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A Startup is Really Just a Rube Goldberg Machine

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By Jake L'Ecuyer, Venture for America Class of 2012

Jake L'Ecuyer

We're building a giant Rube Goldberg Machine in Detroit. Or rather, we're gathering dozens of Detroiters from across the city and suburbs to build the largest continuous chain of Rube Goldberg Machines in Detroit.

For the uninitiated, a Rube Goldberg machine is a highly complex set of physical interactions that complete a simple task, often in comical or amusing ways.

Building a Rube Goldberg machine is an incredibly complex, frustrating, and failure-rich affair. In the process of building our machines, we've realized that our experiences and lessons translate pretty directly into the character traits needed to succeed at a startup.

In fact, it sounds pretty close to building a startup. Here are a couple of our takeaways that apply to both.

Accept, and be comfortable with failure

Building a Rube Goldberg machine can be quite frustrating. It's not uncommon for dominoes to fall over as you set them up for the fifth time in a row, half the machine to set itself off as a golf ball slips, or for a critical component to flat out not work when you try and run it.

At a startup failure is common as well. Often times the elaborate machine you built simply doesn't solve the problem; and you have to go back to the drawing board. Both with Rube Goldberg machines and startups, the builder must be able to not only accept failure, but embrace it and move forward.

Celebrate the little successes

Small victories are key when building a complicated project. Each time a piece of your machine works, get excited! You're one step closer to the goal! Building something as complicated as a Rube Goldberg machine takes significant patience and involves repetitive failure. Once something finally works, be sure to take the time to pat yourself and your team on the back. You earned it.

Think ahead

Every section of a Rube Goldberg machine must conserve energy and carry it through to the next step as efficiently as possible. More importantly than the energy being carried through, however, is knowing where that energy is going.

A common mistake both entrepreneurs and venture capitalists write about is the tendency to plow forward with their heads down, remaining so focused on a problem or project that they forget to step back and see the issue as a whole.

What's the point in completing a beautiful machine if it doesn't solve the problem you need it to?

Be patient and do not expect instant success

To expect success the first time you run a Rube Goldberg machine is to invite disappointment. The same goes for startups.

Often, the initial version of a product will fail spectacularly. Not only must a builder be comfortable with that failure, but they must expect it and be prepared to iterate and adapt quickly. It's these changes that make a Rube Goldberg machines and startups, alike, beautiful.

The end product often looks far different than what you initially imagined after many iterations.

Balance the deliberateness of an engineer with the creativity of an artist

Putting together a Rube Goldberg machine does require some mechanical aptitude, but it thrives on the creativity of an artist more so than anything else, primarily because it's unlikely anyone has tried to solve your problem in this way before.

This same outlook applies to startups. While new products and software often call for very skilled engineers, the creativity to be able to do more with less while solving a problem in an entirely new way is what's most critical.

Once you're done all you want to do is build another...

Forget the frustration, countless hours of work, and unending number of failures. Once your machine is complete, all you really want to do is launch another.

After the long fight once the job is done, you'll find that you've fallen in love with the process itself, and that all you really want to do is go at it again.

Motor City Machine is a Venture for America Innovation Fund project. The Innovation Fund gives aspiring entrepreneurs the opportunity to launch their business ideas and projects. To support Motor City Machine, visit their Rockethub campaign!