What does FAST mean for your startup?

TourtoiseandHare

In the wonderful and delusional world of startups, people always talk about moving fast:

 

— ‘we need to launch fast to beat potential competitors’

— ‘launch fast, learn, iterate, and repeat’

— ‘that company just blew up overnight. how did they do it so fast?!’

 

The third one is definitely my favorite.

 

Paul Graham defines a startup as ‘a company designed to grow fast’.  But what does fast really mean for your startup, for your product, for your development, for your team?  Trying to move FAST can be brutally misleading and emotionally exhausting.  My historical lack of understand of what the word fast really means (hence me writing this blog post) led me to look it up.  My trusty dictionary, and by that I mean dictionary.com, said the primary definition of the word fast is ‘moving or able to move, operate, function, or take effect quickly’.   That sounds nice but isn’t a clear enough description for me.  I prefer the dictionary’s secondary definition of fast:

 

‘done in comparatively little time’

 

The word ‘comparatively’ is what catches my attention in this definition.  Moving quickly is great, but quickly compared to what?  Too often in Startupland we use the companies that are seemingly wild ‘overnight’ successes as our measuring stick.  But is that realistic for the average entrepreneur?  If 90% of technology startups fail, then are the rest of us doing ourselves, and our companies, a great injustice by fixating not just on the ones that are successful, but rather the those few companies that are wild successes?

 

Looking back, I don’t think I had one clear reference point for what fast meant for me at Wedkey.  I knew how to ski fast, I knew how to bike fast, I knew how to run kinda fast, but I didn’t really know what running a startup fast was supposed to mean.  One thing I remember very vividly is feeling like we were always moving too slow, that if it wasn’t done yesterday then we weren’t moving fast enough.  This was 100% self-inflicted.  My investors weren’t breathing down my neck, and I didn’t have a Board to answer to. But still, I honestly felt that if we didn’t work non-stop to build and push our website then there was no chance of us succeeding.  I ‘knew’ in my mind that one day we would have our ‘overnight success’ moment.  So we went as fast as we could.  We worked long nights, weekends, missed holidays with our families, slept on the floor next to our computers, hung upside down to keep the blood flowing to our brains, well not really, but we did work our tails off and you get the idea.  And then, nothing happened, no explosion, no hockey stick.  Had we moved too slow and missed our chance?  Were we moving fast, but in the wrong direction?  Or was it something else entirely?

 

Maybe the question I should have asked myself is: Is blowing up overnight a reality for any company?  Was that successful company that we all aspire to be really an overnight success at all, or was that success built on months and years of hard work, research and iteration…?

 

When I talk to people about ‘overnight success’ companies, several examples seem to pop up over and over again, one of which is Pinterest.  I remember when Pinterest ‘blew up’.  In the fall of 2011 Pinterest was quietly gaining a lot of traction with users.  Slowly but surely the platform was growing and rumblings of a large fundraising round was going on in Silicon Valley.  Then on October 7, 2011 Pinterest announced a $27 million funding round led by Andreesen Horowitz that supposedly valued the company at north of $200 million.

 

In an interview, Jeff Jordan (a new Pinterest VC Board member at the time of the investment) said ‘the site is showing very strong growth metrics, despite the fact that it’s still in a semi-private beta’.  None of us at the time really knew what ‘very strong growth metrics’ meant, but we’ve since learned a bit more about Pinterest’s growth curve.  It looks like a really fun water slide!

 

pinterestgrowth-techcrunch

 

Both the teal blue unique visitor line and the orange minutes per visitor bars are quite impressive.  From May 2011 to October 2011, monthly unique visitors grew by 800%, and we’re not talking small numbers here:  418k monthly unique viewers to 3.295 mil monthly unique viewers.  But is that it?  Is that the whole story?  Of course not :)

 

What most people likely don’t know is Pinterest actually started in 2008 as a concept called Tote.  Tote was ‘a mobile platform to make shopping on-the-go more convenient and fun,’ and it was conceived by Ben Silbermann, Vikram Bhaskaran and Paul Sciarra for the 2008/2009 NYU Entrepreneurs Challenge.

 

Pinterest crunchbase

 

What is important to note is that before Pinterest began to ‘blow up’ in the summer and fall of 2011, they had gone through almost 2 ½ years of concept and product iteration.  It makes me smile just a little bit to say that.  I think maybe I’ll create a poster for the ServiceAlley office that says ‘Pinterest, the 2 ½ year Overnight Success’.

 

pintrest new users by month

From: The Next Web

 

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, and speaking with angel investor Brian Cohen several times.  Brian is the chairman of the NY Angels and just happens to be the original angel investor in Pinterest (smart and lucky guy).  What sticks in my mind from my conversations with Brian about Pinterest, and from hearing him speak publicly at NYU Stern, is his recollection of working with Silbermann and his team at the beginning.  As with all startups, they had some early users of their product, and inevitably those users weren’t using Tote how Silbermann expected, or necessarily wanted.  What they noticed though, was over time people were using Tote to saving large collections of images of things they wanted to shop for.  Thus the eventual pivot, and the change to the virtual pin-board Pinterest.

 

When Pinterest was young and small, and their growth looked more like a flat-line EKG than a hockey stick, they got rejected by Silicon Valley VC’s because they weren’t a real-time active news feed type of social network.  Silbermann explained in a Forbes article in October 2012 that the response was not what he and his two cofounders had hoped for. “But the few people who used it, myself among them, actually really loved it,” he said. “Instead of changing it, we’d find more people like me to use it.”

 

The company focused on the people that loved their site and laid the seeds to grow smart, not necessarily “fast”.  They cultivated these groups of power users, and turned them into company advocates by awarding pinners invites for their friends by pinning more.  They also knew that seeding the platform with content would help get people excited about it, and teach them how to use it correctly, the way Pinterest wanted them to use it.  While learning from the growing community of Pinterest advocates, the team reached out to prominent bloggers and influencers so they could create pin boards that their followers would want to see, follow and re-pin photos from once they (the followers) finally received that coveted Pinterest invite.

 

Now we come full circle and most of you know the rest of the story.  Pinterest now has $338 million in funding, 180 employees, and in July 2013 announced it had reached 70 million users.

 

So as you can see, “fast” growth isn’t exactly what you or I would think of as quick.  Learning about Pinterest’s path to success has given me a new perspective on what fast means for me as an entrepreneur.  I’ve realized that the idea of moving fast is healthy for a startup as long as it’s put in the right context (see what I mean with the list below).  Don’t get me wrong, I’m still all for working my a** off for something I’m passionate about, it’s just my frame of reference for what moving fast looks like that’s now wildly different.

 

Here are a few ways I keep myself feeling like I’m moving fast at ServiceAlley and with the side projects I work on:

  1. I have more fun.  Honestly.  I find that when I work in a fun environment, with engaging people who are excited to be working on something as a group, I not only have more fun myself, but a better product, or marketing campaign, or whatever usually pop out the other end.  And by fun environment I don’t just mean an office, I mean going for a bike ride, or riding a ski lift :)  Why is this important?  Because better ideas, and better products mean less time is required to get something in front of a user and test to see if it works.
  2. I concentrate on just a few company goals at one time.  People (myself included) can quickly get overwhelmed with too many competing goals going on at the same time.  In talking with entrepreneurs, I’ve found that many of them often feel like they need to do work on every tactic possible to succeed: constantly developing new features, email marketing, AdWords, Facebook, Twitter, display, sales, partnerships, etc.  This ends up being a distracting approach because it doesn’t give you the ability, or the time, to concentrate deeply on any of the tasks to figure out whether or not they are working, and why.  Concentrating on just a few goals at one time allows me and everyone else on my team to work together towards a common objective.  It forces us to focus on the tasks at hand, execute, test, accomplish the goal, generate a feeling of forward progress and move on to the next thing.
  3. I do research and ask for advice before setting timelines for goals and projects, then create bi-weekly goals that are difficult to reach but achievable.  Studies have shown that people (myself included) are most happy at work when they feel a sense of accomplishment.  So, if I am working on a project that is going to take several months, I figure out how to break that project up into multiple phases that can been viewed as accomplishing goals.
  4. I constantly test what I am working on.  I view completing a test as accomplishing a goal.  Whether I’m working on new copy for a website, ad variations in Facebook, or a totally new product feature, when my team or I complete a test, we’ve learned something.  That learning is almost always valuable and should be treated that way.  Testing usually makes me feel like there is progress being made, even when a test has an inconclusive result.  That just means we need to adjust the test and try it again (i.e. we learned we didn’t design the test very well).
  5. Last, but surely not least, I force myself to not try to make everything perfect!  The other day my friend Joel Wishkovsky told me that to him moving fast means ‘being ok not doing things perfectly – figuring out the essence and pushing it out there.’  I couldn’t agree with Joel more, and in the past I’ve learned this the hard way.  I’m a perfectionist and the idea of letting something out in the wild before it’s perfect used to be sickening.  Until I learned one very important lesson… I don’t know what perfect will be for my users.

 

I just thought of another poster idea for my office: Forget All Startup Tales.

 

What does FAST mean for you or your company?  Has this made you take a breath and re-think how you’re approaching your startup?

 

 

Cover image credit: The Bourne Group Blog

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