Being In Beta

On the day of the ribbon-cutting ceremony for my friend Angela’s first pizzeria, her two sons—one sixteen years old, one eight—got up to say a few words.

The older boy spoke first: “Congratulations, Mum. You’ve worked so hard, and we’re all really proud of you.”

The audience smiled at the polite teenager. Then the younger boy broke in.

“Finally!” he shouted. “I never have to eat pizza again!”

Angela laughed and hugged her plainspoken son. She understood his relief. Ever since they moved from Detroit to Austin for her husband’s tech job, the two boys had been Angela’s guinea pigs. They had taste-tested dozens of doughs, scores of sauces, and a seemingly endless array of sausage, pepperoni, garlic, and mozzarella. Angela had set out to make the perfect Detroit-style pizza, and her sons—unlike her well-mannered friends—were her most candid diners. If a flavour or a texture wasn’t right, she could always count on shouts of “Ew!” and “Gross!” Conversely, if she had hit the mark, the boys would happily gobble up half their weight in pie.

Angela’s restaurant was one of the first Detroit-style pizzerias in the south. The deep-dish, sauce-on-top pie garnered stellar reviews, and spawned a loyal fan base.

But there was a problem: People kept trying to order thin crust. This was around the time low-carb diets were all the rage, and not everyone was thrilled by the inch-thick layer of dough beneath their toppings.

After the buzz of opening night died down, customers dwindled, and Angela began to worry. She weighed her options. She could stay the course, serving the best Detroit-style pizza in Austin, and hoping the rest of the city would catch up to the trend. Or should could rethink her concept and expand the menu.

She went with the second option. The next night for dinner, she placed three paper-thin pizzas on the table. “Boys,” she said. “Eat up. You’re gonna help me develop the best thin-crust in the city.”

Fifteen years later, Angela has three pizzerias, proudly serving Detroit-style, thin-crust, and a handful of heavenly baked pasta dishes. Reviewers often refer to Angela as a “triple threat” of casual Italian cuisine.

I asked my friend how she felt during that first, dicey year in business. “It was scary. Most of our life savings were in that restaurant. But I never let myself feel defeated. I stayed in Beta.”

Being in Beta was a phrase she had picked up from her husband, the computer geek. In programming speak, Beta refers to the first phase of testing open to a public audience. Beta versions are usually crude and unattractive, but they get the job done. Many times, the Beta version will reveal design flaws and quirks. That’s the whole point—to try something, to see if it fails, and if it does, to try again.

I asked Angela to expand, and she outlined for me the seven steps of Beta:

1. Knowing your goal.
2. Failure.
3. Overcoming Perfection.
4. Testing.
5. Using Resources.
6. Listening.
7. Constant Improvement.

In Angela’s case, staying in Beta looked like this:

1. Knowing your goal. (“I’m going to open the best Detroit-style pizza in Austin.”)
2. Failure. (“Oh no! Not everyone likes Detroit-style pizza.”)
3. Overcoming Perfection (“It’s okay that not everyone likes this pizza. We’ll expand the menu.”)
4. Testing (“Boys, try these three varieties of thin-crust, and tell me what you think.”)
5. Using Resources (“Mum, the sauce is gross, but the crust is great.”)
6. Listening (“I’ll keep the crust, ditch the sauce.”)
7. Constant Improvement (“Boys, here are three more pizzas. What do you think?”)

Think about your own life. Are you in beta? Do you set clear goals for yourself? Are you hungry to improve, or are you satisfied with standing still? Do you surround yourself with friends and colleagues who are pushing to be better, or is your social circle full of people who are always talking about doing something but never seem to get anything done?
I used to work with a guy who would send an email to all his co-workers at the end of the month. He would ask how he could improve in certain areas of his work. This guy was always in Beta, always improving. Before long, the trend caught on. Soon we were all exchanging emails and meeting in small groups. We would set individual and collective goals. Then we’d pick each other’s brains, determining how far we had come. If we fell short, we learned from our mistakes and tried a new strategy the next time. If we succeeded with flying colours, we’d set our sights higher.

There’s a lot of talk about “being the best version of yourself.” That’s a pretty tall order, isn’t it? Get over perfection paralysis. Forget about being the best version of yourself, and start being the beta version of yourself.

Stay hungry.

Try, fail, try again, fail better.

Be in Beta.

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