Survival Bias in Startup Advice

Lots of startup advice is told like a war story. Founders of (now) successful, thriving companies talk about the dark days, full of all nighters, personal debt, stalled growth, and low runway.

These war stories generally include advice like “never quit” and “keep on pushing.” The storytellers talk about taking huge personal risks, working themselves to the bone, and approaching their mental breaking point.

These stories all have the same ending. The efforts paid off, the company turned around, and the founders did (more than) well. They look at these dark days almost nostalgically, and talk about how they overcame them on Twitter or over drinks.

These stories all have happy endings because the companies (and their founders) survived. Very few people look to advice and stories from unsuccessful founders of failed companies.

Companies that ultimately fail have plenty of dark days as well. Their founders, in many cases, work just as hard and take on just as much personal risk as founders of companies that work out. However, their stories end in a range of begrudging acceptance to soul-crushing sadness. It’s not pretty.

3 years ago, in April 2018, we went through one of our darkest days at Healthie. Our sales and marketing strategy was not working, and we had to lay off 20 people (85% of the company) in a single day. What followed was three months of little sleep and crunching the team, trying to rebuild our product from basically the ground up. It was an absolutely miserable time, but ended up turning our company around, and put us on a sustainable path to fast growth, profitability, and success.

We survived those dark days, but a lot of companies don’t. There were times where it looked like we wouldn’t, and I still have mixed feelings about how close myself and other employees came to burning out. Our decisions were the right ones, but I definitely made them with a great deal of naive optimism.

If you’re struggling and thinking about the best path forward, it’s important to be mindful of survivorship bias in startup advice. Before taking on immense risk and emotional burden, get a clearer picture of your expected outcome, not just stories told through rose-tinted glasses.