Science to startup

The role of diminishing returns

It’s not a rule, but instead, something that is quite commonly observed; the law of diminishing returns.

Often this is talked about from an economics viewpoint where you try to optimise the profits made from the inputs committed. If you put nothing in you’ll get nothing out, but if you try to sell to everyone, you’ll use all your profits on costs.

This framework can be used for anything, the effort put in to try and be noticed by someone, the exercise sweated through to get healthy, the time committed to gain information, etc. As a simple rule, for most cases, after a certain point, the more you commit to a cause or goal the less progress you will make with each further commitment.

This is where science and startups are fundamentally different.


To know something, you need to be very sure, in fact, a ‘fact’ in science needs to pass the 5 sigma level, (99.9999% sure). To anyone who has ever worked in research, you know the lengths that scientists go to. We make sure that the energy captured by a wire from ambient radio transmissions don’t register as a current when measuring 1 trillionth of an amp. We make sure that something that has performed exactly as expected is repeated several times from scratch. We calibrate scales to ‘weigh’ less than a single layer of atoms (that one really does require a steady hand and some cleaning).

The point is that everything is done very high up on the curve of diminishing returns, that is what, in part, you are trained to do. Don’t take short cuts, repeat and create controls for everything you do.


Many decisions are made with the knowledge that you do not have all of the information to make the best decisions, let alone the extra information you didn’t realise you needed. Even if you had all this information, you often don’t have access to the specific expert that could use it. You simply have to make the best decision possible with the resources available.

These judgments and the weighing of resources for future and potential work is what makes founding sometimes pretty hard.

The difference

Having started as a scientist and now working on a startup, one of the most conscious tasks was actively only finishing many tasks to 80%.

When you have been trained to finish things to 99.9999% completion, signing off on a document that is completely fit for purpose but isn’t perfect can be difficult.

You don’t get the satisfaction, you can still see all the ways it could be improved, but you’re already due to be switching gears onto the next (and usually different) task.

If I was to pick one singular hurdle to this science to startup transition, I would say that this ability would rank the highest. Can you honestly see yourself signing off at 80%?

If you can, you can look forward to occasionally bringing the full 99.9999% scrutiny to some business meetings, a very useful tool that’ll raise an eyebrow or two. If not, you can always team up with someone who can, or just stick to furthering humanity’s knowledge one step at a time.

This difference between the sectors is something that is quite obvious, but is most definitely a key question worth asking when determining your path.

Personally … I regard 80% completion as being 99.9999% time effective.

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