Useful Delusions

And how to identify (and work around) the dangerous one
Jan. 16, 2024
Otto Pohl

Being an entrepreneur means deluding yourself.

You delude yourself about:

  • how fast your startup will grow
  • how easy it will be
  • how much investment it will take
  • that your first product will immediately succeed
  • that investors/customers/employees will flock to you
  • that the team you just hired will work out great

These are all valid delusions. I would argue they’re necessary—otherwise you might never even start. The only deadly delusion is if you’re not passionate about the company you’re building. People can smell the passion, or the lack thereof.

If you’re already hair-on-fire passionate, congratulations. For everyone else, I believe that passion can be developed—read on to learn how.

Obsessed entrepreneurs I work with are usually ones that start with the customer problem. Whether it’s a consumer business or deep B2B, they experienced the human pain that their company addresses. The storytelling around solving that pain—whether it is infertility or inefficient warehouse robotics—flows naturally when the founder personally faced those issues.

The challenge comes when the founder comes to the industry technology-first. I see it particularly often from researchers, engineers, and scientists. They invent the proverbial better mousetrap and come to me to help them with their communication. My first question: have you actually talked to people with mouse-infested homes?

I see people take intellectual short cuts on this all the time. I recently saw a LinkedIn profile where the person claimed that “I’m passionate about supply chain optimization.”

No they’re not.

This person may be passionate about helping critically ill patients receive medications faster or about reducing poverty in Africa by lowering food distribution costs, but without that, supply chain optimization is just an intellectual puzzle, like Sudoku.

If that person is just collecting a paycheck, fine. But if you’re a founder, you need to think deeper.

The risks are great. I once started a business I wasn’t passionate about. I had discovered that about a third of all tourist tour tickets—everything from city tours to Hawaiian luaus to timed theme park visits—expire unsold. I thought I could aggregate them and sell them at a discount. This may be a good idea, but it definitely wasn’t a good idea for me.

In retrospect I realize that I was only attracted by the intellectual puzzle of solving the problem, and by the pot of gold I imagined waiting for me once I solved it. I’m not the kind of traveler who purchases these things. I wasn’t driven to figure out what motivates customer purchases, or how tour operators could live better lives if they had my solution. In short, I didn’t have founder-market fit. The going got rough, as it always does, and I burned through $800k of investor money and 18 months of my life before I threw in the towel.

I am working with a team of electrical engineers who invented a dramatic improvement to wireless communication, with implications for everything from the battlefield to better 5G. Here’s how they (and you) can create “adopted passion:”

  1. Stop talking about the invention and immerse yourself in the problem your invention solves. Move into the minds of the people who have the problem your invention solves. Do this by talking to as many of them as possible. (The I-Corps program is great, if it’s available to you; a more universal approach is described in The Mom Test.)
  2. Think about the second-order effects of your solution by asking “two hows.” Let’s say your invention accelerates lithium battery charging. The first “how society changes” perhaps is an increase in EV adoption. And how will society change once EV adoption increases? Be thoughtful and specific. Those second-how answers are often a lot more inspirational.
  3. Once you’ve envisioned the better world your company will help create, never lose sight of that. Talk about it. Let it shine in your About Us website page. Give your TED talk about it. The most powerful story you have is the better world your company is creating.

As an added benefit, a problem-first mindset also creates better conditions for entrepreneurial success. The problem is real and persistent; your first solution may not work. You’ll be far more likely to successfully pivot if your eye is on solving the problem rather than selling your solution. If you do fail, the things you learned and connections you made will retain their value in terms of the problem you identified and will likely lead you to true success.

And if, honestly, you just don’t care that much about building that future you described? Then, for everyone’s sake, don’t delude yourself. Quit, or license your invention to someone else.

Otto Pohl is a communications consultant who helps startups tell their story better. He works with deep tech, health tech, and climate tech leaders looking to create profound impact with customers, partners, and investors. He has taught entrepreneurial storytelling at USC Annenberg and at accelerators across the country. Learn more at