Introduction: Breeding Hydras

Conceiving an Antifragile Startup

When I first read Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile, the core concept burrowed into my cerebellum and has refused to let go ever since. Imagine creating something that could grow stronger the more resistance that it meets. I immediately wondered how the concept might apply to founders, and whether it might be possible to confect an antifragile startup.

If you’re not familiar with the term “antifragile,” the word itself gives you the gist. The true opposite of “fragile” is not simply being strong or robust. We need a term for something that doesn’t just weather resistance, but rather improves from it outright.

We see this all around us. Plant and animal species become stronger and more well-adapted because the stressors of nature assist in evolution. On a different scale, we see our own muscles grow stronger through applied resistance. It almost seems odd for something so commonplace to not have been given a name until recently.

Imagine how incredible it would be to build a practice, author a document, create a process or start a business that nothing could set back, because setbacks were its very fuel. This is the essence of the antifragile startup.

Antifragility and the Ancients

The concept is literally epic. Antifragility captured the imaginations of the ancient Greeks even though they had no word for it.

Think of the Hydra, the mythological multi-headed beast that would grow back two heads when one was cut off. What would it be like to imitate that phenomenon?

The Hydra
The Hydra, which would regrow two heads where one was cut off

Think also of Heracles (Hercules to the Romans) battling the Giant Antaeus. As the son of the goddess of earth, Antaeus drew power from contact with the ground. Every time he was knocked down in combat, he would rise up stronger than when he started.

Is it possible for a business to imitate this in essence?

Founding a Business is a Fragile Business

To found a startup is, similarly, to feel oneself consistently knocked to the ground. Founders subject themselves to the winds of the marketplace unshielded by corporations or institutions. They are more acutely threatened by random or unexpected outcomes: imperfect product-market fit, sudden new competition, employee and benefits costs, growth and scaling problems, and the like.

If that weren’t enough, founders oftentimes have no cushioning or redundancies to help their businesses survive operational or even personal disruptions. An early-stage founder might find an exceptional market fit and have all systems go, only to see her business fail because she happened to get sick at the wrong time.

What a difference it would make if her business could grow back two heads after one was cut off. If you don’t have an antifragile startup, you have a fragile one.

My name is Scott Fenstermaker, and I’m a marketer and a startup mentor at the 1871 business incubator. Together, you and I are going to travel through the world of Nassim Taleb’s antifragility looking with founders’ eyes. We will learn how we can harness the properties of these special antifragile systems to build businesses that automatically absorb stressors as fuel.

1871 Business Incubator
1871 Business Incubator, Merchandise Mart, Chicago

The journey will take us through a fascinating nexus of mathematics, biology, philosophy, risk, probability, entrepreneurship, ancient fables, and practical wisdom for living life. I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that nearly every mentoring conversation I’ve had involved principles reflected in this material.

In the best cases, conversations that start out narrowly focused on analytics or digital marketing techniques often expand into discussions on broader decision principles. I’ve learned an immense amount from the scores of mentor conversations I’ve had at 1871, and this is my way of giving my learnings back as a framework for building stronger startups.

I hope this captures your imagination the way it captured mine.