What Darwin Can Teach Us About Entrepreneurship

In the startup world (particularly in Silicon Valley) there is a lot of talk about “pivoting”. This concept has it’s roots in the idea that you may start out with a crap-tastic idea, but with enough product changes and persistence you will eventually hit upon something that rocks.

I agree that one can move mountains with the right amount of determination and the adaptability to change – but I think the series of swivels a startup makes to go from #fail to #epic is more like an evolution than a series of pivots.


In the beginning, there was an idea…

About a year and a half ago the concept for Zirtual was just a glimmer in it’s mother’s eye. I knew that I used virtual assistants, a lot, and that they were very helpful in my business and personal life. I also knew that other people often asked me about where I got my assistants, how I trained them and how they too could hire an assistant online.

When I first put a page up that offered a virtual assistant “match-making” service I got several hits for a sweet $150 a pop – I thought I had found my dream business.

So I decided to spend month’s figuring out a name, deciding on colors & how the website would look – and a variety of other non-important time-sink types of tasks that sucked up most of my 2010 summer.

Finally I decided on the killer name Virtual Zeta (I don’t know what I was thinking either) and I was off to the races…

Needless to say the design, company name and product changed drastically over the last 12 months. But, more than pivoting I think we’ve evolved.

No big bang moment, just a slow evolution

There was no “big bang” moment in the progression of Zirtual as a business. Instead I was always bent towards entrepreneurship and persistence (my one God-given talent) and I was determined that one day I would build a large company.

So the idea was spawned and grew and adapted and changed with time … and for survival purposes – much like the concept of evolution.

Zirtual didn’t need to shed it’s furry exterior to flourish in an arad desert – but it did need to shed business model after business model that wasn’t scalable and didn’t have the proper product/market fit.

If we had “pivoted” the whole time we would have eventually made a 360 (note above diagram) and been right back where we started from. But instead we started off on all fours and now are nearly non-neanderthal…

Business evolution hurts

The process of evolution isn’t pretty and with Zirtual a lot of things died along the way. Foremost was the pride one has before they start a real business – the pride that tells you “if you build it they will come”. This pride is very, very deceptive – because in reality it should read “if you build it and tweak it 20 times and get a lot of feedback, they might come”.

Just like growing pains are well, painful, a business that is evolving freakin’ smarts. There are many times when you think you’re not going to make it and there are just as many times when you think you’ve found the perfect fit – and no one buys it.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” – Charles Darwin

Business evolution is all about being adaptable and eager to change when it’s necessary to survive and thrive. Very few successful businesses are the same today as they were when they started. In fact I would challenge you to find one whose core offering hasn’t evolved consistently since the beginning. ]

If you can remember Darwin’s words and think about the process of evolution each time you hit a wall in your startup you’ll be a lot more likely to adjust the model and succeed in the end, versus going the way of the DoDo bird.

The secret sauce (as I see it)

I think a killer business can be created by a mildly smart person if they can latch onto and embody these characteristics:

  1. Persistence.
  2. Purpose.
  3. The ability to evolve.

I recently read an amazing article by Paul Graham called How Not to Die. In essence the one thing a startup has to do to be successful is to make sure they don’t die (and die young at that). If they can do this they’ll normally succeed – because everything else is easier than not going down in flames.

Persistence is the key to not dying. Persistence is a concept that is universal and that is always a component to success. The persistence that gets the scummy guy laid at the bar is the same persistence that opens doors for the non-profit no one thought could make it.

Purpose is simply knowing where you’re going. I had lunch with a friend the other day and as we munched on sushi we tried to figure out what was the one thing that all happy people have in common – finally we realized it was purpose. Every happy person is working towards a specific purpose.

Whether the purpose is raising your kids right, winning the Heisman or building a 100 person company – purpose is the north star that guides the persistent mind.

Lastly, and something Darwin agrees with me on, is being able to evolve. A successful business or person has to be able to adapt to change quickly and fluidly. They can’t be stubborn when it comes to forces that are larger than themselves (think the stock market crashing) and try to hold their ground – instead they must evaluate what their purpose is, fortify their persistence and find a path that allows them to press on even in the face of insurmountable odds.

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.  ~Anatole France