In my experience, being an entrepreneur is a constant lesson in nonduality. You try to create high-quality products/services but also have great unit economics. You need to work harder than most, but you also need to take care of your well-being to avoid burnout. You probably want to lead a remote team, but also want regular in-person meetings. And the list continues with sets of opposites that both need to be true.
As we were designing my company, I was studying nonduality, reading books about it and watching speeches from the Science and Nonduality conference. I even had a blog called “Neti Neti” which means “not this, not that” in Sanskrit. Over the past 10 years, I’ve found the beauty and challenge in the nonduality of starting a business.
Despite the inevitability of nonduality, I recently realized that there must still be some baseline rules — things that are sacred and can’t be challenged. Enter the opposite of the opposites: the first principle.
A first principle is an assumption that cannot be deduced from any other assumption. An example of this in math is that any number multiplied by zero is zero. There’s no further assumption behind it; it just is. In sports, the first principles are the rules. There’s no further explanation for why double dribble is not allowed in basketball. In business, or life, first principles are not as clear because each company, or individual, decides them for themselves.
Your company must decide what you’re absolutely sure is true for you, with no further explanation. Not just now, but forever. Setting your first principles will help in all future decision-making processes. Here are three painless steps for determining these first principles.
Step 1: Get stakeholders involved.
Poll your founding team, your employees, your board and investors. What do they believe to be true about your company, truths that require no further assumptions? When a decision needs to be made and there are strong arguments in multiple directions, how do you break a tie?
Step 2: Draft many, pick few.
Write down all the principles that you believe to be true about your business. Then whittle down the list to a maximum of three. You can’t have 10 first principles. Even three is a lot — one or two is better!
Step 3: Get specific.
One of the first steps of your business plan was probably coming up with a mission and vision statement. Maybe you even created some key values. While first principles can feel similar to values, they are more specific statements. Common company values like honesty, leadership or respect are too vague to be first principles. One of my company’s first principles is, “We need happy customers.” Not customer support; not service. A full statement.
Developing our first principles has given my team a stronger purpose in strategy sessions and an understanding of how each role ladders up to these first principles. It’s also helped us make very big decisions. For example, our first principle of “We need happy customers” helps us ask questions like: “Does this decision support our ability to increase our number of happy customers?” “Is this good for our customers even if they don’t know it yet?” “If this decision makes certain customers unhappy, will it make even more of them super happy?” If all replies are not a definite yes then we strongly question whether the decision is worth the long-term risks for the company’s mission, culture and purpose.
What are your organization’s first principles? If you don’t know them yet, I strongly recommend having a conversation about what they could be. It might be eye-opening.