November 30, 2016: One of the most difficult challenges for a fast-charging startup entrepreneur is learning when patience is the correct tactic. Everyone likes to leave a meeting with specific next steps and action items, and no one enjoys just sitting around. That’s a natural bias that helps lead people into this dangerous arena.
I’ve seen many cases where a CEO has chosen not to let a decision play out before reversing it. He or she gets busy changing a product, fiddling with the marketing or pricing, or otherwise rearranging the game plan before the previous play has actually been allowed to run its course. One learns nothing in those cases. Who knows what might have worked just fine if allowed a bit more time in the market? If you don’t wait long enough to collect legitimate data, you may jump next in exactly the wrong direction.
Startup leaders like to control their circumstances as best they can, but they quickly learn that they can’t dictate the pace of their customers. They can’t control external influences, like Holiday seasons. And, they have no way to predict what competitors or even partners will do to throw obstacles in front of the best-crafted strategies. They’d like to have everyone in their realm share their sense of urgency, but that may or may not happen.
As a result, there are times when doing absolutely nothing is the best strategy. They’ve taken their best shot at launching a business, and they’ve set a monthly or quarterly revenue goal that they are anxious to meet. If that revenue doesn’t all appear in the first few days, that’s not necessarily an indication of what will be the result at the conclusion of the measurement period. Total success could very well come near the end, leaving one to deal with high anxiety in the interim.
What should you do while you are in one of these enforced waiting periods? Giving your team busy work is something they’ll quickly figure out and reject. Flailing around on time killing tasks that are obvious long shots is no way to build confidence either. You’re better off taking your crowd out to a baseball game and giving them something else to occupy their minds while time passes and your business plan follows its natural course. I find any such recreation is a good way to fill the gaps when I’m standing by for others to act.
I’ve personally been able to keep up with multiple projects and still rack up nearly 4000 miles on the bike each of the last three years; when I see a 3-hour window, I can get to the Veloway, knock out a quick 50 miles, and feel much the better for having done so. I never ride with a phone; so far I’ve missed nothing that required immediate attention during all those rides. I’ve adopted that technique as a way to relieve my anxiety when otherwise I might just be waiting and wondering.
As an aside, the day before writing this, that habit had a particular benefit. While I was on the bike I accumulated a string of emails from the CEO of our biomedical company asking me to make a wire transfer before the end of the day. Everything looked perfectly normal in the emails, the usual greetings and closings, first names, etc. But, I knew he was in the OR, and the emails gave very specific instructions about where to send the wire. The amount was $26,500, which was not in our budget, especially for something where the backup invoice was promised only after I confirmed the wire. I refused to comply and suggested that would require board approval. When the surgeon eventually became available by phone, he said: “What emails?” It was indeed a beautifully crafted phishing attempt, which looked like it was coming from his legitimate email address. That was a case where being unavailable 3 hours played some role in avoiding an expensive scam.
Back on topic, if one waits in vain and things don’t adhere to plan, there’s always time to panic later. At least then you can panic with some purpose. You’ll have proven that plan A didn’t work, but you might also have learned why and given yourself a chance to adjust accordingly. Even if there are multiple theories in the autopsy report, you’ve eliminated one strategy that you won’t try again. You and your team will have learned quite a bit at the detail level as well. You can start pulling the levers and adjusting based on your newly informed history in the marketplace. This, of course, presumes you kept enough dry powder to have a few more chances to get it right. It’s never advisable to go all in on any plan that is based on some amount of guesswork and intuition, as are most startup ideas. It’s critical to save enough resources to have the opportunity to exit your original course in favor of what your customers signal that they want you to do differently.
Waiting, just plain waiting as in the image at the top, is a bit of a lost art. We’ve all now got libraries of books, music, videos, podcasts in our pockets and earphones on our heads. We’ve got our social media feeds. We have our fake news to follow. I have curated my main internal Twitter list to be nearly all fake celebrities and sports figures, which often are quite humorous and much more entertaining than their real counterparts. The world is providing considerable creativity and cleverness in these time-wasters. So, waiting is never really just sitting around totally idle, unless you summon the willpower to tear yourself away from all these distractions.
However you perform your version of waiting, it still has its place in a startup business. Patience has been a virtue since the epic poem Psychomachia in the Fifth Century, and it remains so today.
<Public domain image of painting “Awaiting the Return of the Fleet” by GG Kilburne (1839-1924)>