A Hedgehog and a Fox Walk into a Startup

Let’s start with a simple principle: Culture is what holds an organization’s team, vision, and processes together.

While literature on organizational culture has traditionally focused on big business, there’s been an appreciable uptick in the number of people paying attention to how entrepreneurs build culture in a startup or a small business. For this post, I want to focus on one particularly important factor in building a healthy startup culture: mindset.

There’s a concept that’s been gaining traction lately called “Hedgehog vs. Fox”. I first stumbled onto this idea while reading Gerald De Jaager & James Ericson’s nifty book on breakthrough mindsets, The Million Dollar Parrot, but the analogy actually dates back to the 1950’s when a philosopher named Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay that divided writers and thinkers into two categories: Hedgehogs and Foxes.

Simply explained, Hedgehogs are those who view the world through a single, defining idea while Foxes are those who draw on a wide variety of experiences and cannot boil their world down to one single, overarching idea. It’s not that one is better or worse than the other. They are just different. When you apply the categories to entrepreneurs, Steve Wozniak (Apple) and Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway) would be Hedgehogs while Jack Dorsey (Square/Twitter) and Richard Branson (Virgin Group Ltd.) would be considered Foxes.

In an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times in 2009, columnist Nicholas Kristof applied this hedgehog/fox analogy to financial experts. He argued that the prevailing mindset of experts in an industry drives how things get done in that industry. So if most of the experts in an industry are hedgehogs, then most up-and-coming non-experts in that industry will begin thinking and interacting in that same, hedgehog-like way.

If this principle is true, it’s not a big leap to see how the framework functions in the startup space. First-time entrepreneurs (like any new-comer in any industry) listen to the leading industry experts who know more than they do. Then, these first-time entrepreneurs proceed to frame their own decisions within the experts’ preferred mindset. They even start making their own plans based on the experts’ particular guidelines and frameworks. For better or worse—and usually unconsciously—the new-comers become students of a particular ideology or perspective.

It should be clear by now that this tendency, when left unaddressed, can lead to an unintentional atmosphere of groupthink. Of course, no one wants to get caught-up in a “startups are supposed to be a certain way” groupthink. So how can a founder avoid this pitfall while maximizing his own particular mindset? Here are my suggestions:

  • Dig to the core of who you are as a founder and clarify what your value systems are.
    Ignore the experts at this stage. You must not lie to yourself.
  • Communicate your value system to your co-founders and team.
    I can assure you that those who don’t share your values won’t stay with you on the journey.
  • Do a regular “value check” to help you stay the course.
    Startup events and major milestones make it all too easy to lose sight of what type of company you are trying to build.

Whatever you do, don’t do it because you feel like the expert startup folks are telling you to be or think a certain way. The experts won’t help you run your startup, nor will they clean up your mistakes. Be your own hedgehog. Or your own fox. At the end of the day, be you. It’s the biggest strength that you have.

PS: One more point for startups. In the early days of any venture, the most likely way for your startup to succeed is for you to focus on one thing and look at the world through the lenses of that one problem you are trying to solve with your startup. In a sense, you become a hedgehog. It’s the only way that you completely understand the need that your customers have and thus solve their issue.

Only when you get a critical mass of customers can start to play around with additional ways to provide value outside of the initial premise, and that’s when you start to play the part of a fox. At that point, you can look at the world through the many lenses through which your customers can be viewed.


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