The Long Haul – Thoughts on Acceleration
There’s a lot of startup-hype dealing with speed. Go faster! Accelerate your product! Always releasing, always testing, always honing, always in beta! There’s an implicit idea that for an entrepreneur, faster is better.
When driven by venture capital, there’s an expectation of a massive exit within approximately five years (so investors in the fund can enjoy large returns, and liquidate some of their gains). Entrepreneurs who have taken VC money commonly describe a huge sense of urgency for the company, the drive to launch and scale quickly. I know I felt it at the startups I worked at; there was some large and mythical scary force looming right behind us, and we had to hurry, lest it “won”. Through all of this, tech bloggers and breaking news announcements have created a sense of overnight success and failure. Instagram was just bought for a billion dollars! Just like that – it happened so fast!
The thing is, when you talk to the entrepreneurs who have the amazing success stories of wealth through buy-out or IPO, they constantly talk about a long, slow slog through multiple and unsuccessful versions, flavors, and iterations. While there’s usually a single “moment of success”, most describe the process as more of a constant and ongoing climb up-hill.
In 2011, Foursquare created (and TechCrunch published) an infographic showing the massive growth of the service in a short time – growing from 0 users to 100,000 people in six months, and then to 10,000,000 members in a little over two years. But Dennis Crowley created a service called Dodgeball years before founding Foursquare, and “began toying more than five years ago with ideas about connecting cell-phone users through social networking software” – said in 2006, indicating that he had been pondering location-based check-in services since 2001. Toying and pondering are strange words, words I don’t think we give enough value. These describe a head-in-the-clouds awareness of how things are progressing, how the world is changing, and this feeling becomes tacit. It becomes a frame, a way of viewing the world. It becomes a form of expertise.
The story of Instagram is equally both long and short. The short story goes like this: a billion dollars, after two days of meetings with Facebook. But the reality is harder and longer, as Kevin Systrom describes working on Instragram as Burbn, and his peers in college recall that “As early as 2005… Mr. Systrom had his eyes on mobile phones as the wave of the future.” The quote seems so cliché – the wave of the future – but I think it’s a gesture to the same sort of reflective incubation I see in entrepreneurs. It seems to happen in the valley purely around technology, but it happens around other things too, like health and wellness, education, politics, and so-on. It’s the constant and low-level buzz of viewing the world through a lens and forming a long-term opinion about how things should be.
Facebook didn’t become a giant brand overnight. Zuckerberg started Facemash in 2003, Thefacebook in 2004, and a private, closed network called Facebook in 2005. Google has a similarly long and strange history. The story of Netscape founder James H. Clark, told by Michael Lewis in The New New Thing, is a similar tale of long, arduous, stay-the-course, subtle and reflective thinking.
The drive for speed, the need to always be launching and pivoting and hurrying and moving just doesn’t have a historic grounding in reality. It seems to be a distraction, and I think it’s harmful. I think it encourages a half-cocked form of product thinking, a defeatist attitude towards design and planning and a rejection of quality. You learn from failure, no doubt, but the idea of pursuing failure as a mechanism to short-circuit product incubation just doesn’t work.
Many people feel that there’s a certain window of opportunity for a “product/market” fit, during which a product will achieve the most traction and success. This window of opportunity is theoretically shaped by platform adoption, by familiarity with technology, and by perceived wants and needs of consumers. It’s also shaped by the competitive landscape. As competitors make strategic investments and react to market changes, there’s a sense of looming takeover: a feeling that the next big thing is always steps away from your innovation, ready to grab your market share. But this window of opportunity is just out of your control: it’s a result of all of culture coming together into a blend of technological adoption. The serendipity of product/market fit comes from being in the right place at the right time; it’s luck. But it’s not entirely luck, because you can hedge: you can increase your odds of success through the long-term, nose-to-the-grind refinement of a design, and a careful eye to trends and culture.
Design is not about speed, and design-led entrepreneurship isn’t about speed, either. There is no day where suddenly your product is irrelevant, or your competition has “won”. It happens gradually and amorphously. There are mechanistic (and real) reasons to hurry (your investors will bail on you, you need to pay your bills). But those are externalities to the idea of product/market fit. And if you don’t have those issues, there’s no real need to force such an extreme hurry.