Activation energy and why it matters for product launches

If you mix diluted hydrochloric acid with carefully measured strips of magnesium, you’ll get hydrogen...

You need a certain amount of each chemical though. If you don’t, the reaction won’t happen. You’ll get silence.

Activation energy is a term I learned from my friend Yuki, a biochemist who grows meat from cell cultures in Petri dishes. It’s “the minimum quantity of energy needed in order to undergo a specified reaction.”

Many projects take a level of activation energy before you start to see feedback—negative or positive. Maybe you’re an inch away from seeing a result, maybe you are a mile away...

So what can you do?

Consider matching the resources you have available so you can tip the scale and hit the threshold needed. In other words, only start something if you’re going to reach the activation energy of that project.

If you want to start an airline, find out how much money it took for other airlines to start. If you don’t have that, pick another idea (you have plenty of ideas).

A podcast could be a great idea, if you plan on doing it consistently enough to build a following or showcase your expertise. My friend Rich did 600 episodes of his podcast in two years. He’s now well-connected and the center of a community about AI, blockchain, etc. Launching a podcast but only doing scattered episodes probably won't get the results you're looking for.

As a counter example, working out to improve your health doesn’t have a strict level of activation energy. Generally, any amount of physical activity is better than sitting all day. But if you want six-pack abs, there is an activation energy: there’s a certain frequency and intensity of exercise and diet needed before abs appear.

Events have an activation energy. A nightclub doesn’t work with seven people sipping on drinks looking around the room. It feels empty. On the other hand, a floor that’s overflowing with a line out the door has hit it’s activation energy—everyone has a more enjoyable time because it feels like what a club should feel like.

Activation energy helps you pick tactics with more awareness and smarts. You can design a tactic based on the resources you have. For example, If you’re doing a webinar, design it so it works if you have five attendees or fifty attendees. Digital events have a leg up here.

Planning an in-person event works too, though—if you’re about to give a talk, it’s always better to have a smaller room and standing room only audience. But if you’re put in a big  room, consider having people scoot their chairs in closer.

Do you have only ten attendees? Perfect! The activation energy of a fireside chat is about ten or so people. You can add more attendees, of course, but it starts to work with ten people. In this example, you changed the activation energy so you could hit the threshold.

What are examples of times you’ve hit or missed the activation energy in your projects? Where could you apply this concept to what you're working on now?


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Wes Kao