99 Nights

In the movie Cinema Paradiso, there is an allegory told which underpins
the movie.  It also applies, too well, to the process of innovation and
entrepreneurship:

Once upon a time a king gave a feast and there were all the most beautiful princesses of the realm. Basta, one of the guards, saw the king's daughter: she was the loveliest of all! And he immediately fell in love with her. But what could a poor soldier do compared with a king's daughter?!…One day he managed to meet her and told her he couldn't live without her. The princess was so struck by the depth of his feeling that she said to the soldier 'If you will wait a hundred days and a hundred nights beneath my balcony, then in the end I'll be yours.' Christ, the soldier ran off there and waited! One day, two days, ten, twenty…Every night she looked out of her window, but he never budged. Come rain, wind, snow, never budged! The birds shat on him and the bees ate him alive! After ninety nights he was gaunt and pale and tears streamed from his eyes but he couldn't hold them back. He didn't even have the strength to sleep any more. The princess kept watch…And on the ninety-ninth night, the soldier got up, picked up his chair and left!

and towards the end of the film…

Now I understand why the soldier went away just before the end. That's right, just one more night and the princess would have been his. But she, also, could not have kept her promise. And…that would have been terrible, he would have died from it. So instead, for ninety-nine nights at least he had lived with the illusion that she was there waiting for him…

This story resonated with our experiences working
with innovators and entrepreneurs. Particularly following the recent
activities of our students, noted in this blog.

It's all too tempting for innovators and entrepreneurs to labor away on their
dream, all the while ignoring life's (or at least the market's)
realities. Students can imagine, in the safety of case studies and
management readings, that they are preparing themselves to become the
stuff of business legends. Garage tinkerers can sweat over their
lathes, or computers, and imagine how they will spend their
riches and write their memoirs. For these folks, however, there is no
99th night. They are the dreamers without a plan, the tinkerers who've
been at it for 10 years or
more, never taking the steps to turn their ideas into action. It's
safer to believe in the idea of the idea than to take the actions
necessary to find out if it can be turned into a reality.
I'm
not arguing against sacrifice–just against unnecessary sacrifice. For
the folks who want more than the dream, waiting until the 99th night to
ask the questions wastes precious time that could have been spent
finding the answers to move the idea forward or move on. If
you want to build a better mousetrap, what can you do on the
first night to make sure the world needs one? If the big uncertainty
lies in the
technology, what can you do, on the first night, to make sure it will
work? In our programs, we ask our students to
test their idea and its validity in the market by talking to customers
and trying to sell them their product. Asking the questions and finding
out early in the process whether a customer sees value in your
technology or product gives you the answers you need to move
forward–whether it means revamping your product to fit the customers'
pain or scrapping it altogether.
I've
written recently about the need to take the right action in
launching new ideas and new companies–because actions ground entrepreneurs
in reality. Action grounds ideas in reality–by testing and improving
them. If you're right, great. If you're wrong, better to embrace that
reality on the 1st night, or even the 30th night, than the 99th.

It's
tempting to sit on a bench and dream of a better world, but better
worlds don't come to those who are unwilling or afraid to put their dreams to the test. They come
to those who are willing to ask the questions and do the work.

*The story is one taken, with liberties, from the Noh play Kayoi
Komachi, which tells how Ono no Komachi finds herself the object of a
Guard Captain's ardent love. To prove his love, she
requested, he was to visit her house one hundred
successive nights before being admitted. For 99 nights, he faithfully
visited her, only to die of exposure from a
snowstorm the last night.  In both cases, the tragedy remains.

–with Nicole Starsinic
         

3 thoughts on “99 Nights

  1. What a great way to use a story to illustrate some very important points. In the beginning of the story I was applauding Basta for his persistence in spite of adversities. . I’m reminded of what Frank McCourt (author of Angela’s Ashes) said about writing. He stated that people think that it would be wonderful to write to experience flashes of genius. Frank McCourt said that is not how books are written. In order to write books you write ten pages a day and put them away. After a month you take out all of your pages and get rid of the 90% of the writing that is useless and you repeat the process until you have a good book.
    This philosophy is applicable to most things in life. I recently saw Steve Martin on a TV show where he was playing the banjo with a number of other people. He has a new CD out of his banjo music. After the end of the song he was making some comments that he has been playing the banjo now for 40 years. He stated that when he started playing the banjo in his teenage years he wasn’t very good. But he thought to himself “you know if I keep playing and practicing, in 40 years I will probably be a decent banjo player.”
    Needless to say Steve Martin realized that he wasn’t going to make his fortune by playing the banjo. He did realize that he had a knack for comedy. But he would have never made it big had he not gone on the comedy circuit and built up his reputation as a comic. He probably experienced a lot of failure on his way to making a name for himself.

  2. Believing in a dream even at the cost of reality is the price an entrepreneur pays. And it is failure to give up without tasting the fruits of your labour, whether that labour be successful or not. Simply failure and cowardice.
    Bernard Shaw ” The reasonable man adapts to his surroundings, the unreasonable man adapts his surroundings to him – hence all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

  3. Only my tolerance of pain (and ignorance thereof) allowed me to make it to the many 99th nights I’ve had during 15 years worth of startups. Well, and some stupidity. But without that combination, I never would have started.

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