December 2nd, 2011 → 9:49 am @ Norman
I’m in the office of a start-up company. The founder is sitting at one of the two desks. His local Sales Manager is at the other. I am perched on a chair with my laptop open. All three of us have our heads down, as we focus on our keyboards. We’re waiting for team members from the West Coast of the US to Skype in so we can prepare for client meetings tomorrow.
We’re all multi-tasking; fielding emails, throwing comments back and forth about the upcoming meetings, and coordinating our diaries. When the Americans join us, we’ll do more of the same, although we’ll primarily focus on establishing the client meeting goals.
I’ve been in business since before the internet, and I relish the speed with which we can now get things done. But I also see how quickly we can now make mistakes. Tomorrow’s client meeting almost ‘turned to custard’ yesterday. As we prepared for the meeting, along with the client, emails were sprayed to and fro. The leader of the client’s team drew some conclusions about what we were offering, and suddenly his emails became laced with concerns… “Could we really capture the data he wanted?”, “Did we really understand what he was after?” We were quickly on the back foot. A new round of emails and phone calls calmed his concerns, but I have to concede that we created the problem by sloppy communication. We’ve had similar problems with internal communication in the past, again a factor of speed. We’re moving fast, and paying a price for that.
Yet I look at the gains we’re making as well. With a very small team we are making great strides in product development, market understanding, and sales. Our business has a long sales cycle, yet our high speed of action means we can operate for an extended period with a small team, which translates to a small budget. The investors love that. Clearly there’s a balance between speed and effectiveness. Too fast, and there will be too many mistakes to be corrected, and strategic opportunities will be overlooked. Too slow and we’ll burn a lot more money to get where we need to be. But the cash cost of slowing down is my lesser concern. I think back to past start-ups I’ve worked on. All the successful ones had high energy and a high pace. For the others, a slowing pace was often the first sign that we were headed for failure.
Today our energy levels are high, and they have remained high all year. It’s easier to drive hard towards our goals than to plod slowly toward them. For that reason alone, I prefer a high-speed start-up building process.