Speed Freaks

There's e-commerce and e-mail and virtual this and virtual that and if you don't grab that third cup of espresso and kick yourself into overdrive to get your business up to speed, you can bet you'll get left in the dust.
Magazine Contributor
15+ min read

This story appears in the September 1999 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

It doesn't even take a second: the arm is airborne, pistol in hand, gunshot a memory. If the gunslinger of the Old West didn't have a fast draw, he was dead. Today, several thousand competitors pay tribute to those men of speed by joining the World Fast Draw Association (WFDA), a club whose members compete in events held around the globe. Every year, shootists fire at a target to see who has the quickest trigger finger. "Some of the fastest draws take only a quarter of a second," observes Howard Darby, one of the wfda's ranking members. "A typical fast draw is just one-tenth of a second slower." Nobody's timed the slowest draw. Nobody cares.

The world moves fast--and it's getting faster. E-mail. E-commerce. E-everything. The world moves so fast, in fact, it's enough to make you fall fast asleep from exhaustion.

But don't! You don't have the time, according to Kelsey Biggers, executive vice president of Micro Modeling Associates, a technological consulting firm in New York City. "Industries are changing so quickly," he says, that--at least in terms of keeping up with technology--companies "need to accomplish in 90 days what traditionally took a year. The landscape is changing so quickly that if you tried to stick to your five-year plan, you'd be obsolete in six months."

"Yes, the world of business has really sped up," agrees Jeff Shuman, the director of entrepreneurial studies at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts, "but one of the challenges entrepreneurs have to watch out for is not to get trapped operating at a speed of business that's out of sync with the natural rhythm of their particular company." This is the premise of Shuman's recent book, co-written with David Rottenberg, The Rhythm of Business: The Key to Building and Running Successful Companies (Butterworth-Heinemann).

"Speed for speed's sake is a problem, if you get stuck in that trap," says Shuman. "You've got to be very careful that you're dealing with the right pace [for] your business--as opposed to some arbitrary, outside mandate to move quickly."

A nice sentiment, but even Shuman concedes you'll need to move quickly if your customers demand you do so. Then the speed of business isn't so arbitrary, and you'd better rev up the Millennium Falcon--without crashing. "The reality," Shuman says, "is that customers are setting faster beats."

Geoff Williams is a freelance writer and a features reporter for The Cincinnati Post. He can fire off a water pistol in under a minute.

Warming Up

Running a business is one long race, and we're all competitors. Like Jeffrey Green, 29, one of three founders of Stamps.com, a 3-year-old Santa Monica, California, company that allows consumers to buy postage online. And make no mistake: Green is in a race, whether it's in establishing partnerships with Quicken.com and AOL so their customers will buy stamps from Green and not his competitors, or whether he's racing to manage his own growth, even as he tries to prepare for the further onslaught of customers the company expects in the near future.

Just how quickly has his company grown? Stamps.com has added more than 100 employees in three years. And that's caused some sharp growing pains. For starters, it's wreaked havoc on the company's leasing options. Stamps.com began in an office designed for four, maybe five, people. Then they moved to an office for 10. In August 1998, Green relocated to an office with 8,000 square feet; three weeks later, it was filled to capacity. So they leased the office next door--with the same amount of space--and filled it right away. They've recently moved again and signed a long-term lease for an office space of more than 40,000 square feet. (The secret to keeping your sanity in a similar situation? Find a real estate agent who specializes in short-term leases.)

You'd think Stamps.com's business plan has been worthless, but Green says that's not the case. "Strategically, we haven't left [the business plan] that dramatically. Execution-wise, in terms of the number of people and the amount of dollars needed, the dates we thought you were going to do things--nowhere close," he says. "You can't imagine how big your company is going to be when you [start off] working with three guys in a room, and you don't even have your own offices. The good news is [when you grow rapidly], you're still succeeding because you're following the initial vision of what the company needs to do or become."

But if your company is going to grow faster than you can fathom, Green advises: "You have to hire people who are willing to jump right in the middle and start sprinting. And you have to let them know that upfront. It's not the most nurturing environment, [but] if you slow down to teach everyone everything about the company before they start working, you fall behind."

Which mirrors the thoughts of Charles O'Reilly, a professor of human resources management and organizational behavior at Stanford University. He believes the least rigid corporations will rule the day. "There's all this rhetoric about the learning organization--frankly, the secret is how to unlearn. If you really want to be fast, you have to unlearn," contends O'Reilly. "When we say that an organization learns, what we really mean is it develops processes and systems, and that's great. But if those systems stop you from moving in new directions, they're deadly."

Get There First

In the Old West, a faster draw saved your life. But nowadays, it's not so much who's the fastest, as who's first that's important, says Regis McKenna, author of Real Time: Preparing for the Age of the Never Satisfied Customer (Harvard Business School Press). If you're entering a new market, tackling new technology or trying to woo an untapped demographic, being the first one to cross the finish line is a tremendous advantage because, says McKenna, you'll have "a learning momentum and a cultural momentum."

Both McKenna and Biggers give the ubiquitous example of Amazon.com. When the book-hawking Web site first appeared on the scene, everybody, says Biggers, thought they were going to be "Amazon.toast." But by the time the mammoth Barnes & Noble managed to get online, Amazon.com was already a household name among online book buyers.

That said, Amazon.com knew what it was doing when it set up shop, and that's important. "Don't let the need to move faster cause you to jeopardize the integrity of the process you use to build the business," warns Shuman.

In other words, get your product or service right, but don't wait for the paint to dry. "The most successful company is one that has gotten something up quickly and then refined it," argues Lorne Olfman, director of the school of information science at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. "Microsoft has made all kinds of money by releasing version after version of [Windows]."

Indeed, many laundry detergents and household goods arrive in stores, triumphantly announcing "New and Improved!" The same plan is being utilized at Claremont Graduate University, says Olfman. It is one of a growing number of universities offering a major in e-commerce. Is the present major perfect? No. Will it get better? You bet.

During The Dash

If you're going to work fast, you don't have time to make bad choices. A string of smart decisions is why Heather Blease is thriving. Blease, 36, is the president of EnvisioNet, a company that provides Internet and technical support services for software companies. A former electrical engineer, she founded her firm in 1995, when many other entrepreneurs were just discovering the Internet. Today, Blease's company has a staff of 500, and 1999 sales should be around $8.5 million. All this, while raising three boys (they were all under age 4 when she began her business) with her husband, Dwight.

Blease always assumed her industry would change quickly, but "because of the Internet, it's faster-paced than I thought it would be," Blease says. "It's not a question of whether or not I keep up--it's about how to most effectively keep up."

Blease considers outsourcing portions of her business one of the smartest things she's done. She's outsourced everyone from CFOs to staff in payroll, recruiting, market research and strategy formation. "Getting the best advice is absolutely critical," says Blease. "There are so many times in a day when major decisions are made, and you need to make the right decisions all the time."

And what are some good decisions? Here are just a few:

  • Put an "ottawara clause" in your contracts, especially if you're working with other newer, fast-paced businesses. "It's a Japanese concept," explains Blease, "and it's essentially an `economic harmonization' clause." An economic harma-what? "We agree as companies that if one or the other is way off in projections, and if it's materially hurting the other company, we'll sit down and renegotiate. It's very vague, but we're agreeing that we want to ensure ourselves a successful partnership, and if things are going south for one company or the other, or if things are going too quickly, we agree to come together and sort things out."
  • Work with fast-paced, new and possibly lucrative companies, but anchor your alliances with the stable, more stodgy ones. The bigger, older firms may seem stuffy, but they'll pay you on time.
  • Establish a relationship with your suppliers so you're not just a client, but more or less a partner. It's a smart move, according to McKenna, who says that having solid relationships with another big company is the hallmark of two of the speediest corporations in today's fast-paced, breakneck speed of business: Wal-Mart and Procter & Gamble.
  • Educate your employees. It sounds obvious, but too many entrepreneurs aren't educated enough in the very business they're in, says Blease. Because so many people are jumping into businesses and learning as they go, they expect their employees to be able to operate as fast as they do. That's a sign of entrepreneurial inexperience, says Blease.

Go, Speed Racer

Fast food. Fastball. Fast lane. Fast track. The world moves fast. Ken Libman knows that.

Libman, 41, owns Libman Wolf Couples (LWC), an interior architectural firm in New York City. Even with the economy booming and new businesses popping up left and right, he's had no problem keeping up. "We've doubled our growth every year," he says. And so in the five years since LWC's founding, he's built a company with an expected revenue of $50 million for 1999.

Libman moves fast. He talks fast; he thinks fast; he works fast. His customers expect it. "They say `If you can move me in two months earlier, that's a lot of money to me,' " he says. Libman has architects, engineers and contractors all working for him under one roof, which means his firm is self-contained, and that helps his speed. When the company's work load is heavy, employees occasionally work in three eight-hour shifts that go around-the-clock. Saturdays and Sundays are not off-limits if a deadline is fast approaching.

But Libman's speed goes beyond that. He uses his money liberally; he says he hires the best talent ("steal them and overpay") and can often get his vendors to work more quickly by promising to pay them half of their fee upfront. This way he can often make the end cost less. (If a vendor wants $100,000, for instance, offer to pay $80,000 but fork out half of that upfront.) But maybe his smartest decision has been to not fear technology.

"Technology is moving very quickly," says Libman. (Yeah, tell us something we don't know.) So Libman encourages his workers to attend seminars and classes, and to stay on top of things. But because even business owners can't dictate what people do in their free time, Libman brings the seminars to his workers. "We're dealing with so many vendors here--whether it's telecommunication vendors or furniture vendors--twice each week, we have seminars, and they come in and educate us." Since the vendors are eager for LWC's business, they do it for free--and what's more, Libman has his vendors bring his staff lunch!

And should employees decide to pick up a job-related course or two after hours, Libman foots the bill. Score an "A" in such a college course, and Libman picks up the entire tab. "B" and "C" marks earn financial reimbursement of 75 and 50 percent coverage, respectively.

Don't forget to treat your workers right, Libman stresses. "Treat your people like gold to get them motivated and to keep the synergy high, so they all move in one direction."

The strategies have worked for Libman, who says a recent self-conducted study shows his company is 28 percent faster than its competition. As McKenna says, "You don't have to be the fastest business. You just have to be faster than your competitors." Has Libman put any thought into how fast the business world will move five years from now? "I haven't," he admits, "because if I did think about it right now, I just might fall out of my chair."

It's probably just as well that Libman hasn't considered it. After all, flying too fast can burn even the best of us. O'Reilly notes that People's Express was once the model of a firm that was fast on its feet. Between 1981 and 1986, the commuter airline went from a staff of zero to 4,000, and had a revenue of almost $1 billion. But during the next two years, they tried to do too much, too fast. "They lost it all," says O'Reilly. "They imploded."

Even Wyatt Earp knew a fast draw could be too fast, says Darby. Earp, the legendary lawman who blazed his way through the O.K. Corral, would routinely sacrifice some speed for accuracy. He must have known what he was doing. He died in 1929, shortly before his 81st birthday.

5 Ways To Be Faster

1. "If you want to be slow, develop a lot of rules," warns Stanford professor Charles O'Reilly--so don't have too many rules. O'Reilly gives the example of PSS World Medical, which provides medical supplies to physicians' offices (to the tune of more than $1 billion since 1993). "Part of their success is that they've guaranteed same-day delivery of supplies, so if a doctor needs tongue depressors, he or she will get them that day." The competitors haven't matched that, says O'Reilly, because PSS has less bureaucracy. Each "store," or distribution center, has enough autonomy to do whatever it has to do to get the job done. Meanwhile, the competitors' stores have to go through headquarters before filling their orders--wasting valuable time.

2. Share data with everybody--realize your employees are smarter than you think. O'Reilly says British Petroleum (BP) has been a huge hit around the world because if a gas station in Borneo has some pertinent information, it has the resources to quickly let everybody in BP know of its ideas, and suddenly the BPs in the North Sea are benefiting as well.

3. Understand that diversity in senior management teams is bad. O'Reilly isn't talking about ethnic or gender issues. He means people work better with others who've been in a group equally as long as they have, whether that's 10 minutes or 10 years, as opposed to a staff with mixed levels of seniority.

4. Be willing to make quick decisions at the risk of being ineffective. Implementing the second-best idea now is a better strategy than doing the best idea a week from now. It's a bigger risk to delay making a decision than to make a marginal one.

5. Don't have a desk. What does a desk really do but collect stuff?

Slow Drip: 3 Things Worth Doing Slowly

1. Creating your product or service. You can only build a better mousetrap by taking your time. Once it's built, sell it as quickly as you like.

2. Building trust with your customers, partners and colleagues. It's difficult to speed up the development of trust.

3. Changing your core values. Your firm might change from manufacturing to distribution, but if your entire foundation is based on the former and you rush to do the latter, you may someday be on a park bench with a bottle of Ripple, telling people how you used to own a manufacturing firm.

The Fastest Hall Of Fame

If there were such a thing, these companies would surely belong, according to Regis McKenna, author of Real Time: Preparing for the Age of the Never Satisfied Customer (Harvard Business School Press).

  • Amazon.com. Part of the reason for their success was that unlike, say, Barnes & Noble, they had no legacy. "There was nothing to hold them back," says McKenna. "They had a blank path."
  • FedEx. It's not just that they deliver quickly and on time--the customer is generally doing half the paperwork.
  • Cisco Systems. High marks for online sales, support and service.
  • Intel. Great customer service and Internet protocol.
  • Wal-Mart and Procter & Gamble. "They're close alliance partners, and the alliance [works] because they share information with each other," says McKenna. "Procter & Gamble knows exactly what happens at Wal-Mart stores at the end of the day, and that's why other retail stores have trouble keeping up."
  • AOL. "They didn't invent the Internet, they didn't invent computers, and they didn't invent the proper network; they invented the idea of linking people to an existing infrastructure. AOL got that idea before anyone else, and it enabled them to operate faster."
  • Nasdaq. "They now handle billions of trades a day on the Internet. They've built back-end systems to manage that. As that market continues to explode, they've managed to handle the new companies that have come in, the volatility of the marketplace and the huge number of transactions that are going on." Easily more impressive, Internet-wise, than the New York Stock Exchange.

Fast Tips

  • "To stay competitive in a market that changes by the hour, you need to plan. Plan for what you think might work, and while you're doing that, continue with what is currently working--and be ready to make changes for what's not."

Michael Perez, Technologix Inc., Kirkland, WA Entrepreneur's No. 1 Hot 100 Business for 1999

  • "When you see an opportunity, if you're confident enough, take it!"

Miguel Suarez, MAS Melons & Grapes, Rio Rico, AZ Entrepreneur's Hot 100 Business No. 52 for 1999

  • "Hire great people. You need people who are great at what they're doing this minute, and who, in six months, when your company is five times its original size, will still be great. Hire people you know will grow with your company."

Rosemary M. Tator, Avalon Solutions Inc., Dover, NH Entrepreneur's Hot 100 Business No. 62 for 1999

Contact Sources

Avalon Solutions, (603) 743-4500, http://www.avalonsolutions.com

Envisionet Computer Services, (207) 373-3201, http://www.envnet.com

Libman Wolf Couples, (212) 980-3113, http://www.lwc.com

MAS Melons & Grapes, (520) 377-2372, masmg@dakota.com

Micro Modeling Associates, (212) 233-9890, http://www.mmanet.com

Stamps.com, 3420 Ocean Park Blvd. #1040, Santa Monica, CA 90405, http://www.stamps.com

Technologix Inc., (425)825-8775, http://www.technologixinc.com

World Fast Draw Association,fastdraw@gunfighter.com, http://www.gunfighter.com/fastdraw

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