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The improvisational startup

French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss introduced the concept of bricolage into the social sciences, noting that most useful innovations in pre-industrial cultures emerged from repetitive adjustments and transformations of familiar, readily available materials. In recent years, other academics have explored whether bricolage, loosely translated as tinkering, can explain how craftsmen, entrepreneurs, and other decision-makers operating in resource-constrained environments assemble creative solutions. Firms using bricolage exhibit three specific traits: a bias towards action that refuses to wait for resources to reach a desired level; a readiness to use whatever relationships, know-how and resources are on hand; and an inventive and even playful approach to recombining existing assets and resources in novel ways to advance the venture’s mission.

23
October 2017
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lire en français
Executive Summary

After 35 days at sea, then 38-year-old Isabelle Autissier won the first leg of the round-the-world solo ocean race on October 23rd, 1994, sailing into Cape Town, the first of three planned stops on the 27,000-mile BOC Challenge, with a commanding lead — 5 days, 8 hours and 52 minutes ahead of the second-place boat.

Over the three years prior to the race, the former marine science professor had worked closely with naval architects and shipwrights in her hometown of La Rochelle to design, build and condition the boat. “We prepared it en finesse, systematically addressing the most minute details so that the boat would be a tool made exactly for me,” Autissier told me recently. Ecureuil Poitou Charentes 2 became the first open ocean sailboat to use a hydraulically controlled pivoting keel to improve racing performance. All monohull boats competing in open ocean races have now adopted the innovation, previously seen only on smaller boats. The entire team worked for months to handcraft the lightest, fastest and sturdiest 60-foot sailboat ever made. No detail was too small to receive their attention.

On the next leg of the race, as Autissier sailed into the Indian Ocean heading for Sydney, Australia, she faced “manageable” 35-knot winds. For a week, everything seemed under control, with the auto-pilot maintaining a steady course through the so-called Roaring 40’s. But suddenly in the afternoon of December 2nd, Autissier heard a percussive pop that sounded like a gunshot. Rushing up on deck, she found the 26-meter mast had snapped a few feet above its base. A small metal sleeve tethering one of the shrouds — cables supporting the mast — to the deck had broken. A manufacturing fault in a tiny component had subverted the team’s innovative engineering and painstaking preparation, and the skipper’s superb navigational skill.

“I wasn’t in mortal danger. But I couldn’t sail the boat, which was very unstable,” said Autissier. She immediately cut away the fallen part of the mast, which dragged in the sea and threatened to ram a hole in the boat’s hull. Over the next 24 hours, with icy waves washing across the boat in swells of three to five meters, she improvised a temporary mast with a 9-meter pole, rope, carbon fiber and epoxy glue.

Invention requires assembling things that have nothing to do with each other. It’s both a form of intelligence and a sport; if we don’t do it often and a lot, it’s hard.

A competitor arrived the next day after diverting to her position, but Autissier refused to abandon her ship and the race. “I shouted that I was ok, and told him to keep going.” Her goal had shifted from winning the race to achieving “the simple honor of finishing.”

Her team in France shipped Autissier a smaller, temporary mast in time for her arrival two weeks later at the Kerguelen Islands, an archipelago situated 1240 miles to the east. She worked around the clock for two days — with help from scientists stationed on the island who welcomed the distraction from their routine — to attach the 13-meter mast to the center of her boat and to transform the 9-meter pole into a mast at the stern. Autissier had cleverly changed the single-masted sloop into a two-masted yawl.

Born in Paris, Autissier learned to sail at the age of seven and began single-handing in 1985. Her first solo voyage was aboard a 32-foot steel sloop which she built entirely herself, including metal work and electronics. “Even when I was a little girl,” she said, “I preferred playing with my father’s toolbox rather than with dolls.” Those many years of tinkering, combined with intimate knowledge of her boat, paid off in the Kerguelens.

“Invention requires assembling things that have nothing to do with each other. It’s both a form of intelligence and a sport; if we don’t do it often and a lot, it’s hard. But if we’ve engaged in this kind of intellectual gymnastic enough, we can do it quickly when we need to,” she explained. “All the upstream work we do to reflect and analyze … allows us to de-dramatize and manage situations as they arise, to improvise.”

The art of venture craft

So it goes, too, with most man-made ideas, media, products and businesses created under conditions of extreme uncertainty. Many if not most innovations result from improvised recombinations, commonly called hacks and mashups nowadays, of existing content, concepts and resources previously used for different purposes.

Curious venture craftsmen recombine resources creatively in myriad ways, as I explain in my soon to be released book, Spinning Into Control: Improvising the sustainable startup (Palgrave Macmillan). All involve making new by tinkering, or bricolage. Resourceful venture craftsmen (and women) recombine, reconfigure and repurpose existing ideas, methods, materials, software, content and even relationships. They prefer crafting prototypes from materials on hand rather than soliciting funding and resources. They make new while making do.

Their creativity often thrives on the friction generated by unexpected combinations. “Bricolage does not simply tolerate difference but cultivates it as a spark to researcher creativity,” writes Joe Kincheloe, professor at City University of New York. Arguing for a more interdisciplinary approach to social sciences research, his analysis is just as pertinent to entrepreneurship. “As researchers draw together divergent forms of research, they gain the unique insight of multiple perspectives,” he explains.

This applies to all forms of tinkering – like mashups and hacking — and even to basic scientific research. In a 2013 study analyzing 17.9 million papers spanning all scientific fields, Northwestern University researchers in Evanston, Illinois found that the highest-impact science is “primarily grounded in exceptionally conventional combinations of prior work yet simultaneously features an intrusion of unusual combinations.” Teamwork, as opposed to solo investigation, boosted the likelihood such combinations would occur by 37.7%.

In business, too, learning correlates more with the creative use of skilled artisanal techniques than with the amount and quality of available resources. Ultimately, success at commercial innovation relies on firms’ capacity to explore their existing assets and uncover ways to apply them meaningfully to seize new opportunities.

Resourceful tinkerers

Studying primitive societies, French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss introduced the concept of bricolage into the social sciences in La Pensée sauvage (1962, English translation 1966: The Savage Mind). He noted that most useful innovations in pre-industrial cultures emerged from repetitive adjustments and transformations of familiar, readily available materials. In recent years, other academics have explored whether bricolage, loosely translated as tinkering, can explain how craftsmen, entrepreneurs, and other decision-makers operating in resource-constrained environments assemble creative solutions. Practitioners use whatever information, know-how, relationships and virtual or material “stuff” is on hand, write researchers at France’s Grenoble Ecole de Management. Bricolage challenges the entrepreneur to behave like a cook who is limited to ingredients found at home while trying to prepare an original, memorable meal for connoisseurs … without using a recipe.

Tinkering and improvisation are related and mutually reinforcing. “We believe that the more improvisational an act, the more likely bricolage is to occur, because there is less time to obtain appropriate resources in advance,” write Moorman and Miner, before adding that “being skillful at bricolage may actually help produce valued improvisation.”

These venture craftsmen often do not start with hypotheses or a plan. Instead, they start by accumulating resources – material, intellectual, and social capital. “The bricoleur [French for tinkerer or hacker] looks for free or inexpensive access to things that might become useful one day,” explain researchers Raffi Duymedjian and Charles-Clemens Rüling in Grenoble.

As a result, the startup stands to gain agility and sustainability. “Successful bricolage behaviors may assist in the development of firms that are better able to manage market uncertainties, survive and perhaps even flourish despite resource constraints,” write Australian and US management theorists Senyard, Baker and Davidsson.

In a multi-year study of 658 randomly selected, resource-constrained Australian startups followed from their seed stage, researchers found the use of bricolage and firm innovativeness strongly correlated. Building on the work of Joseph Schumpeter, renowned Austrian economist from the first half of the 20th Century, they measured innovativeness along four dimensions: product, process, marketing, and target market. Firms were considered to use bricolage if they exhibited three specific traits: a bias towards action that refuses to wait for resources to reach a desired level; a readiness to use whatever relationships, know-how and resources are on hand; and an inventive and even playful approach to recombining existing assets and resources in novel ways to advance the venture’s mission. The researchers also investigated variables such as the entrepreneurial and management experience of founders, the size of teams, the startups’ industries, and their investments in terms of money and time. The use of bricolage was the only factor strongly correlated (0.558 with p<0.01) with innovativeness across all four types studied.

Hacking opportunities

Tinkering can benefit most startup activities, from sales, finance, and new product development to operations, marketing, and customer service. In Life on the screen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor of sociology and psychology Sherry Turkle advocates the “bricoleur style” of programming as an alternative to the more conventional and structured “planner” approach. “The bricoleur resembles the painter who stands back between brushstrokes, looks at the canvas, and only after this contemplation, decides what to do next,” she wrote with co-author Seymour Papert, the late, former co-director of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab. This approach is “more like a conversation than a monologue,” they add.

Paul Graham, co-founder of Internet venture Viaweb, sold to Yahoo for $49 million in 1998, and of startup accelerator Y Combinator, renowned incubator of several successful startups since 2005, has applied the hacker skills he developed as a software programmer to other areas of business building. When AirBnB, an early Y Combinator startup, struggled in 2009 to gain market traction (revenue reportedly had stalled at $200 per week), founders suspected that the poor quality of photos on the site inhibited use of the lodgings service. Graham reportedly suggested a marketing hack – replace drab, owner-supplied photos of properties featured on the site in New York with professional-looking pictures taken by AirBnB. Even if the specific approach wasn’t scalable, it offered a quick-and-dirty way to solve the problem and led to an uptick in bookings. And a valuable lesson about one of the drivers of authentic demand.

The creation of Y Combinator (YC) itself, it turns out, was also a hack. Unlike the more passive startup incubators that preceded it, YC was perhaps the first to welcome startups for only a short, fixed period of time and seek to actively “accelerate” them through hackathons, managed conversations, and intensive graduate-school like mentorship, similar to the interaction between masters and apprentices in a craftsman studio. The model emerged unexpectedly, apparently, as Graham and co-founders sought to learn how to become effective angel investors.

The single most important innovation at YC, Graham said in a 2016 interview, was investing in startups in batches. “And that was just an accident that we did in the beginning to learn how to be investors,” he disclosed.

Graham and his YC cofounders (his wife Jessica Livingston and his Viaweb cofounders Trevor Blackwell and Robert Morris) considered their first cohort of eight startup founders in 2005 as little more than the rough prototype of a new approach to angel investing. “We thought of that first group as this throwaway thing,” remembered Graham. “In fact, we pitched it for undergrads. It was supposed to be an alternative to doing a summer internship, which is like a throwaway job. We said, ‘Instead of a throwaway job, do a throwaway startup. And at the end of the summer, if it’s doing badly, you throw it away.’”

A rigorously scientific, hypothesis-based method doesn’t always provide innovation’s creative spark.

But to their surprise some of those startups, including Reddit — the social news aggregation and discussion web site acquired after 16 months by Condé Nast, reportedly for between $10 and 20 million — quickly started to attract a lot of users. “And lo and behold, non-zero numbers of these startups were viable. It was astounding. We did not expect it at all. This was supposed to be just a learning experience, and it seemed like it might actually work.”

Added Graham: “Even though it was originally just a hack to fund a whole bunch of startups at once so we could learn how to be investors, we learned that doing startups in batches had all these advantages… And so, once we realized what we had stumbled upon accidentally, then we started trying to do it on purpose.”

Playful survival training

The term hacking, once used only to describe unauthorized computer intrusions and abuse, now also means rapid prototyping of ideas, designs and products of any kind (not just digital) by expressly subjecting creators to time and material constraints. Making new by making do trumps relentless fund raising. Like master artisans, startup founders continuously explore and recombine familiar materials as much as new ones. The resulting leaps of insight feel more organic than mechanistic, emerging from the properties of the materials themselves.

A rigorously scientific, hypothesis-based method doesn’t always provide innovation’s creative spark. Instead, hackers and mashers tinker in search of novel concepts and discoveries. “One of the real sort of tenets of the biopunk movement is resourcefulness,” says Marcus Wohlsen, author of Biopunk: DYI Scientists hack the software of life (2011). “A sense that we’re going to do it however we can figure out how to do it. So let’s use whatever’s out there… Let’s just play with this. Let’s just see what we can do” (National Public Radio interview, March 19, 2011). Borrowing the movement’s label from a literary sub-genre of science fiction, these hackers engage in simplified biotech experiments at homemade labs set up in kitchens, garages, and workshops.

Can bricolage and improvisation, when it comes to venture craft, be learned? Fortunately, experts and practitioners increasingly respond yes! “Firms and groups may sustain practices and routines that make it more likely improvisation will occur, that it will be fruitful, and that the value of the improvisation will later be harvested,” write Baker et al.

Founders, educators, and the thousands of corporate venture accelerators launched in recent years should take note. “If entrepreneurs are routinely called upon to ‘think on their feet’ by necessity or choice, it seems evident that entrepreneurship training programs should include improvisation,” writes Tom Duxbury, academic lecturer at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada and co-founder of Canadian communications systems provider DragonWave.

Often, of course, entrepreneurs learn to improvise by necessity. Sudden, unforeseen events – sometimes crises that threaten the startup’s survival – make rapid decision-making inescapable. “Why do entrepreneurs improvise?” asks Duxbury. “Working with scarce resources under conditions of uncertainty and with little time, expertise, or even inclination for contingency planning, it is not surprising that entrepreneurs are commonly placed in improvisational situations,” he observes.

In these circumstances, the founder perhaps has more to learn from the ad hoc strategies of professions not usually associated with creative pursuits — wilderness guides, astronauts, firefighters, soldiers, and even ocean-racing sailors.

Amiel Kornel
Venture-Capital Affiliate, Strategos