The Habits of Successful People: Be Inconsistent

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eraserThis is the second article in our new series with advice on building a business, company culture and life-hacking from Joel, CEO here at Buffer. You can grab all posts here.

Recently 37signals published an article titled Some advice from Jeff Bezos. This wasn’t your usual advice, and I found it interesting to read and how familiar it felt as I read each next line. The post was all about “changing your mind”. The way I would describe the overall theme, is “inconsistency”. Here’s the key part of the post, paraphrased:

People who are right a lot of the time, are people who often change their mind. Consistency of thought is not a particularly positive trait.

I find this fascinating, because one of the biggest challenges I’ve found as a founder for the last few years is the times when I change my mind, when have a realisation and I become inconsistent on a thought I previously had. This is amplified as your startup grows, because you have users, co-workers and stakeholders who you are in touch with who are there to witness and be affected by your inconsistency.

Success and inconsistency

If you’re part of a startup, I believe that your success might actually be defined by whether you are willing to be inconsistent. This means that actually changing your mind is not just a good trait as Jeff Bezos has mentioned, but “staying consistent” might actually be the reason your startup fails. I think this also probably applies to a much wider context than startups: I think your success might be determined by how willing you are to be inconsistent.

The reason you need to let go of consistency at times, is because as a founder you need to act and move forward without having complete information for each decision:

“Entrepreneurs make fast decisions and move forward knowing that at best 70% of their decisions are going to be right. They move the ball forward every day. They are quick to spot their mistakes and correct.” - Mark Suster

Making decisions where 30% of the time you will be wrong is just the pace you need to move at to make progress with a startup. It’s a change from a normal job, where everything is laid out. It also means that when you realise which were the wrong decisions, you’re going to have to make changes – you’re going to have to be inconsistent.

When you’re early in a startup, a founder or one of the first few people to join, you will at times realise that new information from customers or a smart mentor shows that what you were working on for the last weeks or months is the wrong thing to do. The hardest thing now is to accept that and move on to other things. Letting go completely is really tough, but you can’t “keep it going on the side” and expect to succeed. You’ve just got to move on to the next thing you’ll try. If you’re a leader, it can also be hard, because you’ve got to be the one to deliver the news to someone who’s been working and had their mind immersed in something you’re about to ditch. It’s not easy at all, but these are some of the key calls to make.

The inconsistency of my startup journey

If I look back on my journey with startups to where I am today, I cringe with how many things I’ve changed my mind on, with how many things I was super passionate about for a while, and then dropped completely. It causes so many ups and downs, and you question yourself and your ability a lot, but I’ve now realised that this was exactly what I needed to do. In fact, I’ve also had this on my lessons page from the very start of my blogging journey:

I don’t know whether the same lessons will apply to you, but I hope you’ll find my thoughts useful. Take what fits, and tell me what doesn’t work for you: I’m always learning.I’m pretty sure I’ll even contradict my own advice at times as I learn more.

Here are some other examples from my experiences in the last few years:

The study project turned startup

Back when I was at the University of Warwick I worked on a little project, or at least it started small. It was something I did with 4 of my Computer Science classmates, and it soon took over my life and I saw it as a true startup. It was a location based startup on web and mobile, but this was back when the first phones with GPS was released, the Nokia N95 and N82. It was early days.

I ended up at an event and was asked on the spot whether I wanted to join the panel. I said “sure!” and ended up speaking in front of around 50 people. I was asked “where do you see lasyou being in the next 3 years”. I said I would see it expanding from just Warwick and be global, with millions of users. I was passionate, and I wasn’t just saying it, I truly believed we could pull it off.

Fast forward a few months and I’d decided that I couldn’t continue with lasyou, and I moved on to another startup. That time it was a realisation about the dynamics of the team that meant it couldn’t work. I went back on my word which I had told everyone at that event, with such determination. And it’s exactly what I should have done.

Bootstrapping vs fundraising

One of the things I’ve probably been most inconsistent with in my journey as a startup founder is the decision about whether to raise funding or to bootstrap. It’s one of the most widely debated topics, perhaps the most interesting discussion was Jason Calacanis vs. David Heinemeier Hansson on This Week in Startups.

So, I’ve been a huge believer in bootstrapping and still am, we’ve also taken funding for Buffer. With our funding announcement, someone called me out on my inconsistency in the comments on Hacker News, pointing to slides from a presentation here I advocated bootstrapping:

Joel was standing in front of me practically a year to the day in the UK advocating bootstrapping and now he’s suddenly raised $400,000

So why the inconsistency? Well, the answer is quite simple. I gained new knowledge, new information. I spoke with Hiten Shah and some smart folks who had been through YCombinator, and someone who had sold his startup. I had conversations and realised that with the position we were in after 10 months of bootstrapping, raising money made sense. We could move faster by having funds to hire people.

Let’s focus on web. Let’s focus on mobile.

On the product side at Buffer, we’ve also gone back and forth many times in lots of different areas. We focused for many weeks on doing consistent updates to the Digg Digg WordPress plugin, then practically stopped working on it to focus on other areas. We created basic mobile apps, then decided we should instead fully focus on creating a great web experience. Then we decided we were wrong to drop the mobile apps, and we’re now so focused that more than half our engineering effort is in mobile. To some, it looks like we’re very indecisive. However, right now we’re in a better position than ever and there are some super exciting things on the way for Buffer users.

Embrace being inconsistent

My conclusion on the topic of consistency is that it’s not required for success. There is a lot of talk about hard-nosed businessmen needing to be true to their word and never change their mind. I think a better approach is to be open to making adjustments as you learn more. That’s the smarter thing to do. It’s also much more difficult.

I’m glad to see Jeff Bezos mentioning this and 37signals sharing it so openly. I was also glad to see Travis Kalanik, the CEO of “Private Driver (read: not a taxi) service” Uber, stand on stage yesterday at Startup School and announce Uber TAXI, a cheaper, more taxi-like service.

Even Zuckerberg said in an interview from the early days of Facebook that they’d never expand beyond being a college network.

Inconsistency is everywhere when you actually track successful people for long enough and notice the patterns. My failure with a previous startup I worked on for a year and a half was largely that I didn’t change the idea in a big enough way, quickly enough – that I stayed consistent. So go ahead and be inconsistent, it’s exactly what you need to be. Some don’t realise it, and you’ll drive a few people crazy by doing it. You’ll also feel weak and guilty every time you have to tell people you’re changing your mind, but you just need to get used to doing it, repeatedly.

As follow-up posts to this one, you might also like “The 13 Biggest Failures from Successful Entrepreneurs and What They’ve Learned from them” and “10 of the most counterintuitive pieces of advice from famous entrepreneurs“.

Have you found changing your mind and your path difficult as you’ve learned more? Have you been inconsistent many times? Or do you think you could do better by being more inconsistent? I’d love to hear from you.

 Photo credit: Christo de Klerk

  • Safarikas

    So true ! Nice to read such an article, giving some strengh to overcome difficulties ! I think that successful people are just less focus on risk and more focus on achieving something. The good balance between measuring everything or just trying things, this is the key to succes.

  • Alina Vrabie

    In many ways, it seems this should be more obvious. At the beginning of any project we know the least we will ever know about that project. But most of us feel that by changing our mind, or being “inconsistent”, we show that we’re flaky and unreliable.

  • Minda Zetlin

    On the Web v. mobile front, I’ll just say that I use both, and it’s having Buffer work smoothly across platforms that’s made it my go-to social media interface. Since I curate most things from my Android tablet, it would be far less useful to me if the mobile apps didn’t work so well.

  • Mike Post

    Interesting. In my experience the only time this doesn’t work is when the decision maker doesn’t acknowledge that they’ve changed their minds.

    Instead, when managers are upfront and say, “yesterday I said we’re doing this. Well today we’re now doing that, for reasons x and y”, that’s the way to keep your employees together as a unit and ensure that they don’t get confused.

    • http://www.whatspinksthinks.com/ David Spinks

      Totally. You don’t want to “cover up” your previous decision. You want to address it, explain what you’ve learned that caused the change, and move forward.

  • JL Carrera

    the only thing you have to be consistent is the final goal of your project. As it evolves, you’ll have to turn here and there to find the better path to success. But keeping your main aim consistent will drive you there

  • http://coopermann.com/ Joanie Mann

    I’ve heard it said that “there is no morality without context”, and it sort of applies here. Inconsistency for the sake of just being unstable isn’t good, but being intractable and unwilling to recognize that change could be beneficial (or just really fun) isn’t good either. It’s a balance, and – like most tough questions – is best answered with “it depends”.

  • http://www.showcasemarketing.com/ideablog/ Bill Freedman

    Great post. Joel, I admire and enjoy your honesty. One interesting topic that was beyond the scope of your thinking is what does impact does the founder/CEO’s “inconsistency” have on the team? Similarly, what latitude can a CEO give start up team members to be inconsistent? Frequent communication will soften the blows of changes, but let’s face it, strategic and tactical turbulence has consequences, generally on productivity.

    And one other huge interesting topic that’s also beyond the scope of your post. Are you stubbornly consistent with principles like data-driven decision-making and agile methodologies, but just give yourself a chance to take fresh looks at the market and data?

    I find myself struggling to find the right approach that maximizes performance and outcomes. I like having good company in this.

  • Paul Cawte

    Looking at this the other way round – entrepreneurs clearly need to be committed to a plan / course of action and vigorously pursue it. This means ignoring doubts and alternative options and getting on with it.

    In taking action in this way, there will be times when one discovers that things are not turning out as one would have expected. A key characteristic of entrepreneurs is that they can spot this and latch on to another approach when it becomes clear that the alternative offers better prospects. When the entrepreneur latches on to this 2nd plan they’ll need to pursue it with the same enthusiasm / commitment of the original plan.

    Clearly, to many, this will look to be inconsistent – but given the objective of an entrepreneur it is not.

    Successful entrepreneurs are a particular, valuable type of people to society – they make things happen – but we should not rely on them to be “consistent”.

    For us, less-entrepreneurial types there are clearly lessons we can learn from there approach – committing and acting in the presence of doubt and not being embarrassed about being inconsistent.

  • http://www.whatspinksthinks.com/ David Spinks

    Another great post Joel.

    This is one I’ve thought a lot about with my writing. I catch myself avoiding writing about topics sometimes for fear that I might do the opposite in the future. It’s tough in an internet world where everything will remain for the public to see forever. But I remind myself about this exact concept, that it’s okay to be inconsistent as long as it’s rooted in learning and adapting.

  • Kim Schure

    I think you chose the wrong word. It’s not inconsistency you’re looking for … it’s change. It’s okay to change as you grow. You stay consistent with the strategies that work and pitch the ones that don’t . Being inconsistent is usually negative – meaning flakiness, broken promises or unreliability.

  • http://www.mills-scofield.com/ Deb Mills-Scofield

    Joel – I think your idea is important and perhaps a better word would be adaptable and willing to change based on new information. You can be ‘inconsistent’ in that respect but as a leader of an organization, you need to be behaviorally consistent – people need to be assured/reassured by your behavior, that you will react the same way and not send conflicting messages in terms of what you will accept/reject, reward, recognize etc. So behavioral consistency is critical for getting people to follow, listen, feel empowered, and create….

  • Matt Quanstrom

    I really enjoyed reading this article Joel. You did a great job at addressing what I see so many people be afraid of. So many people are afraid of change. Now amplify that when you have so many people watching you change! Perhaps that is exactly what makes inconsistency so powerful. The ability to make a difficult decision, abruptly change direction, and even correct one (or many) of those wrong calls in the the 30% is certainly a trait not everyone can stomach.

  • SanumGiveMeTap

    Absolutely 100% agree that inconsistency can be the best policy. I also agree that this is sometimes frustrating. But in the world of start up, it is all about learning and with learning comes changes in both thought and action. The inconsistency is just a product of learning. Really glad that other people such as yourself feel the same way!

  • http://thewritedose.com/ jOsh lugEmbe

    ‘Only the incompetent people are consistent.’

    I can’t remember where I read that but it has its place in the business world.

    How, you ask.

    Well, if we ever take ourselves to the journey of self-improvement, and therefore learning as we go, as we run our businesses, there’s every chance that just around the corner after making a tough decision, we will be forced to adjust a thing or two.

    So I’m with you Joel, if progress is what we want, if growth is what we are after, let them accuse us of inconsistency. And at the same time, let’s make sure that each change of mind we make takes us higher or place us on a long-run winning ground.

    Thank you.

  • bralinshan

    Great, now I don’t feel so bad!

  • Holly McIlwain

    Excellent blog post. Mark Suster’s quote rang true to me. If you know where you’re going decisions are easy. Each one gets you closer to or further from your goal. You’ve got to be allowed to change your mind by those around you. How can we be the change we want to see in the world if we don’t accept change in ourselves and others. When we quit changing we quit life. Thanks Y’all.