One morning I was walking around in my balcony when suddenly my toddler screamed, “Mumma, you just stepped on my cake! I am a chef, and I am making this beautiful cake with cherries which I had kept right there.”
I realized my mistake, so I apologized profusely, gave him a hug and promised to help him bake it again. To be clear, in my view of reality there was no cake and no cherries. But that does not matter to my son. Toddlers play in their mind and act out their dreams and their ideas. He was chef Aarav and he could clearly see this beautiful cake. In fact, a few seconds before I entered the balcony, he had placed that imaginary cake in that exact spot. Was it real? Of course it was. That was his reality which is why he could play with all his heart. Just because my eyes cannot see this reality, does not make it less real.
That same afternoon, I met with a startup founder to help him refine an idea, specifically work on understanding and predicting how customers would respond. I said something about how user behavior may not comply, and from the entrepreneur’s face I could tell that I had stepped on his beautiful cake! The emotion was the same I had seen in Aarav’s eyes this morning – How can you not see what I see?
Having been an entrepreneur myself, I knew how this founder felt. First I assured him that I could see the cake, but I can suggest a better way to bake it, and even if cherries are not available, orange peels would do just fine. There are also other possibilities along the way and he can play with those so this long journey would be more fun and more predictable. It was a beautiful conversation, stimulating for both of us as I was speaking from his side, never once doubting his view of reality, because I knew that if he could not see it he would not be creating a venture.
Visionary founders are very similar to children, especially toddlers, because they play with their imagination rather than with what exists around them. They see a different reality. They see customers behaving very differently from how they behave today. They see cakes and cherries where we see nothing at all. And every time they talk about their idea to someone who does not get it, they have that heart-breaking feeling – How can you not see what I see?
A good mentor or a good investor will always respect this imaginary cake and walk around it. Rather than question its existence, they will focus on what can be done to make it real for everyone. Similarly good entrepreneurs will not stop seeing the cake just because no one else can see it. Just like Aarav, they may move on from baking cakes, to building castles, to flying rockets but they’ll never stop imagining a world that’s far more exciting than what we see.