Written by Catherine Stewart
Speed and agility are critical parts of executing well. This is common knowledge among founders. Yet many of those same founders are surprised to see their start-ups moving slowly — sometimes more slowly than companies 10x or 100x their size.
At first, this can be confusing. The founders see their employees working long hours, and getting a lot done. Their start-ups are not bureaucratic. Compared to large companies, they have less technical debt and fewer compliance requirements. Why then are they taking months to complete tasks that should be taking weeks?
Many of these slow-moving founders are confusing activity with progress. They feel like they’re moving fast, but they’re actually spinning their wheels, driving in circles, or taking country roads when they could be on a highway.
Real speed is determined by how quickly you launch your product, find product-market fit, and grow. Everything else is extraneous. Below are some tips that can help you determine which activities are productive, and which are slowing you down (and possibly burning out your team at the same time).
Lesson #1: Resist the temptation to do everything at once
Tl;dr: The more you focus, the faster you’ll move.
In the beginning, a company is like a stem cell: It can become anything. That optionality allows a company to iterate until it finds product-market fit, and to pivot along the way if needed. Over time though, a start-up’s ability to become anything shifts from an asset to a liability.
Almost everyone hates to prioritize because doing it properly means saying no. That said, prioritization is the only way companies move fast in the long term. Founders who waffle between which doors to open or close lose time. Worse, some founders spread people, cash, and mindshare across many disparate initiatives, dooming their companies to move slowly with all of them. Other founders choose one door on Monday, only to change their minds on Friday, causing the team to continually scrap work and start over. This last scenario is often the slowest and most frustrating path of all.
The solution is to collect the information you need to make decisions thoughtfully and well. Once your decision is made, only revisit it when new information emerges or when circumstances change.
Don’t worry — as you grow, you will have the opportunity to open doors again. With greater cash and additional employees, you can expand your product offering to appeal to new customers, use cases, or geographies. I’ll give advice on how you can run effective experiments in a future blog post.
Lesson #2: Create minimum viable processes
Tl;dr: Each activity your employees perform is essentially a cost, with a potential benefit. The ideal process provides enough structure to prevent common or catastrophic errors, without anything extraneous that will slow employees down. I call this the “minimum viable process.”
When we think of a “heavy” process, we often think of something from a Kafka novel: opaque, complex, and bureaucratic. Yet more commonly, start-ups that suffer from heavy processes are simply trying to apply the same processes that worked when they were, say, 10 employees, to a workforce that has long since outgrown them.
For an example of a heavy process, take the case of a founder who performed the final interview for all new candidates. In the early days of her start-up, this practice kept her in touch with the front lines. As the company grew, however, candidate volume increased. Many candidates began waiting six weeks or longer for their interview with the founder, and win rates fell below 20%.
A start-up may also have processes that are too light. For example, a company with an inadequate QA process might release code with bugs, resulting in greater technical debt, wasted engineering time, and customer churn. Emergencies slow businesses down, sometimes dramatically.
The solution is to evaluate your recurring processes, such as hiring candidates, releasing new products, reporting financials, or signing new sales deals. Ask yourself on a regular basis if your processes will scale with where you expect your company to be in a few months. If you feel that your processes would break with 3x growth, adopt the most lightweight processes possible now to drive that scale and growth.
To apply this principle to the heavy hiring scenario: The CEO should realize that with 3x more volume, the process of interviewing all candidates is doomed to imminently fail. At this point, the CEO might decide to restrict her final interviews to her skip-level reports. The trick is noticing these doomed processes in advance and making changes early to ensure processes constantly grow alongside the company. In both scenarios, a post-mortem is an excellent tool to identify what went wrong or could be improved, avoid blame, and fix the issue in the future.
Lesson #3: Hire well
Tl;dr: Remember that the ultimate goal is not to hire, but to hire well. Only hire for the roles you truly need and audit your hiring funnel to see if you can shorten both lead times and total time spent without compromising quality.
Hiring a strong team and then delegating allows a CEO to scale. Investing time up-front to define what success looks like for each role in 6–12 months will help you prioritize which traits and experiences are critical versus nice-to-have. It also allows you to exclude more candidates earlier in the process, and only interview high potential candidates. I’ll be writing a how-to guide for hiring key GTM leadership roles in a future post.
Take time up-front to make sure that you’re hiring for the right role at the right time. Some founders think that making more money means hiring more sales reps. If their underlying issue is an uncompetitive product though, they’ll make more money by hiring engineers. Similarly, some founders will hire a CRO to “figure out growth” when they’d be better served hiring a smart, flexible, mid-level manager who can run quick and iterative experiments. Hiring GTM leaders, even very strong or senior ones, will not help if you are hiring them before your organization is ready.
If you’ve done the work and determined you’re ready for a C-level hire, it’s still important to hire do-ers, particularly if your company is early-stage. Your executives should be both strategic and capable of wading into the operational muck. Leaders who stay in touch with customers and front-line employees make better decisions and inspire greater followership. Armchair quarterbacks, in contrast, can cause employee turnover and may hire other B-grade performers to ensure their own job security.
Move fast, but take care. Hiring the wrong direct report can cost you more time than not hiring at all. Not only will you have run two recruiting processes, but you may have also picked up some B-grade skip-level reports, and churned some A-grade talent in the process.
Ultimately, each of these three areas — prioritization, process, and hiring — will help you build that multi-billion-dollar business. And they will help you do it faster, with less total time spent.
Got questions? If you’re a founder or exec of a BSV portfolio company, I’m here for you.