A year and a half ago, I started a company called H. The dirty secret of entrepreneurship is that, beneath the Kickstarter campaigns and the fancy valuations, it gets very, very lonely. Through the ebbs and flows, I have received advice from dozens of people – from Gary Vaynerchuk to my kid brother. And, as we’ve grown, I, in turn, feel I have some advice to share; what I feel is the secret to entrepreneurial success: being good enough and not good enough.
Am I, or the others, crazy?
One of my favorite quotes is this one by Einstein, “The question that makes me hazy: am I or the others crazy?”. I like it because it perfectly describes the existential tightrope entrepreneurs have to walk. At moments, you’re a visionary who sees things no one else can. At other moments, you aren’t growing fast enough, your product is breaking, and your idea is a farce. Am I right or are my opponents? Will we change the world or will the world laugh at us? The key is walking this line carefully. You must be resolutely optimistic, both inwardly and outwardly, but you must also be in touch. You must also be self-aware. I have seen entrepreneurs around me fail for being too headstrong and I have also seen entrepreneurs fail because they spend the majority of their energy doubting themselves and moving too slowly. As with in life, to find balance on this tightrope is to find your voice and your rhythm. We are all filled with medicine and poison. All good enough and not good enough. Relish your good modestly and accept your bad without bitterness or defeat and you will succeed.
The first few months are the most exciting. Like a romantic relationship, or like anything really, there is a honeymoon period marked by eager discovery and novelty-induced-butterflies. I call this the “chicken wing phase”. When I was a kid, on special occasions my dad would take me to Chuck’s Wings in downtown Princeton, NJ. We’d amble through the orange stained tables to the shabby grill in the back and get a steaming mountain of deliciousness. As we ate, I was always struck my how different our approaches were. My father, laser focused and unrelenting in his professional life, would meticulously finish each wing. He would tear apart the two-piecers and make sure that every little strand of meat was finished before picking up the next one. I, on the other hand, would focus on the one-piecers. I’d take a massive bite from the fleshiest part and then discard in favor of juicer options.
When you first start an idea, there’s an endless list of things to do – little things, big things, creative things, operational things. To succeed early on, you need to know which chicken wings are one-piecers and which are two-piecers; that is, if you meticulously finish every task yourself, large pieces of your company will begin to lag and your chicken wings will get cold. That said, if you rush through every task and leave nearly everything half way finished, you’ll wake up four months in, in a room strewn with half-gnawed, discarded chicken bones. The key, as with anything in life, is to find a balance and understand the law of diminishing returns. Move quickly through most things, just enough that they are functionally complete. Save your supreme focus for only a few things per week and comprehensively finish only the things that need your full attention.
My team rolls their eyes when I preach about the power of “parallel work streams” but they are one of the big secrets to our success. Each project has 10 pieces and, despite conventional wisdom, you don’t have to do them one-at-a-time or in order. For example, in our product pipeline we often pass early designs (wireframes) to the developers so they can begin on backend work, then polish the designs while adding final copy and building marketing assets to alert our community about the new feature or module. We are able to save valuable time by communicating clearly and building our respective pieces all at once.
Linear Growth v. Compound Growth
For my first three years out of college I worked at a massive, bureaucratic ad agency – one of the titans (read: dinosaurs) of Madison Ave. There, like at most large companies, growth is linear. If your revenue increases consistently quarter over quarter, you’re doing well as each quarter is better than the last; or is it? In start up culture, uniform increases (to revenue or user count) month over month is death. Consistently acquiring 1000 new active users per month sounds great, but as your absolute user count grows the incremental growth rate is a smaller and smaller percentage of the total. A company that grows 10% then 8% then 6% with each passing month is un-investable and will likely die.
One of the biggest changes practically and emotionally about trying to get a start up off the ground is that start ups are defined by their growth. According to Paul Graham, a start up hasn’t hit it’s stride until it consistently achieves 5%-7% week-over-week growth. What was good enough this week won’t be good enough next week. It’s a simple concept, but humans like to rest on their laurels. People often say to me, “it’s a marathon not a sprint”. Wrong. It’s a marathon that you sprint. To succeed, your celebrations must be shorter than the brainstorms that follow them. Quickly acknowledge that you were “good enough” and just as quickly acknowledge that to survive, what you just accomplished was most certainly not good enough.