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On futile attempts to capture magic
The more we try to create magical experiences in business and in life, the less likely we are to succeed. We must simply allow them to happen and be grateful when they do.
As startup operators, we are on a relentless journey to find repeatable, predictable success. We analyse what works, we remove what doesn’t, we write down standard operating procedures that will amaze our customers every single time.
Yet, real magic defies standartisation. I’m spending this weekend at a retreat with Foundrs, a community of startup (you guessed it) founders who come together every year in Wales to build compassionate connections and share experiences.
This community is magical because everyone wants to be here. There are no fees to pay. Every session is run by the attendees. Everyone is doing their best to pay it forward instead of looking to benefit themselves.
I love this community. I’ve been part of it for the best part of the last decade. It’s been a source of countless friendships, life-saving advice and business introductions. Off-the-record conversations that happen here are more interesting than what money can buy at professional industry events.
The magic that happens at Foundrs events can’t be put into an excel spreadsheet. It exists for as long as people come together to make it happen, and I’m grateful for being part of this experience.
You can’t scale magic
As founder and CEO of Makers, I learned how hard it is to scale magic. When I founded our business, I learned that we can create experiences that our students would regularly describe as life-changing, shedding bittersweet tears at the end of the course. Yet, standartising education by creating curricula, tests, learning tracks and exams is exactly how big, boring, soulless educational institutions get built. Standartisation is the enemy of magic.
One of my most memorable dinners ever was in a tiny restaurant in Portugal a decade ago. There was one guy in the kitchen and one waiter, looking after about 5 tables. The food was absolutely exceptional. You could tell the duo running the place were there for the joy of food that they loved sharing with others.
It turned out they were a father and a son who used to work in high-end, Michelin-starred restaurants in France for many years. One day they returned home to Portugal to retire and opened a tiny place, more for the joy of sharing their food than anything else.
Needless to say, the place has long closed down. It was magical, but only because two people chose to make it so. Try to standartise and scale that and you’ll get Dishoom: scalable and magicless.
So, how do you go about capturing magic? You can’t, but you can create conditions for it to appear. A few months ago I proposed to my fiancée Egle (she said yes!), without trying to orchestrate the magic. Instead of trying to create a perfect moment, I waited for a perfect moment. I let magic happen, I didn’t try to force it.
The best conversations under the stars and over a glass of wine that I had with friends and loved ones over the years were all unscripted. I met my best friend and future co-founder Rob when I was tired and grumpy, not keen to speak to anyone, let alone a stranger. We had many magical conversations since.
Noticing when magic appears
I take two lessons from those moments when I witnessed magical experiences: a personal one and a business one.
The business lesson is that as startup founders, we must analyse, break down and standartise our magic in order to scale it beyond a few people. Yet, if we go too far, we’ll suffocate any opportunity for magic to appear. There is a delicate balance between not enough structure and too much structure, not enough direction and too much direction. Whatever the magic you have in your startup, it needs some structure, but it’ll die if you give it too much structure. Magic needs scaffolding, but also freedom and a dash of mystery.
The personal lesson is simpler. Chasing magic works less well than being open to it. Chasing magic is buying expensive tickets to fly around the world to attend a unique event. Being open to magic is noticing the rainbow after the rain.
All of us hate uncertainty. Oh, if I only knew the consequences of each choice, I would know which decision to take! Yet, everything good that life has to offer — surprise, delight and the possibility of truly magical experiences — relies on us not knowing that magic is about to happen.
If we knew exactly what would happen to us for the rest of our life, however perfect our future life could be, that would be a subjective equivalent of death: we’d be spending the rest of our lives watching a movie we know by heart without any room for hopes and dreams, achievements and failures. Taking uncertainty our of life takes the very possibility of magic and everything good that life has to offer out of it too.
As startup CEOs, we’re in charge of creating structures, processes and operating procedures that allow our businesses to scale. Yet, unless we allow some space for magic to appear, and stay attentive enough to notice it when it does, we’ll build a dull and boring business at best, wondering at the time of exit why the life-changing amount of money doesn’t feel as good as we expected. Because it’s not magical.
Magic can’t be forced. Magic needs conditions to appear and attention to be noticed.
Startup CEOs in transition peer group
Nearly every startup CEO thinks about stepping down at some point. Yet, almost everyone faces these two questions in solitude, because admitting that you're considering leaving your business is still taboo:
How can I decide to step down?
How do I prepare the transition?
I'm running a peer group of startup CEOs where we explore these questions together, and I’m about to launch another one. This is for you if you are:
A startup CEO trying to decide whether to step down
A startup CEO preparing the transition to a new CEO
Here's how it works:
Meeting bi-weekly for 90 minutes
No advice giving, only sharing experience to see how others are navigating questions that torment us
Strict confidentiality expectations
No more than 5 founders and me as a coach and facilitator
Join and drop off at any point
Monthly fee invoiced discreetly (so that your finance team doesn't know you might be considering stepping down)
If you are interested in joining, drop me a line on firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you know someone who might need this, forward this to them, they'll say thank you.
If you liked this post, you’ll love this one from a couple months ago: