Take a Bearing

Craig Dunk
4 min readApr 28, 2023
A camping group looking at a compass with mountains in the distance
A group taking a compass bearing before setting out on the next part of their journey. Analogous to a deliberate reevaluation during business planning.

I was part of a scout troop as a youth. An amazing and an unpleasant experience all rolled into one 😉. One of the the amazing parts of the experience for me was “orienteering” basically given a map and compass you navigate to a new area. One of the practices of orienteering is to adopt a cycle of moving in a planned direction for a period, and then stopping and taking a new bearing (a new direction) based on where you actually ended up. This is needed because, like the rest of life, it is hard to just pick a direction and go without getting off track or discovering opportunities and impediments.

This week I had a number of conversations and I am a few weeks into the process of ramping up the build-in-the-open startup in a new space — currently focused on eggs and algae. So it made sense to consolidate some of those experiences and to take a new bearing. Essentially this is spending a few hours rebuilding the mental model of where I am at and where I need to go — and avoiding the temptation during that short reflection of trying to accomplish more of your existing plan, or get more information.

One of the conversations I had was a very energizing dinner conversation with a former colleague who is a CEO, founder, and operator focused investor. It was great to be able to layout my thinking in a pretty raw format and have him probe and ask smart questions from the outside. One of the reflections of having that experience was how to make the most of it as the person seeking input and reaction. A first part of it is to know the small number of areas that would be important to talk about, with a couple open ended questions or even just prompts for reaction. In my case I was spending time on a business model with my former colleague and the prompt was just to explain my current thinking (distributing production to egg producers) and some of the challenges (how to structure capital expenses, how to price, how to avoid dysfunctional incentives). And asked for reaction, and asked how he thinks about business models when he is looking at opportunities — and specifically how much traction to demonstrate early.

This took as lots of different directions across brand, b2b vs b2c, and more. And a reminder from that process is that when you enter these conversations typically this person is not thinking as specifically about the space as you but will have a lot of really valuable alternate perspectives. So the conversation will tend to follow different paths and leads — it won’t tend to be a structured and organized feedback and instead will be ideas to consider, and alternate framings borrowed from their experience. This is great! And at the same time it does need you to apply the structure — it is a responsibility as the person asking the question to do your best to organize these threads, and keep the conversation moving to where it is most useful.

A couple key takeaways from the conversation on the specific space I am exploring:

  • Going deeper and doing so earlier on the customer side might be appropriate as I am still assuming a lot about customer needs and behaviours. In particular why the natural forms of these algal protein sources are not scaled today.
  • Check on my assumed constraints again: I have some business models I think will be unsuccessful for specific reaons, but the conversation served as a good push to flip some of the constraints and play them out a bit further to see in detail what they would look like

That particular conversation gave me a number of observations to incorporate but I have also been communicating with a number of folks on the bio side. And more synbio conversations in the pipeline. I am starting to get a stronger framework to think about the timing and the feasibility of progress here — another good set of data points to integrate covering things like: the likely side effects of “regression to the mean” when working on organism engineering, some of the false starts and areas of hype with algae, connections to experts in a position to move this forward.

As result of my my reflections, I have made a number of changes to my priorities:

  • Moving synbio conversations into a more background task primarily focused on getting to a short consulting arrangement with an expert. Going deeper will be back on the radar after answering some other customer questions.
  • Elevated the customer side, and trying to really test that system, for example by just “doing that thing that doesn’t scale” of starting with manually connecting with unmodified algae producer, buying algae, and going through a process with egg producers. Basically “run water through the pipes”

Conclusions

Intended general startup takeaways:

  • Conversations with people who can ask you good questions are valuable — up to you to prep well in a just a few areas, organize the results, and choose how to respond if you feel you have a signal you need to react to.
  • A deliberate pause to take your bearing — switching modes from moving work forward to checking direction can be effective: you can really focus when in each mode, and both important aspects still get attention.
  • Even if you know to stay close to the customer problem, it’s a good reminder that you probably have fundamental untested assumptions.

Build-in-the-Open Eggs and Algae takeaways:

  • Moving synbio conversations to routine rather than high priority
  • Moving direct customer activities higher up the priority list and earlier in the schedule.

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Craig Dunk

Tech leader, speculative fiction fan, parent to adult children, and a big fan of camp fires.