Donner Party vs. Science and a True North

Rick McPartlin

Maybe you don’t know the story of the Donner Party and the tragedy that resulted, but there are lessons in their story for all and specifically for those of us entrepreneurs who want to become successful ASAP.

The story of the Donner Party is the story of an organization (a wagon train) on a mission (to get to California) and what happened when they took a “shortcut.” Shortcuts are the results of “happy-ears” or “poorly placed faith” or a RoadMap provided by a self-serving vendor who only wants to make money on the transaction.

Today’s entrepreneurs take shortcuts for the same reasons the Donner Party did. They want to reach their destination and the riches the destination promises ASAP. Faster, easier, cheaper always seems preferable to a longer science-based path. Pioneers and entrepreneurs believe they are different and see things others don’t. In short, they believe the science and the associated rules really don’t apply to them. Rather than a “Revenue Science” based True North, many entrepreneurs want to write new science based on hope, urgency and passion.

The Donner Story has a lot to teach today’s startup organizations. The day a startup launches is a lot like the day the Donner Party started west. The goal is compelling, exciting and promises great riches. For the Donner Party, the riches would come in many forms from religious freedom, to farmland, to business opportunities and adventure. The entrepreneurs are compelled by the urge to be proven “right,” to build something “new,” to serve an underserved market, to make the world better or maybe just “get rich.”

Like the Donner Party, the startup team can’t wait to start living their dream. They leave their old job, make an investment, take a pay cut, work twice the hours, commit large parts of themselves (less so than some of the Donner Party) to the success and fulfillment of the dream.

Even before the first step is taken, both the Donner Party and the entrepreneur are off on the wrong foot. Neither has done the “right” planning to define their True North and develop a RoadMap with forward looking metrics to be sure they don’t get caught in a blizzard or a resource shortage or both.

When a True North and an aligned RoadMap are in place because they have an organization-wide science-based strategy, everything will be transparent. The right people will join the party for the right reasons. Those who just want to make money will be seen as opportunistic vendors, and shortcuts will be recognized for what they are, a combination of possible value and risk.

The organization-wide strategy attracts the required resources and people, while exposing mismatches. Both the Donner Party and entrepreneurs have to make decisions on a daily basis when the reality of the world and the RoadMap to the True North don’t match. With forward-looking metrics, each new decision is measured both for today and for the whole trip, which exposes both opportunities and risks before the blizzard arrives.

The 21st Century does hold risk for the entrepreneur as the 19th Century did for the Donner Party, but those entrepreneurs who start their planning with “Revenue Science” will have a True North, an aligned Revenue RoadMap, tools, best practices and forward-looking metrics to reduce surprises and to predictably grow profitable revenue no matter what the weather.

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