall.

How do we expect to create impact, build valuable products, and generate wealth with a rocky foundation? I love building products, creating things that make people happier, more content, and satisfied, yet I occasionally find myself in the utter misery of self-doubt, stress, and anxiety. All because I didn't hit a 7% WoW growth rate? All because I cold-called a few customers, and they hung up? All because I fucked up during my pitch? Operating with an outcome-based mindset is insidious.

Instead, we need to approach building companies from a process-based mindset. Before you start judging, know that being process-driven and outcome-driven aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. However, I see a process-based mindset (to building companies) at the foundation of building companies that create massive value, both for your users and stakeholders, such as investors.

A process-based mindset (as it sounds) focuses on the process rather than the outcome. When you're operating with a process-based mindset, you are open to making mistakes, learning, optimizing, tinkering, and inevitably influencing the outcome of your work in a positive way. When the focus is on the process, you are open to sharing both your wins and your failures. There is stigma for failing in our society. Failing fucking sucks, but it is a crucial component that leads to success. Failure teaches you what doesn't work, so you can narrow down on what does.

With a process-based mindset, you welcome the possibility of misdirection and mishaps. You don't run from it — you embrace it because it is part of company building. And if someone is shaming you for failing or you fear retribution for making a mistake, realize that this is toxic. How can we empower people to innovate if we don't give them the space to fail? When the goal is making x money, and reaching x number of users, it's shortsighted. Building a company is a long-term game — it's similar to chess because you're playing for the checkmate, not just the pawns. You might have to sacrifice your queen, but the queen is just a piece to help you get closer to delivering that checkmate.

With a process-based mindset, you stay nimble and keep your mind open to changing directions. You bounce back from the troughs of something not working because you understand that operating with a process-oriented mindset will lead you to the outcome you desire. Focusing on the process makes you fucking happy because then you're not worried about why you didn't get 50,000 users. In fact, you're curious to discover how you can get to that outcome. And when you're curious, you go above and beyond, regardless of the outcome — it inspires you. Operating with an outcome-based mindset does not.

I don't expect people to agree with how I think about company building, but focusing more on the process than the outcome has been a big revelation for me in the past few months. Why feel miserable only because you didn't hit that key milestone today? So what if you experiment a little more today and hit that goal tomorrow? Who is defining these arbitrary timelines for you (us)?

One common ideology people have is that operating with a process-based mindset makes you complacent. However, I feel otherwise. I believe it makes you more resilient as a person. You don't take mistakes too personally. You don't aim for 100% accuracy in every single decision you make. You don't lull over what you could have done better. You don't live in dogma and fear of what your investors will think. Your emphasis on seeking external validation from your friends and family shrinks. You can operate with a level of autonomy, fearlessness, and enthusiasm that you otherwise wouldn't if you simply operate with an outcome-based mindset.

I am playing the long-term game. I am not building a company for the next 2-3 years — I am trying to build a decade-long company. For that, I need to normalize failure for myself. I need to emphasize the process of building and discovery. If I focus on the process, then I have decided to live with the outcome. That doesn't mean I'll be complacent. It means that I will fucking try my best. But instead of viewing the outcome as a reflection of your self-worth and capability, you can see it from the lens of curiosity, growth, and learning through a process-based mindset. And that mode of thinking is indispensable for anyone running a company right now.

Keshav Narula
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