Richard Feynman famously likened bad science to cargo cults:
In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw
airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same
thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like
runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a
wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head
like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s
the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re
doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the
way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So
I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the
apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but
they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.
in the tech startup world there are some companies that appear as if they are doing everything right: they raise tons of money from top-tier angels and vcs; hire engineers, mbas, and designers who have worked at well known companies; get written up extensively in techcrunch, mashable, or even the new york times. the founders blog and tweet, and respond personally to customer emails.
however, despite all that, few people actually use or like the company’s product. this problem can be easily overlooked while investors and the press are enthralled with the company’s amazing team and vision. but eventually the startup will need to demonstrate “traction” and make an effort to boost user signups and retention. a surprising amount of time, the strategy the company comes up with is to do more of the same- get more press, hire more people, blog more- that is, do the things that had already failed to achieve traction, but with more vigor.
if you ever see this pattern, there is a good chance that the company is a cargo cult startup, and the founders are merely mimicking the appearance of a successful company, and have little idea how to actually become successful. here are a few telltale signs- the wooden headphones- of a cargo cult startup.
- many staff members whose job titles begin with “Director” or “Vice President”
- a founder who has a book deal or is available for “speaking engagements”
- launch new product via major media or advertising campaign (nytimes article, super bowl ad)
- plans to make a big push at SXSW
- any office furniture not acquired from ikea or craigslist
- insistence on unit testing, pair programming, or other fashionable programming methodologies
the common thread above is that they are all reasonable in the context of an established, successful company, but make very little sense for embryonic startups yet to find traction.
ironically, it’s probably easier for an entrepreneur to make money by building a cargo cult startup. all you have to do is convince a few key executives at a large corporation, such as aol, to acquire you. in order to build a “real” business, you have to deliver real value to thousands or millions of users. so perhaps the cargo cult startups aren’t cargo cults after all- they may know exactly what they are doing.