Learning to reflect

19:25, Aug 06 2014
Dan Khan
Dan Khan

One of my favourite quotes is, “The unit of progress in a startup is learning”. It encapsulates early stage startups and success in accelerated environments perfectly.

After completing our second cohort of companies at Lightning Lab, I’m now spending time interviewing our participants, both those that raised money and, critically, those that didn’t. 

It’s clear that the biggest impact an accelerator like us has on our participants is not just the growth in their companies, but also in developing their individual capability as entrepreneurs.

Startups learn a bunch of new skills and tactics in an accelerator: market validation, how to build products people love, how to raise investment, and getting their products to market, among others.  But for founders, the bigger lessons are their own personal growth as leaders; understanding how to build teams; building a culture that others want to be part of; and for most, how to work under the intense pressure of startup life.

I’m a firm believer that one of the only times you grow as a person is when you push the boundaries of your comfort zone. This mantra is tested daily for founders, with the intensity and reality of working in your own high-growth startup.

Methodologies like lean startup eschew incremental learning and progress, but without a rigorous introspection process how can you reflect on progress?


I like to use the information pyramid a lot in my dealings with startups. This model of how we learn has data at its base, with each additional layer turning the one below into more and more useful information, such as knowledge, insights, and ultimately wisdom.

Many startups collect huge swathes of data, but until work is done to turn it into knowledge and wisdom, it’s meaningless (the same applies to your business – customers rarely pay for data alone, but do pay for the insights and knowledge you provide about that data).

All startup founders need a process to internalise these learnings as they navigate their way through the uncertainty – from dealing with mentor feedback; receiving feedback from the market and their customers; to the metrics they collect about how people do - or do not - use their products.

Each week in Lightning Lab we ask our teams to reflect on the good, the bad, and the ugly of what they’ve faced and to communicate that back to us, so they can be held accountable for what they think they’re learning.

We ask the entrepreneurs to distil this progress into a set of salient insights to help move their ventures forward.

The benefit of this reflecting is that it allows clear direction to refocus (or double-down) on the learning goals for the following week, and to understand where they’re really making progress rather than working on things that don’t move the needle.

It’s this critical evaluation and separation of gold from the dirt that allows us to make giant leaps forward, both personally and professionally, when we’re building startups that exist in a world of uncertainty.

If the unit of progress in a startup is learning, what have you learned about yourself and your business recently? How do you systemise that process of learning to understand your real progress and where you need to go tomorrow?