Impatience is the gas that fuels entrepreneurs to get stuff done. It drives us to fix bugs, solve customer issues, fire people quickly and keep projects on track. An entrepreneur without impatience is just weird. Like a longshoreman without facial hair.
Unfortunately, though, when it comes to achieving big, hairy growth goals, an entrepreneur’s impatience can lead to disastrous results.
As I embark on my next company, I have the urge to jump to the conclusion quickly instead of “living in the moment.” People like me who are on our second-plus startups are especially prone to wanting everything to be complete and perfect out of the gate. As a result, I started writing down my ideas on patience to help keep me grounded.
Dangers of Impatient Scaling
Premature Scaling happens when startups so anxious for growth build up big operations around larval business models that weren’t meant to see the light of day. Founders often think they’ve “cracked the code,” but have really only cracked the seal on a few random data points. It’s like they picked a steering wheel up off the ground and started trying to drive with it. The Startup Genome Project has called premature scaling the number one cause of failure.
Even worse than scaling too fast and early is what I call Flailing Scaling. This is what happens when entrepreneurs who are stressed about growth and making numbers frantically apply whatever business model sounds good that week. They have the attention span of a black lab puppy at a tennis match, and it costs them. Every switch brings a new round of hiring, firing, investing and blowing through all their cash. It’s like buying a new car every time you get a flat tire.
Benefits of Patient Scaling
The good kind of scaling requires lots of patience… and a bit of pain, too. It’s no accident that the Latin root of “patience” means suffering. It sucks to wait.
You need to collect much more information than you think before making big investments in growth. The author Jim Collins calls this “fire bullets first, then cannonballs.” Or, for those still close to your college days, “beer before vodka.”
At Jive, we were fortunate to have ideal conditions for patience. We bootstrapped the company for five years, and had no investors breathing down our neck for growth. We had the freedom to experiment. We aggressively went after two different markets that we thought would be huge. Both ultimately fell flat, and we had to go back to the drawing board. But we did the whole thing on cash flow and without hiring anyone new. If we had raised money earlier and/or from the wrong people, we would have been forced to grow into one of those false directions–hiring salespeople, building partners, building our support group–and would have killed any value in the company.
But we had our share of problems with impatience too. After we finally found our market and raised funding, we hired our first field sales rep (read: expensive hire). That person immediately sold a seven-figure contract. After removing my lips from the champagne bottle, I decreed: “we gotta hire a bunch of these guys.” We did. And none of them did a seven figure deal, including that original guy. Or even close. We had to replace almost all of them, and it cost a mint. Clearly a failure of patience. And clearly a “false-positive” on the one data point I had.
Evolutionary psychology says patience is the ability to choose between smaller short-term rewards versus larger long-term ones. (Like the kids who can wait for two marshmallows instead of shoving one in their mouth right away.) From an evolution standpoint, how animals get their food may determine where we fall on the patience spectrum. Humans were both hunters (short-term) and farmers (long-term), so we are capable of waiting an entire season for beans, but also inhaling a box of Milk Duds in less than a minute.
If patience is so unnatural for entrepreneurs, how can we develop it?
1. Intentional practice: Recognize that patience is (probably) not a natural inclination of yours. Build into your plan a longer timeframe for making growth decisions. Notice your tendency to react quickly, and make sure it’s only for the small stuff–not things that are hard to unwind later.
2. Reframe the story: Instead of getting all keyed up around growth, channel your energy towards experimentation and data collection. Let that become the big metric on your whiteboard in the early days, not sales numbers. When you start saying things like “we need to hire a head of sales to grow” or “we found a repeatable formula,” put yourself on trial to prove it.
3. Relieve Pressure from the Outside: You may have impatient investors who are adding to the stress. Many of them think they’re being helpful by pushing you unnaturally for growth. If you do a good job reframing the story (see #2), your job is to communicate that effectively and get investors on board with the journey. You don’t need a football coach at this stage. You need another scientist looking at the data.
4. Relieve Pressure from the Inside: You might be bringing your own baggage to the equation. Your insecurities and desire to look good to others can drive unnatural behavior. It’s a much deeper topic, but my point here is to recognize where your motivation is coming from and not let it get in the way of the right decisions.
5. Find a Model: Talk to companies that did it the right way. Occasionally companies drunkenly stumble on a perfect model early, but usually there’s tons of experimentation and mistakes. Ask and learn, ideally from companies that are similar to yours.
Hopefully at some point, we get to the point of aggressive scaling where the infrastructure and market are in place to hit the gas. In the meantime, I need to practice the mantra from Ben Franklin, himself a pretty bad-ass entrepreneur: “He who can have patience can have what he will.” And that counts for she too, btw. (But not the longshoreman comment.)