Are you a tortoise or a hare?


I’ve written previously about the dangers of “Getting big fast!” but Chris Matyszczyk’s article Malcolm Gladwell Says This Is the 1 Stunning Thing People Get Wrong in Trying to Be a Success on Inc. com got me thinking further about the issue of speed with respect to startups.

Just the other day I heard a mentor advixe a founder, “Look, the only advantage you have over the big established companies is speed! You need to get going!”

But Malcom Gladwell makes the case for the tortoise – slow and careful, vs. the hare – fast, but maybe heedless. Hmm, there’s that saying Haste makes waste. But wait a sec, what about He who hesitates is lost? Be careful of running your company based on sayings!

As Gladwell says:

In the financial crisis, someone put the comma in the wrong place and ended up paying $20 a share for Lehman and not $2 a share,” he said. “Who was the person who read that document at 2:00 in the morning? The hare.

And Chris Matyszczyk agrees with Gladwell:

In the end, though, greatness is about performance, not speed. It’s about the thing that’s produced, not the velocity with which it was produced.

Apple, indeed, is a classic example of rarely being first, but always somehow finding a more inspired version of someone else’s speedy thinking.

For you, then, not being in such a hurry, finding a slower way to hone your power and realize it in a truly excellent way might make more sense.

But I think the danger of this type of thinking should be obvious: you can’t be a tortoise all the time, sometimes you need to be a hare. Despite what the pundits say, life isn’t so simple. In fact the key to punditry is providing people highly oversimplified and attention-getting info bites. But I’m not a pundit. I’m a mentor. My goal is to help founders succeed, not generate page views, sell books or make a name for myself.

So my advice to founders is to one, be careful of following pundit’s advice, and two, to look at speed as a variable. You need to dial it up, or down, on a case-by-case basis. As one VC said to me, “Every startup needs someone to step on the gas, and someone who steps on the brake.” If you never brake you’ll probably crash.

A common problem in startups is confusing the urgent with the important. I find this happens as the company grows and demands on the CEO go up exponentially. A typical case is dealing with a request from an employee. While you may be tempted to say, “Sure, ok.” to make him or her happy, wait a minute. Ask them to make the business case and help you understand why this is a priority and why it’s important. What tradeoff might need to be made to fulfill this request?

Let’s look at some other cases you’ll encounter as a founder:

  • Finding a co-founder – here you clearly want to be a hare. Founders are in a life-critical, long term relationship. The consequences of making a mistake are very high. Too many founders are opportunistic, as I find engineers who meet an MBA student at the same school and decide to make him a co-founder, because, well they need one and he’s interested. If you don’t have a co-founder who is either a long term friend or someone you have worked with before, you need to move slowly and carefully, taking your prospective co-founder on a test drive before making a decision.
  • Creating a logo – keep in mind, you are not Steve Jobs, a multimillionaire, who hired the famous designer Paul Rand and paid him a million dollars to design the logo for Next Computer. Here’s a case where first, you need to decide if you really need one a logo, but let’s say you do. What’s the downside of getting a sub-optimal logo? I’ve never heard that a company failed due to its poor logo design! So use a web firm like 99 Designs, get your co-founders together and agree you will get this done quickly – in 24 hours say. And move on to something more important.
  • Securing an investment – I’ve make the mistake of being a hare on this one. My co-founder and I were so excited to get an offer from a blue chip VC firm we didn’t negotiate at all! We hardly even asked them to explain how they came up with the all important valuation! I learned this lesson and when it came to raising our Series B I pushed back hard and kept everyone in the office until midnight and as a result gained a much better deal for my co-founder and me. Getting an investment reminds me of my days in the music business when artists were so excited to get a record contract they never read it! Only years later did they realize they had signed away their (very valuable) publishing rights and were getting a below market royalty on their record sales. Here it will pay off big to be a tortoise.
  • Hiring and firing –  you can read my blog post on this but the I’ll give it to you in four words: hire slowly, fire quickly. Here again a simple risk/reward analysis will show you the risk of making someone a full time employee and their not working out is high and making a mistake will be costly.
  • Finding a contract worker – if you have a critical need for more hands, say to pack and ship your hardware product, you need to move fast and should. Contract workers or temps can be vetted by an agency, recommended by a friend or even come from a web site for temporary help. If the contract worker doesn’t work out you can let them go – in other words fire them – with virtually no risk.

Being a tortoise or hare is part of decision making. And decision making will be a large part of your job as long as you remain with you business and the higher your rank – CEO, COO, CTO – the more decisions and the larger the consequences of those decisions.

So don’t follow the advice of pundits. They put things in black and white. Occasionally that will be the case. But often decisions come in shades of gray. When that happens, have decision criteria,  dDo a risk reward analysis. But have a bias for action.  I believe that one of the qualities that attracted me to founders was my bias for action, and the fact that I made good decisions and  I got stuff done. That’s the big difference between big companies and startups.

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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