Scott Adams: How to Know When to Quit

The fifth in a series of columns on failing your way to success, by the creator of "Dilbert"

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Let’s say you launch a new business venture and it doesn’t go well at first. Perhaps it loses money and sucks up a lot of your time and energy. How do you know when you should press forward and when it makes more sense to give up?

I’ve tried — and mostly failed — at dozens of business ventures over my lifetime. No two situations are alike, but some patterns have emerged, at least in my eyes, that might be helpful when you’re trying to make your own decisions about doubling down or bailing out. There’s a fine line between optimist and idiot, and knowing when to quit is usually the divider.

(MORE: Scott Adams: “Passion” at Work Is Overrated)

The Excited Minority

If the average person looks at your product and says some version of “That’s a good idea,” it means nothing. There is no predictive power in discovering that people have a favorable view of what you’re trying to sell. Instead, you want some slice of the general public to be insanely enthusiastic about your product, no matter what everyone else thinks.

When Dilbert first launched in newspapers, it got a bad reaction from the majority of readers. The comic was poorly drawn and the writing didn’t conform to the usual jokey pattern people expected. When newspapers held comic polls in those early days, Dilbert routinely placed near the bottom.

At the same time, a minority of newspaper-comics readers — it might have been 5% at most — were unusually excited about Dilbert, which leads me to my second point.

Watch Their Hands, Not Their Mouths

In my experience, one of the most reliable indicators that your product will be a hit involves your customers’ hands. In the early days of Dilbert, people were cutting out their favorite strips from newspapers and hanging them on walls. That requires the use of hands to operate the scissors, tape and pushpins. People were putting Dilbert in their PowerPoint presentations, and that requires hands on the keyboard. Some readers collected their own books of Dilbert comics, organized by theme, in three-ring binders. If your customers are only responding with words, lower your expectations. But if they start using their hands, strap yourself in; it’s going to be a fun ride.

(MORE: Be Average. But Do It Often)

The Bad Version Works

A product that is going to someday be a home run is almost always popular in the first, clunky, buggy version. That’s been my observation, anyway.

For example, the first cell phones were terrible products by today’s standards. They were the size of bricks and they dropped calls like crazy. But that didn’t slow the demand. People wanted the bad version of cell phones from Day One. It was the same pattern with fax machines, automobiles and personal computers, to name a few.

If you were to watch the first few episodes of Seinfeld today, you would be amazed at how flat and unfunny it seems compared with what it later became. But it had the X factor on Day One. I can tell you exactly where I was sitting the first time I chanced upon Seinfeld while channel surfing. The show hooked me in less than a minute. I don’t have a similar memory for any other TV show. Even the bad version of Seinfeld worked, at least for some enthusiastic segment of the population.

I’m sure there are exceptions to all my observations. If your product is a new kind of foot powder, it might not excite anyone, and sales might start slowly and grow over time. But if you create the type of product or business that you hope will wow people, look for three things to predict success: early zealots, customer demand despite obvious product flaws, and customers who are responding with their hands.