Mental models for startup entrepreneurs

Farnam Street is one of those wonderful blogs that doesn’t cover the startup industry, but does help you think.  One of their recent posts discussed the importance of mental models:

“Small models of reality need neither be wholly accurate nor correspond completely with what they model to be useful. Your model of an iPhone may contain only the idea of a rectangle that serves multiple functions such as sending and receiving data, apps, displaying moving pictures with accompanying sound. Alternatively, it may consist of an understanding of the programming necessary to make the device work, the protocols, the physical limitations, and how the display actually functions, in which case you’ve eclipsed me.

What must be questioned now is whether adding information increases the usefulness of the model. If I explain how operating systems and API’s work, you will have a much richer model of an iPhone. For some of you that will mean a more useful model and for some it will not.”

For me, mental models are simply a special case of storytelling. As a founder, your goal is to construct mental models that are just detailed enough, without going into minutiae that will slow down your progress.

For example, you could spend years studying the mechanics of startup financing, and understanding the origins of the accredited investor requirement, and the evolution of the convertible note.  But beyond a certain point, this additional detail doesn’t actually drive the business.

Similarly, for most startups understanding what’s actually happening under the covers within Amazon’s cloud services or your datacenter is interesting but irrelevant.

I use the William James criteria: “A difference that makes no difference is no difference.” We’re so addicted to being right and being smart, we build LEGO Mindstorms when Duplo blocks would do.

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