Beware the stupid!

During one of my random browsing through the internet on my mobile device, I came across an interesting set of laws – the basic laws of human stupidity. Yes, you read it right, stupidity. By Carlo M. Cipolla (read the original article here), an Italian-born former professor emeritus of economic history at University of California Berkeley. This is simply genius. This post is to help you find how these laws apply to the start-up ecosystem of today. Read on.


The five laws

Let us first understand the five laws. The first law states:

Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

They are everywhere and appear suddenly and unexpectedly. Any attempt at quantifying the numbers would be an underestimation.

The second law states:

The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.

There is serious diversity at act here. No race, gender, educational attainment, physical characteristics, psychological traits, or even lineage can explain the incidence of stupidity in a person. He says a stupid man is born stupid by providence, and in this regards, nature has outdone herself.

The third law is also labelled a golden law, and presents itself into a neat 2X2 matrix. It states:

A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

This law classifies people in this world into four categories – the helpless, intelligent, the bandit, and the stupid. Organized on the two axes of gains for self and others, the helpless is fooled by others who gain at his expense; the intelligent creates value for himself as well as others; the bandit gains at the expense of others; whereas the stupid loses himself in the process of destroying others’ value.


While the actions of others are justifiable, it is the actions of the stupid that are so difficult to defend – no one can explain why he behaved that way.

While it is possible that people may behave intelligent one day, bandit another day, and helpless in another place and context; stupid people are remarkably consistent – they are stupid, irrespective. No rationality at all – just pure consistent. And that makes stupidity extremely potent and dangerous. For the simple reason that you cannot erect a rational defence against a stupid attack, as it comes as a surprise, and more importantly, there is no rational cause for the attack in the first place.

Which leads us to the fourth law, which states:

Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.

Even intelligent people and bandits (who are rational) underestimate the probability of occurrence of stupid people, are genuinely surprised by the stupid attacks, and are at a loss to defend themselves effectively against stupidity. Given the inherent unpredictability of stupidity, it is both difficult to understand in the first place, and any attempts at defending against it may itself provide the stupid people with more opportunity to exercise his gifts!

Which leads to the fifth law, which states:

A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

And by corollary,

A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.

The danger of stupidity cannot be sufficiently understated than this law. Given the irrationality of stupidity, and the costs associated with stupid behaviour, a stupid person is far more dangerous than any other type of person. An intelligent person adds value to society, a helpless fool may transfer value from himself to others, a bandit may transfer value from others to himself; but the stupid erodes value to the society by executing a lose-lose strategy. There could be bandits who might border the stupid (someone who can kill a person for stealing $50 – the value they gain is lower than the value you lose; but the $50 for them is as valuable as life for you). But given the power of stupidity, they can create far more harm than one can even imagine.


The five laws of start-up world stupidity

  1. Stupid business models are aplenty – they rear their head everywhere, every-time. Irrespective of the context, they are omni-present. No exceptions at all. Do you remember business models like Iridium (by Motorola) and the FreePC experiment? It exists even today … Casper Tucker wonders why he should make his own IP redundant (read here).
  2. The probability of a stupid business model arising from a developed country, a venture of a large organisation, from the famed Silicon Valley (or Bangalore, Berlin, or Shanghai for that matter) is the same (and high). The start-up graves are littered with corpses of stupidity-induced deaths of both the firms, their investors, customers, and every other stakeholder you can think of. You think sandpaper for shaving or hair-removal is a bad idea, check this out!
  3. Do I need to tell you the costs of stupidity in the start-up world? I have come across founders who in the first few months of the business taking off, begin talking valuation rather than growth. In the process, they have destroyed value squarely and truly for everyone around them, including themselves. Nothing can match the stupidity of a founder who sacrificed his employment to start-up a firm, acquire customers and force them to make asset-specific investments, make wonderful investor presentations and get a few to invest as angels, PE, or VC; and then instead of worrying about making the business profitable, chase valuation. I surely have mentored a few, and do not want to name them for obvious reasons.
  4. The fourth law is the trick – stupid people thrive by their ability to surprise you by their conviction. And there are enough people who irrationally believe in them; but even the rational actors are unsure how to respond – till it all dawns on them. How many products listed in this article do you remember?
  5. And they are just plain dangerous – they can bring the entire ecosystem down. Remember how the Real Value Vaccummizer brought the entire innovative company down (do you know the firm was the first to introduce a portable fire extinguisher by the brand name Cease Fire, which by the way stays a generic name for portable fire extinguishers)?

So, customers and investors, start-up founders and entrepreneurs, students and researchers, and everyone else, beware the stupid.


© 2017. R. Srinivasan


Social Buffering – Is it lonely at the top?


Yesterday (24th August), I connected three dots. First dot: I met with a couple of my friends from 20 years back (we were batchmates) – one of them celebrated his tenth year of entrepreneurship this week, and another was taking baby steps into entrepreneurship in the last three months. Second dot: I read a piece on LinkedIn on why Samsung cannot be Apple. Third dot: I read an article in the Strategic Management Journal (SMJ) on executive anxiety. And tossing and turning on my bed, late in the night, the three dots connected. Voila.

Dot #1: The entrepreneurial fetish with fund raising

When two entrepreneurs meet with a business school professor, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to veer from business models to fund raising. So it did happen yesterday. The conversation was going towards evaluating if angel investing is better than crowdfunding, and we agreed that the money raised is much less valuable than the insight/ knowledge/ resources/ network the angel investor(s) would bring in. Isn’t that why those investors are called “angels”, as they have some magic wands in their hands? Slowly, bit by bit, I evaluated their business plans and broke the entire fund requirements to an amount that was so small that they would not take money from anyone other than one with an enormous network or experience in that domain. As entrepreneurs, it was extremely important that they realize that money from the right source is far more valuable than the denomination of the currency (or the balance in the bank). The value of the advice and mentoring the angel investors bring in is severely under-rated in today’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Here’s calling all entrepreneurs to evaluate your list of mentors – what specific insight, learning & knowledge, experience, resources, network do each one of them bring in. Prune/ add ruthlessly.

Dot #2: Singularity

The drive back home from North Bangalore to South Bangalore in the evening traffic is not something I enjoy, unless I have some company or reading to do. Yesterday, I had both. The reading was this LinkedIn post by Anish Behera on Why Samsung will never be Apple? (read it here). If you have returned back to this blog after reading his piece, you know where I got the three dots idea from, right!

His primary argument is that it was important for Steve Jobs and the American culture to be autocratic and not suitable for Korea and Samsung. He argues that American culture of Singularity is more suitable for innovation than the Korean (in fact, he extends his argument to most of Asia as well) culture of Conformity. Though I am glad that he included Mahindra under the singularity dimension, I think it is a slight stretch. But that is a different debate and discussion.

The substance of his argument was that Apple ha(s)d both singularity (one person) and an opinionated (non-conformist) culture that fostered innovation. What it means for entrepreneurs of today is not so much to create a person who is as charismatic (and possibly maverick) as the leaders he quotes, but to have a singularity of purpose that guides decision making. Strong vision, broader search for alternatives, speed of decision making, and discipline in execution arise out of singularity and non-conformity. Both, together; not a preponderance of one over the other. Pure singularity without a culture of non-conformity would result in a narrow search of alternatives and may lead to phenomena like groupthink. Non-conformity without a strong purpose and direction would result in slow decision making and lack of discipline in execution, and may to phenomena like predictable irrationality.

Dot #3: Social buffering

A couple of weeks ago, Apple CEO Tim Cook asked, “Hey Siri, why am I so alone?”. In an insightful interview with The Washington Post (read it here), he talked about a variety of things including not being able to replace Steve Jobs. But what caught my attention yesterday was the statement that “running Apple is sort of a lonely job”. And when I read an academic article on the Strategic Management Journal (yes, that is my primary job) by Michael J Mannor, Aadam J Wowak, Viva Ona Bartkus, and Uuis R Gomez-Mejia titled, “Heavy lies the crown? How job anxiety affects top executive decision making in gain and loss contexts”, (SMJ, 37,9, Sep 2016) the dot #3 emerged. The heavy crown of leadership can lead to significant anxiety in top executives (so beautifully articulated by Tim Cook when he talked about how he prepared for a congressional hearing – have you not read the interview, yet?). An effective insurance against such anxiety is to surround oneself with a team that is supportive of one’s decisions, effectively buffering the executive from threats from the environment. Building such a supportive team, that shields the top executive from the external world without a risk of opportunistic behavior from the buffer themselves is what the authors label as social buffering.

The implications of social buffering (according to the authors) are three-fold. Higher the perceived threat from the external world (and therefore the anxiety of the top executive), more likely the social buffering behavior. Secondly, in spite of the social buffer, it is likely that anxious executives might be more risk-averse than others. And finally, in contexts that represent losses (rather than gains), executives would be more likely to build strong social buffers. For instance, executives leading firms in declining product-markets may build stronger social buffers than those in high growth contexts. To put this in simple terms, the more vulnerable the top executive feels about the environment, the more she will surround herself with supporting team members (who share the same thought processes); it will make her more risk-averse; and more so, when faced with losses (than gains). Given that loss aversion is more pronounced (executives worry more about losses than celebrate equal quantum of gains), this social buffering can become more and more pronounced in malevolent environments.

Connecting the dots

Find an investor who “has been there, done that” + Build a culture of singularity & non-conformity + Beware of social buffering

While it is important that you seek angel investments from someone who brings in a lot of experience, insights, expertise, and a network, it is also imperative that you build a culture of singularity and non-conformity in your organizations. If you do not pay active attention to these details, you may end up surrounding yourself with a social buffer, promoting and highlighting only those in your network who conform to your thoughts and beliefs while letting others go, you run the risk of running your enterprise to the ground with high anxiety, low risk appetite, and conformist thinking. Without an active innovation programme, replication and possibly fast following strategies are likely to dominate the organizational discourse.


  • Seek out investments carefully. Do a proper due diligence of your investors’ resources and networks
  • Keep checks on how your advisors and investors encourage/ dissuade innovation and risk-taking
  • Make sure that you surround yourself with a variety of perspectives, and ensuring that your social buffer is not counterproductive to your innovation and external orientations


Building your brand

This is not a post about marketing, though it may sound so. This is a post about how entrepreneurs and leaders communicate. This is relevant for brands and firms as well. Read on.

I listened to a very insightful TEDx talk by Simon Sinek on inspirational leaders. Listen to it here. He talked about how inspirational leaders focus on the inner most ring of what he called the golden circle. In the inner circle is the why, followed by the how, and then the what. He cited examples of ineffective communication, when firms and brands and individuals focused on the what to drive the how and why, and how successful people and brands and firms focused on the why first, before highlighting the how, and what. If you have not listened to it yet, please do so, before you proceed.

19.1 Brand communication

As we see a tramline of enterprises biting the dust, liquidating/ selling off to powerful competitors/ selling off at a fraction of its past valuations to firms in complementary businesses, this message is becoming far more relevant. Couldn’t resist this contrast …

Yahoo is a guide focused on informing, connecting, and entertaining our users. 

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.


Just take a look at how these two pages are organised – Yahoo’s page flows like this – a statement of what they do – inform, connect, and entertain; how did they start, how is it to work for Yahoo, and what does it offer for developers, advertisers, partners, and research. Google’s page begins with the company overview (that includes their history), who they are (culture and locations), what they believe, and then what they do.

If your communication focuses on what problems you solve (why you exist), and then lead towards how you solve those problems, and therefore what products and services you offer; I am willing to listen to you. On the other hand, there are entrepreneurs and firms that begin with what they do. For instance, early this week, I heard someone talk about building the Uber of Indian tractors for farmers (if the one who talked about this is reading this, don’t take it personally). I had to probe deeper and deeper to understand what problem was being solved and why did Indian farmers needed a mechanisation solution in the lines of Uber.

Virgin’s Richard Branson also wrote today (11 August) about why successful entrepreneurs should seek problems, and create solutions (read it here). Begin with the problem and the opportunity; the business model and the solution will follow; and thence products and services.

So, whatever brand you are building – of yourself, your firm, your products/ services, please begin with the why, the how, and then get to what. Build a robust brand that stands for something, signifies why it exists, and speaks to the ecosystem on why it exists. Remember the arrow that connects A and z in the logo? Everything from A to Z.

And in today’s world, as firms simultaneously diversify and depend on a cluster of complementors to provide (each others’) customers with unique value, it might not be out of place to conceive of your brand as a platform. A simple platform (like how the automobile companies use the word) upon which your complementors and partners could build on, customise, co-develop, co-innovate, and co-create. Brian Monahan’s post titled “More than a promise: Brands are platforms” (read it here) develops this argument very well. Brian’s primary argument is that brands transcend the promise and should allow for other firms and its partners to shape the consumer experience. Imagine brand Android!

Borrowing the idea from Simon Sinek’s talk, leaders communicate why more than the what. How is your brand communication structured?

Would love to listen/ read/ hear about your brand stories.