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The Paradox of Overconfidence and Start-up Founding

Daniel Dippold
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Daniel Dippold
The Paradox of Overconfidence and Start-up Founding

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In the unpredictable realm of start-ups, there's a paradox I've witnessed time and again: the dangerous yet absolutely essential dance with overconfidence. Why might the very trait labeled as 'foolish' be the secret weapon for every budding entrepreneur? The paradoxical part is: It is both stupid and indispensable to be overconfident in building your venture. 

The Perception Gap

Entrepreneurs' unwavering faith in their ideas and their capability to disrupt industries is the fuel that brings start-ups into existence. However, their overconfidence can blur their judgment, making them misjudge potential returns and the likelihood of achieving them; usually they’re way off in estimating these chances.

In fact, I found through a personal experiment that while 80% of entrepreneurs believe their startups will thrive or be sold, the truth is that nearly 90% of startups fail. This disparity between entrepreneurial optimism and the stark reality of business is profound. Daniel Kahneman and Dan Lovallo delve deep into this subject in their Harvard Business Review article titled ”Delusions of Success: How Optimism Undermines Executives’ Decisions.”  Here is one section that I want to quote directly:

“Consider a survey of 1 million students conducted by the College Board in the 1970s. When asked to rate themselves in comparison to their peers, 70% of the students said they were above average in leadership ability, while only 2% rated themselves below average. For athletic prowess, 60% saw themselves above the median, 6% below. When assessing their ability to get along with others, 60% of the students judged themselves to be in the top decile, and fully 25% considered themselves to be in the top 1%.”

The Size of the Perception Gap

Overconfidence often manifests itself in entrepreneurs' perceptions of their target markets. An overconfident entrepreneur is more likely to overestimate the market size, sometimes by a factor of 100. Such miscalculations can lead to flawed strategies and unrealistic projections, setting the stage for potential failure. On the other hand, they might also attract investors - I’ll get to that in a second.

The Illusion of Trading Success

A fascinating trading paradox is explored in Nassim Taleb's book, “Fooled by Randomness”. He claims that traders celebrated as the best might actually be the worst. Just like going all in on a poker hand, they gamble big and sometimes with a stroke of luck, they win big. And when they do, they’re often praised far and wide by the media and even make it to bestseller books.

Burton Malkiel, explained this nicely in his 1973 book, "A Random Walk Down Wall Street." He argued that, "A monkey throwing darts at a newspaper's financial pages could pick a portfolio that would do just as well as one carefully selected by experts." This argument was a cornerstone in his promotion of broad market index funds and passive investment strategies over active management. 

Imagine you've got 1,000 monkeys, each given a coin to flip in order to decide whether to buy or sell stocks. A coin toss, after all, is essentially a 50/50 chance and often quite similar to the chance of a stock rising or falling in value within a certain time frame. 

Now, let's run through some rounds. After the first round of trades, roughly half, or 500 monkeys, get it right by pure chance. You allow these 500 winners to continue trading.

In the next round, again, about half (250 monkeys) keep their winning streak alive purely by the whims of chance. You keep going like this, allowing the successful monkeys to trade, and after several rounds, the numbers whittle down. 

From the initial 250, you get about 125 winners, then 64, and so on, until you're left with one monkey that, by pure luck, made the right trading calls every single time. The monkey got it right 10 times in a row, a 1/1000 chance (1/1024 to be precise). 

So, despite the appearance of a flawless track record, our primate friend was not applying some superior trading strategy – it was all just the roll of the dice -and as the dice continue to roll, even our star monkey trader can't escape the inevitable downturn of fortune.

This will also eventually haunt superstar traders. Over time, high-risk tactics usually lead to big losses. The market follows a power-law distribution – meaning those big wins are just part of the game, not the rule. It's worth remembering: spectacular success doesn't always mean long-term success. Sometimes, it's just a setup for an even more spectacular fall.

If we draw an analogy to entrepreneurship, anyone who’s at least rational enough to understand the thoughts outlined above should never-ever start a company. Of course, some people win the start-up game, call themselves unicorn founders as a consequence, and are celebrated by the media. But they - just as every other entrepreneur - are a corollary of heavy-tailed distributions, created with certainty by pure chance, not because of their outstanding abilities. 

The Upsides of Overconfidence

Certainly, here's a more straightforward and Grade 9-level flow:

Trading and entrepreneurship aren't exactly the same. While both involve risks and rewards, the way they work is different. In trading, you're choosing stocks and hoping they do well, but you don't have control over how those companies perform. Experts like Kahneman have shown that beating the stock market consistently is not possible.

But when you're an entrepreneur, it's a different story. Being overly confident might not be a good thing in trading, but in entrepreneurship, it can lead to positive outcomes. Here are a few ways overconfidence can actually help entrepreneurs:

Attracting Investors

Overconfident entrepreneurs, characterized by their unwavering belief in their ventures, have a higher likelihood of securing funding. "The Influence of Entrepreneurs' Expressed Passion on Perceptions of New Venture Potential" by Baum and Locke (2004) indicates that entrepreneurs' level of passion and enthusiasm can significantly influence investors' perceptions of a new venture's potential and viability. It's also been my experience that an entrepreneur’s confidence can be infectious, persuading me to believe in their vision and back their start-ups.

Attracting Employees and Customers

The same principle applies to employees and customers. I’ve seen many incredible entrepreneurs sell products that didn’t even exist, and then build them in late night sessions after they’ve been sold. Reid Hoffman once said, "Entrepreneurs jump off a cliff and build a plane on the way down." You must be immensely overconfident to do this.

The Willingness to Pivot

Overconfidence in the start-up realm is also linked with adaptability. An article by Yinghao Zhang titled, "Serial Entrepreneurs: Are They Better? - A View from Information Asymmetry and Sequence of Ventures", suggests that overconfidence can create a greater willingness to pivot and adapt to new market conditions.

Navigating the Overconfidence Paradox

The relationship between overconfidence and start-up founding is complex. It's a paradox where overconfidence can lead to miscalculations and failure but can also inspire resilience, innovation, and attract investment, customers, and employees. 

Firstly, the decision to found a start-up should be made with a clear understanding of the statistics and the high rate of failure. Yet, once that decision is made, the focus should shift towards making the venture successful. Embrace overconfidence, ignore the potential downsides, and give the venture your all. 

Secondly, overconfidence, when blended with a dash of realism, can lead an entrepreneurial venture towards success. Entrepreneurs must, in my opinion, embrace a sort of pragmatic schizophrenia. They should foster two coexisting personas: one that is visionary and optimistic, the other cautious and grounded in reality.

When engaging with customers, investors, and employees, it falls to the entrepreneur to create an inspiring yet plausible vision of the future. Their role is to make this vision appear on the horizon and to steer the collective march towards it. At the same time, the entrepreneur needs to anticipate and plan for unexpected twists and turns, embodying a sense of vigilance that borders on paranoia to mitigate potential risks.

Consider the fundraising stage: successful entrepreneurs strive to secure substantial funds, demonstrating grand ambitions and vision. Simultaneously, they are mindful of their financial footing, careful not to overstep their liquidity buffers. It is one thing to illustrate an optimistic future, but another to mistake this projection for the present reality, ignoring any risk. It's this balance of ambition and prudence. When looking deeper and distinguishing between two components in overconfidence - vision and naivety - the paradox fades and we’re left with a recipe for entrepreneurial success.

What I recommend is to focus on portraying healthy optimism, confidence, and vision when talking to investors, customers, and employees. However, when you are just with yourself and reflect on your own actions and your venture, be as realistic and reflected as you can possibly be. This combination of vision and humility makes the world’s best founders. We all know how ambitious and visionary Elon Musk can be: millions of people have questioned Tesla’s valuation and Musk’s ability to execute on his bold plans. What makes him such a strong founder, in my opinion, is that he balances this with a borderline crazy need for execution and reflection. 

About the Author | 

Daniel Dippold

Daniel Dippold

I've built Emoti, which measured emotional intelligence based on sound-waves, Unlimitix, an emotionally-savvy AI-coach that helps you lose weight, EWOR, a global school and platform making the process of founding and leading a venture more easy and accessible ar, and Sigma Squared Society, the world's largest community of young entrepreneurs under 26. I consult bigger corporations and (local) governments to harness the power of data and deploy practically useful machine learning and artificial intelligence applications (see https://newnow.group).

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