Michael Siebel's Advice: Default to Action Has Been Transformative

Default to Action is the most transformative thing I leared at YCombinator, bar none.

Michael imparted this wisdom during a talk about development cadence and team brainstorming sessions. It’s not the title of a book or a click-bait HN post, just three words that stood out to me.

I thought, sure, I can default to action but over time, actually using the idea has shown it’s value. Here are the ways ‘defaulting to action’ has been transformative in our startup journey so far.

Changing a Lightbulb

“Please can you change this lightbulb?” This seems like a harmless question until you know the whole story. Manager A leaves the office, walks onto the factory floor and notices a blown lightbulb.

To fix this, the manager walks around 300 meters (past the cupboard containing spare lightbulbs) to a factory employee currently working through a cutting list on an industrial saw.

Manager A stops the factory employee from what he is doing and takes him to see the blown bulb. This involves walking back past the cupboard with the lightbulbs in. The managers asks: “Please can you change this lightbulb?”

And so it goes on. Why didn’t the manager just change the lightbulb in the first place?

I watched this playout and was genuinely shocked but of course, if it’s not your job to change the lightbulbs then it must be someone elses.

Well, in startup land, it’s everyone’s job to change the lightbulb. You just have to default to action.

This ‘every job is everyone’s job’ in small companies it pretty obvious (there are only two of us so someone has to do ‘it’) but I think it’s the simplest way to start implementing default to action. If you see something that needs doing, just do it. The efficieny gains are plain to see and time is a rare commodity

But there are more subtle ways defaulting to action has helped.

Perfection is Thine Enemy

What you build will likely never be finished. That’s not to say, you shouldn’t strive for excellence but perfection perverts progress.

Strive for perfection and you may never launch. For a year or more, we worked on perfecting passwordless authentication as a service. It didn’t work as a business so we pivoted but why did it take so long to figure that out?

We didn’t default to action. We found great reasons to carry on building, crafting excellent marketing messages and attempting to build communities but we didn’t sell and because we didn’t sell, we didn’t realise the issues with our business model that were present.

This is where it gets subtle. You could argue we had plenty of ‘action’ going on but like the factory manager and his lightbulb, we merely looked busy.

We were setting everything up to change the lightbulb without ever actually changing the lightbulb. It’s at this point you stop being a developer and you start being a business woman / man.

Action Stations

It was time for some proper action so, during YC S20, we pivoted. Not a cutesy re-think of our direction but a full-blown, tools down, have a cry, delete the repo and start fresh pivot.

Our group partners practically spat their coffee out when we announced it during group office hours. One day were were working on passwordless, the next we were working on Plum Mail.

We didn’t consult or cogitate, we just got on with it. I think you know when an idea is dead and there is little value in moping about in a black bathrobe for weeks on end. You just figure out what to do instead and start doing it.

“I think we just defaulted to action,” Pete said. “Yes, I think we did.” And default to action has been our saying of the day ever since.

Pivoting three weeks before demo day focusses you. In three short weeks we conceived a new product, built enough of it make a video, launched a marketing site and put the whole thing out on Hacker News. We built a waitlist, presented at demo day and picked up some investment.

It was far from perfect but this time spent was quite literally transformative from the decision to pivot to implementing our demo-day plans.

A Lasting Impression

Defaulting to action has defined this part of our startup journey in more ways than I had originally appreciated.

We are working on our Action First Inbox concept at the moment. Quite independently from the words ‘default to action’ our product has adopted the very idea that has come to define us.

Action, good productive action is what we needed in our company and what we defaulted to when thinking about how to add value in our product.

This is why I believe the statement default to action has done more than encourage us to ‘just change the lightbulb’ but has been a genuinely transformative force in our startup.