Startup Advice from George Costanza: Do The Opposite

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Startup Advice from George Costanza: Do The Opposite


The Seinfeld fans out there will clearly recognize the reference to "the opposite" episode.  Basically, George tries to change his life by going against his natural instincts and doing the exact opposite.  [For the fanatics out there, I think this is Episode #86, aired May 19, 1994.

Here are a couple of clips from the episode:

George : Why did it all turn out like this for me? I had so much promise. I was personable, I was bright. Oh, maybe not academically speaking, but ... I was perceptive. I always know when someone's uncomfortable at a party. It became very clear to me sitting out there today, that every decision I've ever made, in my entire life, has been wrong. My life is the opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have, in every of life, be it something to wear, something to eat ... It's all been wrong.

Jerry : If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.

George : Yes, I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing, and regret it for the rest of the day, so now I will do the opposite, and I will do...something.

As it turns out, this "do the opposite" strategy works out for George.  Things start working out for him.  By going against his natural instincts, he ends up doing things "right".  He's noticed.  He comes off as being different. 

So, what does this all mean for startups?  Well, I've found that often "doing the opposite" (zigging when others are zagging) can actually work.  Conversely, if you take the tried and true path of others (like your competitors), in your best case scenario, you kind of wind up where most startups wind up -- in an unhappy place.  Why not try to be different?

A few examples to mull over:

A Startup Doing The Opposite

VC funding negotiation:  Tell the VC:  "We don't know what the pre-money valuation should be.  You have a better sense than we do about this.  We're not looking for the highest "price".  We just want a fair deal and a board member that is not a jerk.  You seem like you're smart and not a jerk.."

Recruiting early employees:  If you're just looking to make a lot of money, this is probably not the place.  Sure, we're going to give you some options but nobody knows what those are going to be worth (including the founders and the investors).  We all work our butts-off and make less money than we could likely do otherwise.  We all must have some sort of genetic flaw that makes us do this.  If you have that genetic flaw too, you'd probably enjoy it here. 

Early customer conversation:  Yeah, the software kind of sucks but we use it ourselves and it does do useful things.  Why am I charging you to be a beta tester?  Although your input is priceless, we think it just distorts the relationship for you to get it for free.  If you're a paying customer, we're going to kill ourselves to make you happy. 

The idea is to be honest, direct and surprise people by taking an approach that they're not used to seeing.  A lot of times this may fall flat -- but lots of things fall flat anyways.  Why not try it? 

By the way, each of the examples above are based on reality from my own startup adventure

So, next time you're in a situation go against your instincts to "spin" things and be super-sophisticated.  Just do the opposite!

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Wed, Jul 02, 2008


My 'opposite' was actually starting and coding rather than just thinking about it... seems to be working ;)

posted on Wednesday, July 02, 2008 at 1:55 PM by pedalpete

So true, specially the VC funding part. For early-stage startups, nobody has a clue of what the valuation is anyway, so we definately can stand out from the crowd by not pretending we have it figured out.  
I happened to meet one person recently that has raised money this year mostly by his 'opposite' way of approaching the VCs.

posted on Wednesday, July 02, 2008 at 3:32 PM by Eric Santos

I always use that 'opposite' way to getting early stage employees, and it's worked very well for us. 
Also tried the 'opposite' approach with VCs, but that mostly resulted in them politely trying to explain that if I want to play I had better learn the rules... 

posted on Wednesday, July 02, 2008 at 3:39 PM by Elad Kehat

This is a funny post. 
A problem with Seinfeld's hypothesis is sometimes instincts are neither right nor wrong (like perspectives), in which case, the opposites can be neither wrong nor right ;). 
Also, beware, VCs (who haven't realized the power of "the opposite") might be reading this post and will now come to know of a "technique" exploited by some, to succeed with them.

posted on Wednesday, July 02, 2008 at 7:34 PM by Kedar Mhaswade

what next? customer service strategy advice from The Fonz? please try harder......

posted on Thursday, July 03, 2008 at 7:24 AM by ertert

Don't listen to the naysayers, Dharmesh. I love the link to George Costanza's secret to success. We all to often just fumble along doing what comes easily and sticking to what's expected of us. Why not try George's advice and see if it works in your situation? One never knows...

posted on Thursday, July 03, 2008 at 12:01 PM by Anthony Kuhn

This post reminds me of the pig going to the complaint department to complain, "I wish I was taller." 
I think what's interesting about "doing the opposite" is typically we're trying to deceive people. So if we're telling the VC that we don't know what our valuation is, we're being truthful and people know and appreciate this, so next time you're presented with a situation, tell the truth, we all know George has a huge problem with this!

posted on Tuesday, July 08, 2008 at 7:19 AM by Andrew Wise

Personally, I think direct honesty is a good filter for talent. Those that can't handle it are usually the ones that never move outside their comfort zones and end up with a deathbed of regrets. The Bullworth principle, perhaps?

posted on Tuesday, July 08, 2008 at 4:14 PM by Boston Bachelor

Dharmesh, another classic post. You never mentioned whether you tried this yourself. Have you? 
What about opposites for fundamentals and common sense things?  
Doing a business plan, user testing, etc? 

posted on Wednesday, July 09, 2008 at 12:28 PM by John Stack

Very true, I've been living this concept for the last 12 years or so (no I never saw the episode of Seinfeld you mentioned) I just realized that I was not taking enough risk in my endeavors and sought to change that by doing things that for what ever reason, I feared. The first instinct is normally to run from something you don't understand, I have learned to embrace it. The sooner you attack it, the sooner you do understand it and can use that knowledge to tackle even more difficult fears.  
With regard to my start up, a recent "opposite" choice I made was to forgo VC and Angel funding searches after only a few days and just bootstrapping my site. Here I am 3 months on from that decision and weeks away from live servers, what seemed impossible to do by myself just 3 months ago is done.  
A living testament to attacking your doubts and fears directly the moment they present rather than doing the safe thing. 
Good post!

posted on Thursday, July 10, 2008 at 12:38 AM by David Saintloth

I really like your early customer conversation. I got into validation because I have no tolerance for **** as a customer. I give you money--you better become my best friend, if you ever want to see more. So, yeah, you just gave me a sound reason to pay money for an (initially) weak product. 

posted on Thursday, July 10, 2008 at 10:47 AM by Nathan Zook

I agree with dabdinoor. Being in opposite direction only works when majority on natural trends. In stock market 5% are gainers and 95% are loosers. Natural tendency is to lean toward 95%, which is wrong, that means you cant make profit. Hence, doing exactly the opposite makes you belong to 5% category. The theory also supports turning lucks (from bad to good or vice versa)..

posted on Thursday, July 24, 2008 at 2:34 PM by Raman Basu

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