[Amy] Hey babe, should we consider looking at apartments in Los Altos instead of closer to your office in Palo Alto?
[Me] It depends.
[Amy] Depends Diapers!
Amy is my wife—for the record, she is not a consumer of the totally legitimate Kimberly-Clark adult diaper product— and in addition to addressing me as ‘babe’ in the majority of our dialogues, she has also developed this lovable automated response whenever I reply to a question with, “It depends.”
This humorous little exchange happens at least weekly in our marriage, every time catching me a bit off guard. Amy’s quip is a guaranteed laugh (it is hard not to chuckle when an image of a fully grown adult in diapers pops into your mind mid-conversation), but, surprisingly, it has also engendered a helpful pause when I am tempted to lazily defer judgment through replying, “It depends.” This simple reminder has taught me during five years of our marriage to be willing to put a stake in the ground and pick a side when discussing issues, important or minor, with Amy or with others. Amy has successfully trained me on a wide variety of helpful fronts, but the discipline of expressing a clear-cut opinion might be my favorite.
Trouble is, my Founder’s Dilemma class at Harvard Business School is threatening to upend all of Amy’s instruction and years of hard work. We have been studying how founders put together the first pieces of a new startup—founding team, business model, MVP, capital, term sheets, etc. Of course, we are operating within the famous HBS Case Method, so the 80 minutes of classroom time is riddled with questions. And that prickly little phrase keeps popping up. What’s most troubling is that everyone, including Professor Ghosh himself (see here for credentials), not only seems okay with “It Depends,” but also the class is commonly encouraged to embrace the notion that there is no right answer. Here are some of the questions to which “It Depends” was a valid response.
Should I agree to sign up this new customer who is offering my startup a huge contract?
Should I ask my coding-savvy HBS sectionmate to be a co-founder of my startup?
My wife is a rock star and would be perfect for this open position at my startup. Can I hire her?
If the startup is based on my idea, how much equity should I offer my co-founder?
I’ve been offered $1 million of funding. Should I take it?
My business has basically no customers, no cash, and a product with poor reviews. Everyone is telling me to quit. What should I do?
If you are at a startup, these are big, important questions, right? And they deserve a simple, black-and-white sort of answer, don’t you think? At least I thought they did. But as I sit in class and discuss real life examples of entrepreneurs wrestling with these issues, I am finding myself increasingly comfortable with the idea that it really does depend. It depends on lots of things. The business of starting a business is tough. And risky. And filled with gray area and so many unanswerable questions. There are no rules. And I guess I am learning that is okay.
So while I wish there were a “Startups for Dummies” manual with surefire Xs and Os for launching a new business, I know that if in fact that book does exist (whoa—it actually does and is on its 3rd edition), it probably has not sold too many copies. At least not to successful entrepreneurs.
So do I think I will be a founder of a startup one day?