The Illusion of Progress

By Ray DePaul, Director

In the early 2000's when I was running the BlackBerry Product Planning group at Research in Motion, I headed out on a tour of some of our biggest clients. My mission was to share our vision of the "wireless wallet". I had an impressive powerpoint prepared with great graphics and a pretty compelling vision for a future where we didn't have to carry wallets around because everything would be done from your smartphone. In hindsight, this tour is what I would now call the illusion of progress. We felt like we were making progress toward that futuristic vision. I had a slide presentation and everything! Of course, slideware was all we had. If we had actually got to work on the tough task of making that vision a reality and actually progressing the product and complex partnerships, maybe we would all be using our BlackBerry to pay for everything. Instead we were satisfied with achieving the illusion of progress.

I see this illusion play out constantly with startups. Real progress is hard and it's uncertain. Instead of tackling the tough questions like "do people really care about the problem I solve?" or "is it even feasible to build the product I'm envisioning?", founders turn to conquering lesser tasks that make them feel like they're moving forward. These illusions of progress include:

  • creating business cards
  • incorporating the company
  • creating employee stock options
  • writing a beautiful business plan
  • creating a slick company name and logo
  • renting office space
  • pursuing press and analysts

Until you've figured out that there is a sizeable group of customers who care about the problem you solve, and you can, in fact, solve that problem, you shouldn't spend precious time and money on the above distractions. Would you wax your old car when you can't even start the engine?

Focus on what is critical. If you get past those hurdles, by all means tackle the smaller items. But if you can't make real progress, then the little things didn't even matter.