Early-stage entrepreneurs run around putting off fires day in and day out. Some deem every single challenge as worthy of their precious limited time that they end up losing sight of growth strategies- as well as planning for the long run. They celebrate the small wins –the everyday emergencies– and confuse avoiding crises with the constant urge to get things done. To many, the sense of urgency and the sense of emergency are indistinguishable.
Urgency, in the words of John Kotter, the author of A Sense of Urgency is “not to just have a meeting today, it’s to have a meeting that accomplishes something today.” It’s the courage to prioritize and focus on what yields results to achieve a certain objective, and to fight the temptation we all have to do everything at the same time and treat all challenges equally. Embracing and instilling a true sense of urgency will allow entrepreneurs to do things faster, smarter, with less resources and much less frustration.
I asked Idriss Al Rifai, founder and CEO of Fetchr, if, during the early days of the startup, he was able to run his company with a sense of urgency. He replied, “The way we run Fetchr, from day one, is definitely proactive. I really believe that the role of a startup CEO is to define the pace of the startup. It starts with enforcing that sense of urgency at the top level, knowing that it will trigger down to tight deadlines at the lower level. The reactionary part exists, but represents a much smaller part.”
When you are an early-stage entrepreneur, you have to run around. But the key challenge is to run around in a smart way. I have seen a few earlystage founders chilling in the sun, and I wondered whether they are the modern masters of urgency, or if they suffer from the early-stage complacency syndrome, enjoying their small wins, while the scaling war around them is raging. Running around frantically can give a false sense of achievement, and the last minute reactionary small fixes are often ineffectual in their impact on the long term. While reacting to emergencies is inevitable, founders need to train themselves to keep their actions aimed at winning, not surviving.
“When we first started, we were more proactive than reactive,” remembers Sharene Lee, co-founder of Melltoo. “In the early days of Melltoo, we had few users, and nothing much to react to. We had to push and provoke things to make them happen. As Melltoo grew, we were constantly switching between being proactive and reactive. When users and transactions started growing rapidly, we had to be reactive, and put a customer service and logistics team in place to handle incoming queries. We built systems, procedures, and workflows to help customers, handling up to 100+ new queries per day. Once we overcame the initial hurdles, we switched to being proactive, anticipating problems that may crop up with continued growth, and again returning to pushing and provoking things to ensure continued growth.”
There are many hurdles and hazards that stall the growth of seed-stage startups, of which some are unpredictable and out of the founders’ control. Instilling this “go-getter” mindset and attitude in each and every team member empowers them to find opportunity in crises. If they shy away from challenges or systematically delegate them, then they are probably not the best fit for your startup, or perhaps need to be trained and inspired.
When I asked Loulou Khazen Baz, founder and CEO of Nabbesh, her thoughts on dealing with uncertainties, she replied, “It’s all about trial and error. Take a look at most of the successful startups in our region or globally, you would find that most of them pivoted several times before landing on a winning formula. We can have the best ideas, but if the market is not receptive, or we suddenly have a fierce competitor, or we lose a key member from the team, we then have to act reactively and adjust our strategy. At Nabbesh, I would say we certainly ran things with a sense of urgency, because this is just how startups are, you need to grow fast and keep moving, but by no means were we proactive all the time. Fundraising, for instance, is the best example: you have a specific runway and burn, and you plan to raise funds within a specific timeframe, and it either gets delayed or doesn’t happen. In this case, we have no choice but to be reactive and move to plan B. There is a caveat though- the more experience you have as an entrepreneur, the more proactive you can be. First-time entrepreneurs suffer most.”
Urgency is not only about being focused, fast and smart. It’s about “bringing the outside in” and breaking the “we know best” bad habits. I have seen founders struggling with customer acquisition and low retention rates, and they often underestimate the importance of talking to their users or seeking expert advice, and solely rely on basic data or their own observations. On this note, Karl Naim, co-founder and CEO of ChefXChange, shared with me one of his insights on this topic.
“Since inception, we have always worked with a sense of urgency, simply due to the fact that we always believed in customer feedback and iteration,” he said. “Our first product beta was very basic compared to our current website: the UX and UI were completely off and based on our perceptions. But the beauty was that we gathered feedback from our customers early on. Up to this day, and with the introduction of new verticals to our core offering, we always aim at launching in an optimized time frame and improve based on early user feedback (push or pull, i.e. either they provide us that feedback, or we ask it from them). We leave the emergency and reactionary factor to everything that is outside our circle of influence, and for which we do not have real control on.”
Urgency is, in most cases and regardless of the size of the company, a top-down behavioral change. While every team member should be empowered to initiate and drive change, it is the founders’ responsibility to lead by example. This is why Fetchr’s Al Rifai and his core team ensure that urgency is a key component of how the startup operates and grows. “We made ‘sense of urgency’ and ‘ownership’ as two of our three main values at the company level,” he explains.
“It means that we systematically look for these traits across our recruiting process. It is actually the very key thing to find in someone. As far as aligning the team on this, the key here is to have clear objectives at the company level, and assign clear responsibilities for each director. Each director owns his/her department, and will need to match the pace at which the organization is growing. Bottlenecks change from one department to the other, and it’s interesting to see how people differently cope with that.”
“Instilling that sense of urgency in your team is the toughest challenge faced by every founder,” ChefXChange’s Naim added. “It is therefore important to lead by example and mentor each and every one of them, sharing with them successes and failures so they are more prepared to what’s coming. Sales is the task that most team members dread the most: cold calling, fear of being pushy, fear of being compared to a used car salesman. Yet startups only survive if they provide an excellent customer service. I always believed it is more important for your first 100 customers to love you than just have thousands who like you. Our biggest source of new business comes from referrals from existing customers. When we lose business, it is always important to understand why, to whom, what we could have done to retain them. And this requires picking up the phone and daring asking for feedback from a lost customer. And as a founder, I do this on a weekly basis in front of my team and try to instill that feedback fever in them. Additionally, the new generation prefers relying on emails and WhatsApp, which removes the whole personal and emotional aspect, and more often than not, a customer will never give you feedback on these channels. It is easier for them to ignore you, than over the phone.”
Starting a business involves having a vision first, an aspiration to be the best at what you do, and a mission to win. While working towards achieving your vision, you need to align every helping hand and brain, and make every action focused on success. Think big, feel the urge every day and spread a go-getter behavior across your organization. Purge the low impact frantic bustle, and always reward the strategic proactive wins. “With a growing business, you can develop better foresight and do longer term planning,” advised Nabbesh’s Baz.
“We were recently testing a new service in the Saudi market, and we managed to run a pilot so smoothly and efficiently, while keeping the team morale very high, despite working long hours on sometimes agonizing tasks. Everyone was aligned behind a vision to reach a specific milestone and it was executed perfectly. The more stable the team is, the more efficient we become, and the higher our chances to succeed and use the sense of urgency to deliver results.”
So here’s the lesson I leave you with: instill urgency urgently in your organizations. Good luck!