Startup Cargo Cults: What They Are and How to Avoid Them

“In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.”

- Richard Feynman, 1974 Caltech Commencement Address

The passage above may as well be describing the world of startups. While Silicon Valley is a magical place that brims with ambition and innovation, it’s also full of Cargo Cult behaviors. Famous founders and investors are idolized and mimicked by their colleagues, who put on wooden headphones and are surprised when that doesn’t lead to success.

Cargo Cult Segway made out of branches Cargo Cult Segway by Peter Moosgaard

Cargo Cult Causes

Everyone in the startup ecosystem, from investors to founders to employees, is prone to Cargo Cult thinking. People try to extract lessons from the successes of others, but fall prey to numerous biases and fallacies:

Our brains are wired to take examples of success and extract “lessons” from them, but these lessons often range between innocuously wrong and dangerously wrong.

The remainder of this post covers Cargo Cult examples, warning signs, and potential remedies.

Cargo Cult Examples

The common thread in all of the examples below is not that these behaviors are always wrong. (They’re not.) It’s that these behaviors are often wrong because they’re blindly copied from others without critical examination. There are many great reasons to use MongoDB or hire 10x engineers or start a VC blog, but “because that’s what everyone else is doing” is not one of them.

Investor Cargo Cult examples:

Founder Cargo Cult examples:

Cargo Cult Warning Signs

Tips for Diagnosing and Stopping Cargo Cult Behaviors

Cargo cult thinking is fiendishly hard to diagnose. Imagine you’re the tribe describe in Richard Feynman’s example: how would you figure out that building wooden headphones is not a good use of time? Here are some tips and ideas:

Once you identify something as a potential Cargo Cult behavior, analyze your assumptions and reasoning in depth to decide whether you need to make a change.

Finally, here’s a useful exercise: list out 10-20 areas where you spend the most time, money, or effort. For each item on the list, determine why you allocate so many resources to it, and whether your reasons are well-founded or if you’re just acting on autopilot.

TL;DR: just because “everyone is doing it” doesn’t mean you should.

If you have Cargo Cult examples or tips that you’d like to share, please let me know on Twitter and I will update this post accordingly.

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