What They Don’t Tell: Survivorship vs Entrepreneurship

Saad Benryane

As Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman puts it, "A stupid decision that works out well becomes a brilliant decision in hindsight." This statement encapsulates a common pitfall in evaluating success: survivorship bias. Survivorship bias occurs when we concentrate on the successful outcomes while ignoring the many failures, leading to a distorted view of reality. This bias is particularly prevalent among entrepreneurs who often idolize successful startups without acknowledging the numerous failures that didn't make headlines.

Entrepreneurs frequently use the word "pivot," and for a good reason. Most successful startups undergo multiple changes in their business models, ideas, and strategies before finding that winning combination. It's crucial to learn from successful ventures, but focusing solely on their achievements can lead to a skewed understanding. Success stories offer valuable insights, but they represent only one side of the coin. To gain a comprehensive perspective, it is equally important to study failures and understand why certain ventures didn't succeed.

The Perils of Survivorship Bias

Survivorship bias can significantly distort our worldview and impede learning from past mistakes. We tend to celebrate the successes while overlooking the failures that often contain critical lessons. Ignoring these lessons can lead to repeating the same mistakes. This bias can be particularly detrimental to entrepreneurs who need to learn from both successes and failures to navigate the complex landscape of starting and growing a business.

A Lesson from History: World War II Aircraft Analysis

A famous example illustrating survivorship bias is the analysis of aircraft damage during World War II. The US military aimed to reduce aircraft casualties and began by evaluating the planes that returned from battles. They mapped out the regions with the most bullet holes, primarily the wings and tail, and initially decided to armor these areas. However, a mathematician named Abraham Wald suggested a different approach. He pointed out that the military was only examining the planes that survived. The aircraft that didn't return likely had crucial hits in the engine and cockpit areas. Therefore, Wald recommended armoring these vulnerable regions instead, ultimately saving thousands of lives. This story underscores the importance of considering what is not immediately visible—an essential strategy for avoiding survivorship bias.

Silent Evidence: The Unseen Side of Data

In his book The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb introduces the concept of "silent evidence," referring to data that is not readily apparent. Survivorship bias often overlooks this silent evidence. By only examining successful outcomes, we miss out on the valuable information that failures provide. For entrepreneurs, acknowledging silent evidence can lead to more informed decision-making and a better understanding of potential pitfalls.

Understanding the Roots of Survivorship Bias

To fully grasp how survivorship bias impacts our judgment, it's essential to delve into its psychological underpinnings. Our brains are wired to recognize patterns and draw conclusions based on available information. This ability has been crucial for survival throughout human history. However, this same mechanism can lead to erroneous conclusions when the information we rely on is incomplete or skewed.

Pattern Recognition and Cognitive Shortcuts

Human beings have evolved to be adept at recognizing patterns. This skill helps us make quick decisions and navigate complex environments. However, this strength can also be a weakness. When we see a pattern of success stories, our brains may automatically conclude that these stories are the norm, even if they represent only a tiny fraction of the total attempts. This cognitive shortcut can lead to an overestimation of success rates and an underestimation of the challenges involved.

The Availability Heuristic

The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to mind when evaluating a topic or decision. This heuristic can lead to survivorship bias because success stories are often more memorable and widely publicized than failures. As a result, when we think about entrepreneurship, we might immediately recall famous success stories like Apple, Google, or Amazon, while the countless startups that failed to gain traction remain obscure.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias, the tendency to search for, interpret, and remember information that confirms our preconceptions, also plays a role in survivorship bias. If we already believe that entrepreneurship is a path to success, we are more likely to focus on examples that support this belief and ignore those that contradict it. This selective attention reinforces our skewed perception and makes it harder to recognize the broader reality.

The Impact of Survivorship Bias on Entrepreneurship

Survivorship bias can have several detrimental effects on entrepreneurs, influencing their decision-making processes, risk assessments, and overall business strategies. Understanding these impacts can help entrepreneurs develop a more balanced and realistic approach to their ventures.

Overestimating Success Rates

One of the most significant consequences of survivorship bias is the overestimation of success rates. When entrepreneurs only consider the success stories, they may believe that success is more common and achievable than it actually is. This overestimation can lead to unrealistic expectations and inadequate preparation for the challenges ahead.

Underestimating Challenges and Risks

By focusing on successful outcomes, entrepreneurs may underestimate the difficulties and risks involved in starting and running a business. This underestimation can result in insufficient planning, resource allocation, and risk management. Entrepreneurs who are unprepared for potential obstacles are more likely to encounter difficulties that could have been mitigated with better foresight and preparation.

Ignoring the Importance of Adaptation

Survivorship bias can also lead to a rigid adherence to initial business plans and strategies. When entrepreneurs believe that success is primarily a matter of having the right idea, they may be less inclined to adapt and pivot in response to changing market conditions or new information. This inflexibility can hinder their ability to innovate and respond to challenges effectively.

Overconfidence and Risk-Taking

Overconfidence is another common byproduct of survivorship bias. When entrepreneurs see success as more attainable than it is, they may take on greater risks without fully appreciating the potential downsides. This overconfidence can lead to reckless decision-making and increased vulnerability to failure.

Strategies to Mitigate Survivorship Bias

While survivorship bias is a natural cognitive tendency, entrepreneurs can take steps to mitigate its effects and make more informed decisions. By adopting a more comprehensive and balanced approach, they can better navigate the complexities of entrepreneurship and increase their chances of success.

Embrace a Balanced Learning Approach

Learning from both successes and failures is crucial for gaining a well-rounded perspective. Entrepreneurs should seek out case studies and analyses of failed ventures to understand the pitfalls and challenges that others have faced. This balanced approach can provide valuable insights that are often missing from success stories alone.

Case Studies and Post-Mortems

Reading detailed case studies and post-mortem analyses of failed startups can reveal common reasons for failure, such as poor market fit, inadequate funding, or management issues. These lessons can help entrepreneurs avoid similar mistakes and develop more robust strategies.

Mentorship and Peer Learning

Engaging with mentors and peers who have experienced both success and failure can also provide valuable perspectives. These individuals can offer practical advice and share their experiences, helping entrepreneurs learn from a broader range of outcomes.

Develop a Critical Mindset

Entrepreneurs should cultivate a critical mindset that questions assumptions and seeks to understand the underlying factors behind both successes and failures. This involves looking beyond the surface and analyzing the deeper reasons for outcomes.

Root Cause Analysis

Conducting root cause analyses can help entrepreneurs identify the fundamental reasons for both successes and failures. By understanding the root causes, they can develop strategies to replicate positive outcomes and avoid negative ones.

Continuous Improvement

Adopting a mindset of continuous improvement can also help entrepreneurs stay adaptable and responsive to new information. By regularly assessing their performance and seeking ways to improve, they can build resilience and agility.

Conduct Comprehensive Research

Gathering data from a wide range of sources is essential for gaining a complete picture of the entrepreneurial landscape. This includes studying both successful and failed ventures to identify trends and common factors.

Market and Competitive Analysis

Conducting thorough market and competitive analyses can help entrepreneurs understand the broader context in which they operate. This research can reveal opportunities and threats that may not be apparent from success stories alone.

Diverse Data Sources

Entrepreneurs should also seek out diverse data sources, including industry reports, academic studies, and insights from experienced professionals. This comprehensive approach can provide a more nuanced understanding of the factors that influence success and failure.

Foster Adaptability and Willingness to Pivot

Successful entrepreneurs are often those who can adapt and pivot based on the lessons learned from both successes and failures. Flexibility and willingness to change strategies in response to new information are crucial traits for long-term success.

Iterative Development

Adopting an iterative development approach, where products and strategies are continuously refined based on feedback and new insights, can help entrepreneurs stay responsive to changing market conditions.

Agile Methodologies

Implementing agile methodologies, which emphasize flexibility, collaboration, and iterative progress, can also support adaptability. These methodologies encourage regular reassessment of goals and strategies, making it easier to pivot when necessary.

Cultivate a Mindset of Continuous Learning

A mindset that values continuous learning and improvement is essential for entrepreneurial success. By embracing both successes and failures as opportunities to grow, entrepreneurs can build resilience and adaptability.

Reflective Practices

Engaging in reflective practices, such as journaling or regular debriefs with team members, can help entrepreneurs internalize lessons from their experiences. This reflection can lead to deeper insights and more informed decision-making.

Professional Development

Investing in professional development, such as attending workshops, conferences, and training programs, can also support continuous learning. These opportunities can expose entrepreneurs to new ideas and best practices from a wide range of industries.

Practical Examples of Avoiding Survivorship Bias

To illustrate how entrepreneurs can avoid survivorship bias, let's explore a few practical examples. These examples demonstrate how a balanced approach to learning and decision-making can lead to better outcomes.

Example 1: The Tech Startup

A tech startup founder is inspired by the success of companies like Uber and Airbnb. They decide to develop an app that connects freelance professionals with clients, believing that their idea will achieve similar success. Instead of solely focusing on successful app-based companies, the founder conducts a thorough analysis of failed tech startups in the same space. They discover common pitfalls, such as inadequate user acquisition strategies and poor user retention. Armed with this knowledge, the founder designs a more robust go-to-market strategy, including targeted marketing campaigns and user engagement initiatives. By learning from both successes and failures, the startup is better positioned to navigate the competitive landscape.

Example 2: The E-Commerce Business

An e-commerce entrepreneur launches an online store selling eco-friendly products, inspired by the success of brands like Patagonia and TOMS. They initially focus on replicating the marketing strategies of these successful brands. However, they also study e-commerce businesses that failed despite having similar products. Through this analysis, they identify common challenges, such as supply chain issues and customer acquisition costs. The entrepreneur develops contingency plans to address these challenges, such as diversifying suppliers and optimizing digital marketing efforts. By considering the lessons from both successful and failed e-commerce ventures, the business builds a more resilient and sustainable model.

Example 3: The Restaurant Owner

A restaurant owner dreams of creating a dining experience that rivals the success of renowned establishments like The French Laundry or Noma. They meticulously study the operational strategies and menu designs of these successful restaurants. Additionally, they research restaurants that failed to gain traction, uncovering issues such as inconsistent quality and poor location choices. The owner applies these insights by implementing rigorous quality control measures and selecting a prime location with high foot traffic. By learning from the full spectrum of restaurant experiences, the owner enhances the chances of creating a successful and enduring dining establishment.

The Role of Data in Avoiding Survivorship Bias

Data plays a crucial role in helping entrepreneurs avoid survivorship bias. By leveraging data analytics and evidence-based decision-making, entrepreneurs can gain a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of their business environment.

Data-Driven Decision Making

Data-driven decision-making involves using data and analytics to inform strategic choices. This approach helps entrepreneurs move beyond anecdotal evidence and gut feelings, providing a more objective basis for decisions.

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)

Identifying and tracking key performance indicators (KPIs) can help entrepreneurs measure their progress and make informed adjustments. KPIs provide tangible metrics that reflect the health and performance of a business.

A/B Testing

A/B testing, or split testing, is a method of comparing two versions of a webpage, app, or marketing campaign to determine which performs better. This approach allows entrepreneurs to test hypotheses and make data-driven improvements.

Leveraging Big Data and Analytics

Big data and advanced analytics offer powerful tools for understanding market trends, customer behaviors, and competitive dynamics. By harnessing these tools, entrepreneurs can gain deeper insights and make more informed decisions.

Predictive Analytics

Predictive analytics uses historical data and statistical algorithms to forecast future outcomes. Entrepreneurs can use predictive analytics to anticipate market changes, identify potential risks, and develop proactive strategies.

Customer Analytics

Customer analytics involves analyzing customer data to understand behaviors, preferences, and trends. This information can help entrepreneurs tailor their products and marketing efforts to better meet customer needs.

Building a Culture of Data Literacy

To fully benefit from data-driven decision-making, entrepreneurs should foster a culture of data literacy within their organizations. This involves ensuring that team members have the skills and knowledge to interpret and use data effectively.

Training and Education

Providing training and education on data analytics and interpretation can empower team members to make informed decisions. This investment in data literacy can enhance the overall effectiveness of the organization.

Collaborative Decision Making

Encouraging collaborative decision-making, where data is shared and discussed openly among team members, can lead to more comprehensive and balanced insights. This approach leverages the diverse perspectives within the organization.


In conclusion, survivorship bias is a common yet dangerous trap that can mislead entrepreneurs. By acknowledging and studying both successful and failed ventures, entrepreneurs can gain a more balanced and accurate understanding of what it takes to succeed. The key is to remain open to learning from all experiences and to continually adapt strategies based on comprehensive insights. Remember, the path to success is not a straight line, but a journey filled with lessons from both triumphs and setbacks. By avoiding survivorship bias, entrepreneurs can navigate this journey more effectively and increase their chances of achieving sustainable success.

The lessons from survivorship bias extend beyond individual decision-making and can influence broader strategic thinking. By fostering a culture that values balanced learning, critical analysis, comprehensive research, adaptability, and continuous improvement, entrepreneurs can build resilient and innovative organizations. Embracing the full spectrum of experiences—both successes and failures—enables entrepreneurs to develop more robust strategies, make informed decisions, and ultimately achieve long-term success. The journey of entrepreneurship is challenging, but by avoiding the pitfalls of survivorship bias, entrepreneurs can enhance their ability to navigate the complexities and uncertainties of building and growing a business.

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