Escape from the trough of sorrow

Feb 20 2014

I remember the feeling.

I realized that our exciting, shiny idea was not looking so bright anymore. It wasn’t quite panic, but it sure wasn’t comfortable. Let’s just call it a letdown.

We had entered the Trough of Sorrow. An all-too familiar stage for entrepreneurs, it is the time where people become disenchanted with the startup process and must ask themselves tough questions and make important decisions.

Entering The Trough
This semester, our four-person group started out with the idea that we would be creating a prototype that ranks North Carolina lawyers with a quantitative system based on success rates in court.

We were excited. I was pretty pumped.

As a massive sports fan, I always find myself looking at rankings: home run leaders, high school basketball prospect rankings, college football polls.

Mainly, I was excited that our project would rank lawyers based on a quantitative, data-driven algorithm. Countless rankings of lawyers throughout the country already exist, but they are mainly based on client reviews and peer surveys. Being able to use hard data to make the system more efficient and transparent was an exciting prospect.

About three weeks ago, as we began to iron out the more specific details of the project, we started to get somewhat overwhelmed. In our research, we kept seeing our options narrow in terms of access to information.

We found that the state court websites were hard to navigate and that their case records were difficult to access and rarely updated. The main hiccup: we realized that “success” was extremely hard to quantify in most cases and was all dependent on the lawyer and defendant’s goal in a specific case.

After a week of research that found us hitting roadblocks around every turn, we felt defeated. There was even a moment when our entire four-person group was sprawled out on the Lab floor, not sure of how to continue the process.

At that moment, we realized we had entered the Trough of Sorrow: the stage of the startup process that all entrepreneurs hope to avoid but eventually realize is in inevitable part of the process.

Escaping The Trough
The “Trough of Sorrow” is part of Paul Graham’s visualization of “The Startup Curve”.

In a nutshell, the curve starts off with morale high. The startup is new and is based around a fresh, exciting idea. As the novelty wears off, the Trough of Sorrow creeps in as adversity looms. As the startup team works its way out of the Trough, the roller coaster continues, eventually leading to “The Promised Land” if the startup proves successful.

So how do you get out?

The first step: research smarter.

Our group set an appointment with a reference librarian at the UNC Law School. Looking back, we should have set that meeting weeks earlier and saved ourselves hours of hassle and frustration.

The librarian showed us a variety of useful online resources and helped us realize that tracking and quantifying judges’ tendencies and decisions was much easier than tracking the success of lawyers in court cases.

The second step: Evaluate your idea. Restructure if necessary.

We are no longer looking to rank lawyers. Instead, we have decided to move forward with the idea of a “reversal rate” for North Carolina judges and a ranking system that shows how well judges’ decisions have held up when challenged in a higher state appellate court.

Although our approach and vision is fairly comprehensive, the premise is simple: judges whose decisions are upheld and supported in higher courts should be recognized

The third step: Pursue your new vision, avoid getting discouraged.

Sure, it feels like we may have burned a few weeks of valuable time after we dropped the idea of ranking lawyers. But that time we spent on that idea will be beneficial as we continue moving forward.

We now know how to research more effectively, which pitfalls to avoid and how to ask the right questions as our idea grows and we make progress toward a final prototype.

As we move forward with our new, more realistic idea, our group is motivated, refreshed and thinking more positively. We may remain in the Trough of Sorrow for a bit longer, but we certainly believe that things are moving in the right direction.


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