If You Want Your Business to Win in the Long-Term, Don't Take Shortcuts
Startups are for the impatient, so conventional wisdom goes. As programmer and author Paul Graham wrote, "Instead of working at an ordinary rate for 40 years, you work like hell for four" to "solve the money problem in one shot." Sounds pretty good, right?
While the quick wins do happen from time to time (people win the lottery, too), working 80-hour weeks, starving relationships and pushing teammates to the limit is more likely to result in depression than a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Experienced founders will tell you that the true path to success is long, winding and full of ups and downs. It takes an average of nine long years for a software-as-a-service company to go public. Nine years. Whether that is your goal or not, it's clear that building an exceptional company is a marathon and the journey should be optimized accordingly.
This is why delaying gratification is one of the most important habits an entrepreneur can establish. When you consistently make decisions that set your business up to win in the long-term, rather than taking shortcuts that make life easier today, your business can reach its fullest potential.
I was lucky enough to learn this habit years ago from finance writer Dave Ramsey, a famous author and radio host who gives personal finance advice. There's a phrase he repeats daily on his show that has stuck with me: "Live like no one else, so later you can live like no one else."
Great advice for managing money, but it also rings true with regard to building a company. Put in the time, dedicate yourself to doing the common things uncommonly well for a sustained period of time, and you can build an exceptional company. But, it takes daily commitment to delaying gratification.
Are you willing to invest time and money in things that won't pay off for a year or more? Instead of doing what feels good, are you willing to grind day after day, laying the groundwork for the future? Can you dedicate yourself to business fundamentals even when the press and the market pundits ignore them? That's what it means to delay gratification.
Speed, quality and cost
When you build a product, the rule is that you can pick two of these three options: speed, quality and cost. If you pick speed and quality, it's going to cost you. If you pick quality and cost, it's going to take longer. The challenge is that we live in a time when speed is valued much more highly than the other two options. Many businesses would pick speed twice if they could.
Speed is deeply gratifying, but the problem is that it almost always requires compromise. To grow fast, you have to ignore business fundamentals. To add a lot of new features quickly, you build up long-term technical debt. To build an excellent team overnight, you have to raise a lot of money (and keep raising it to make the numbers work).
Delaying gratification often means not choosing speed. Grow more slowly, add fewer features, raise less money. Stay under the radar. Become what Foundry Group VC Brad Feld calls a silent killer.
A focus on quality
The reason most companies don't focus on quality above all else is because it doesn't seemingly have a good ROI. To get twice the quality you might have to put in five times the effort. The higher the quality, the greater the multiple of effort.
Quality is a constant, excruciating exercise in delaying gratification.
We see it every day at Help Scout. Why put 20 hours into a single blog post when we could put five hours each into four posts and get more eyeballs? Why spend 70 percent of our time improving the quality of the product instead of adding shiny new features? The short answer is that we believe doing things right matters when it comes to building a strong brand.
Why is quality important to Help Scout? Frankly, it's the only way we can stand out. We're surrounded by companies that can and will outspend us everywhere, but lucky for us, quality can't be bought. Help Scout is far from perfect, but my hope is that people associate our brand with quality and with people that care deeply about their craft.
Investments in quality don't pay off for years, which is why most companies don't put in the work. We're just now seeing some of the return on investment from all the time we put in over the first four years of the business. But, we're happy to wait.
Knowing what we've talked about here, that building a successful startup or company is a marathon in every sense, culture is extremely important. If you are going to do things the hard way and delay gratification, a great culture is what makes it possible for you to enjoy the ride. It's also the only way that your core values as a founder or entrepreneur can scale as the company grows.
I've tried to emphasize sustainability as a cornerstone of the Help Scout culture. Here are a few of the tactical ways that we try to make that happen:
Flexible work days: People should be able to work whenever they can be most productive, whether they start work at 8 a.m. or 6 p.m. Working in a software company can be demanding, but we try really hard to encourage work-life balance by being flexible with people's time.
Pay market salaries: It's rare for us to grant stock options to an employee, which is a bit weird. Instead, we try to pay all positions at or above market salary so there's never any anxiety around some sort of "exit."
Players first: All (servant) leaders are responsible to make it so that players (individual contributors) are celebrated, have autonomy/ownership and can take the time to do their best work. Retaining great players for the long-term is critical to our long-term sustainability.
We really try not to re-invent the wheel when it comes to building a company, but the single habit of delaying gratification has motivated us to do things very differently in a few cases. Living like no one else is challenging, but very rewarding for everyone involved when you buy in. And we haven't even gotten to do the second live like no one else yet.