I just ended a two-day strategy workshop with a small startup, less than 3 years old and 12 employees strong. The CEO and founder figured out after 3 years of being reactive and flexible that being a real software company requires focus and clear strategy and was smart enough to stop everything and take the time to think about what’s next. I think that 2-3 years from now the company will remember this workshop as a turning point for the company. Not because of the value of the workshop—all we did was synthesize what they already knew—but because it was the first time they stopped and decided on their own future. Not because a customer asked, not because someone woke up in the morning with an idea—they took the time to go through the process of developing a strategy and creating the big fat arrow in which the company will walk (or better yet, run) in the future.
I’ve spent half of my career in startups and the other half in a large and organized company. I discovered that more often than not, startups have a better density of talent (can’t be a slacker in a 10 person company), but they are very casual about running the business. Perhaps too casual. They work so hard that they don’t stop to think what’s right. What’s beyond this or that customer request. They end up zigzagging for a few years, and losing a lot of momentum on the way.
In his wonderful book “From Good to Great“, Jim Collins provided a terrific analogy for focus and momentum. If you haven’t read the book, please do so, or at least read the following quote:
Now picture a huge, heavy flywheel. It’s a massive, metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle. It’s about 100 feet in diameter, 10 feet thick, and it weighs about 25 tons. That flywheel is your company. Your job is to get that flywheel to move as fast as possible, because momentum— mass times velocity—is what will generate superior economic results over time.
Right now, the flywheel is at a standstill. To get it moving, you make a tremendous effort. You push with all of your might, and finally, you get the flywheel to inch forward. After two or three days of sustained effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn. You keep pushing, and the flywheel begins to move a bit faster. It takes a lot of work, but at last the flywheel makes a second rotation. You keep pushing steadily. It makes three turns, four turns, five, six. With each turn, it moves faster, and then—at some point, you can’t say exactly when—you break through. The momentum of the heavy wheel kicks in your favor. It spins faster and faster, with its own weight propelling it. You aren’t pushing any harder, but the flywheel is accelerating, its momentum building, its speed increasing.
For the company where I worked with in my introduction, this week was the first inch. They have a tough road ahead, but they made the first step. They will try at times to turn the wheel to the wrong direction, but if they focus on the right trajectory, they will go faster than any other company at their stage of development.
You don’t always have to start focusing on day one: there is a value in exploring options and getting experienced. All you need to remember is that, at some point of time, after you’ve got some good ideas about what works and what doesn’t, you should take time for defining a strategy to drive your own destiny. You can still go fast, you can still listen to customers, but at least you know that you are making detours once in a while and you stop calling them highways…