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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Lerner

Science vs. TED

If you suddenly needed life-saving medical treatment, which one would you choose:

  1. A drug whose safety and efficacy were validated in a randomized controlled trial

  2. One that was featured in a really inspiring TED talk

When a human life is on the line, this decision is comically easy. But what about when it's the life of your startup?

Don’t get me wrong, I love listening to those marketing TED talks. But Simon Sinek and Rory Sutherland come from billion-dollar ad agencies. Their clients have huge budgets and ubiquitous brands, so their advice might not copy-and-paste to an early-stage startup.

If you chose option 1 (science), I have some good news. I recently learned about a startup growth framework that’s been validated in a randomized controlled trial.

Featured in the Harvard Business Review, a team of Italian researchers discovered that training founders to think like scientists could actually improve startup success rates. Founders who applied the scientific method were more likely to revise their thinking in the face of new evidence, rather than to stick with ideas that don’t ultimately work out.

In their randomized controlled trial, 116 early-stage startups were divided into two accelerators that both taught the Lean Startup methodology. The only difference is one group learned to apply the scientific method. This group was taught how to formulate hypotheses from theories and rigorously test them on carefully selected samples of potential customers.

After one year, the "scientific method" group’s average revenue was 6X higher than the control group, with a median difference of 1.8X. Here's how the researchers explained their results:

"Entrepreneurs in the treatment group were trained to think and act like scientists. This structured approach helped them better mitigate their biases when they searched for and analyzed market signals. It reduced the likelihood of false positives (bad ideas being mistakenly accepted) and false negatives (good ideas getting rejected). Ultimately, scientific-minded founders in our study averted path dependence, whereby a wrong move early in the process has an enduring impact on decisions downstream."

Simple next step

Thinking about applying this approach to your startup? Good news, it doesn't need to be a heavy lift. Even taking 5 minutes to turn an idea into a well-formed hypothesis can improve your thinking and learning.

Here are a few resources to help get you started:

So it's up to you, Science or TED talks. But I know where I'm placing my bet.

P.S. If you’re looking to apply the scientific method to your startup, that’s exactly the approach we teach at Startup Core Strengths. If you’re looking to learn this approach yourself, check out our four-day Maven course. If you’d rather learn as a team, we offer a 10-week Coaching Program.

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