The donkey that starved

Donkeys are said to live in a land which is barren most of the time, except when seasonal torrential rains transform the landscape into verdant green meadows. Oddly enough, the donkeys thrive in the dry season, but starve during the rains! Why?

It turns out during the dry season, donkeys race towards the smallest sliver of grass and gobble it up, knowing that their next meal may be far in the future. So, they manage to survive.

But, when there is grass aplenty, when a donkey is about to take in a mouthful of fresh grass, it sees that the grass is greener a bit further away. So, it does not eat, but, instead, walks over to the better patch. The actions repeat, however (after all, it is a donkey we are talking about), and so the beast wanders from patch to patch, never actually consuming any grass, eventually starving.

Most of us are like this apocryphal donkey. When we have a single choice, we make quick progress. But when confronted with an embarrassment of riches, we waste time pondering the alternatives.

I heard this story from Kanwal Rekhi, who was the CEO of my company between 2001 and 2004. He used this to illustrate why startups die: they chase opportunity after vaporous opportunity. That is why, he used to say, startups do well in a recession.