Mysteries vs Secrets

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Essays

In a conversation with one of our very early stage portfolio CEO’s this week, we were talking about how to think about to prioritize solving problems. They are a young company, and so have to figure out *everything*. As we were talking through a few specific parts of the roadmap, I said: let’s distinguish between “I don’t know yet” and “Nobody knows yet” problems. I later tweeted it out, and my friend Dayo Olopade is a brilliant writer and thinker, so it is no surprise that when I started thinking aloud about this idea, she immediately had the perfect language for it.*

Secrets are “I don’t know yet” problems. The answers are known by *somebody*, and you can find them out if you meet enough people. Examples of secrets: how to hire great engineers, what take rate can you justify in a B2B marketplace, how do we make this user experience more beautiful? Some of these are closely guarded secrets, which only a select few know. For these types of problems, you need to build a great team. Ideally, each team member brings a skill, and within that skill the answer to one of these secrets. And if they don’t bring it, then they bring an incredible ability to find the answer. As Dayo describes it, journalists rely on networks and sources for secrets. Same for startup CEOs.

Mysteries, however, are “nobody knows yet” problems. The answers may not be known by anybody. Perhaps because the question hasn’t been asked yet –– or hasn’t been asked in the right way. Perhaps because the answer requires some deep insight that nobody has dug far enough down to hit yet. And perhaps because something has changed in the world that has created an unexplained phenomenon**. And mysteries, unlike secrets, are not discovered by talking to enough people. If anything, the more people you talk to, the more confounding a mystery may seem. Mysteries require going into your lab, instrumenting, and experimenting. Mysteries are the substrate of product-market fit. Mysteries are where innovation gets its power.

When you’re at the beginning of a startup journey, you can learn how to fill your sales funnel, how to hire, how to do SEO or how to build a pitch deck. And, even better, you can –– and must –– learn how to find people who hold the secrets to doing those things uniquely well. But you have to *discover* the solutions to mysteries. It’s critically important to distinguish between mysteries and secrets, because too often, a startup team will learn a lot of tactical information, but never unlock the unique insights. Now, as is the case with any good mystery, some secrets can help you piece together the mystery. But the secrets are the means. The mystery is the end.

*If you haven’t already, you should buy and read her book, Bright Continent. It’s a clear-eyed and strong case for why Africa’s future is, well, bright.

**It’s taking everything in my power not to reference “the mystery of the faith”. It’s a translation of the Greek: “τὸ μυστήριον τῆς πίστεως” and much theological ink has been spilled about what it means in context, but it’s safe to conclude that it is the core idea of the faith. I guess I referenced it, after all.

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