To Make Big Gains, Startups Need to Remember These 5 Things
Ancient philosophers and armchair psychiatrists alike have come to one resounding conclusion over the millennia: Simplicity is a virtue that leads to a more meaningful existence and sharper clarity of purpose. This applies on all levels — individual and collective, personal and professional, business and avocation.
Consider a study recently performed by consultancy firm Heidrick and Struggles, which found that the most successful companies in the world (called "superaccelerators") achieved that status partly due to a commitment to simplicity. Every superaccelerator emphasized the strategic importance of simplicity in its culture and operating model. Not surprisingly, these organizations have higher-performing teams and revenues as a result.
Entrepreneurs obviously have big ideas and like to solve complex problems, but that mindset can be detrimental at times. Incremental improvements aren't emphasized when the scope is always big-picture, which hampers innovation and overall growth.
How, then, can entrepreneurs recognize the opportunities for the seemingly small improvements that lead to massive gains?
Plusses and minuses
I can attest that software engineers always hear that shorter iteration cycles (incremental changes) are best, but that’s not always the case. I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, there are no short iterative approaches to manned rocket missions or to surgical procedures. If you don't get the manned rocket mission right, everyone dies.
On the other hand, the biggest risk an entrepreneur quite possibly can face is in overengineering the solution in such a way that it fails to gain any initial traction. It's a double-edged sword.
Many dream of creating the next breakthrough innovation overnight, but all breakthrough innovations are actually just mass-market adoptions of incremental innovations.
So which approach is right? Well, it depends — mostly on the industry in question, but also on the founder and team. Some industries and teams are better suited to have a more protracted concept-to-market life cycle in which they can remain focused for longer periods and be more creative without constantly involving customer feedback. Too much or too frequent customer feedback can cause a team to constantly shift direction and be distracted.
When founders are focused only on the big picture or the exit, they can become too detached from the actual problems customers experience and lose their authenticity. It's important to know there is potential for a viable exit if investing millions into a startup, but founders will have put the cart before the horse if they spend more time planning the exit than providing short-term impact by solving customers' problems and focusing on their needs.
I believe in the importance of a hands-on approach for founders, at least in the early phases. It's fine if an entrepreneur wants to get into an industry they know nothing about, but the first step should be in gaining a deep understanding of the challenges, pain points, relationships, opportunities and existing solutions in that space before they try to disrupt.
A good founder balances their lofty dreams and ideals with putting their nose to the grindstone daily and paying their dues to eventually reach that goal, little by little, day by day.
Resisting perfection's appeal
When entrepreneurs commit to streamlining processes and focusing on small improvements, they will see two main benefits. One, focusing on small improvements is great for morale and motivation. By establishing a short, positive feedback loop with the team, energy and motivation will be much higher. Note that improvements are not only the technical or product-related ones such as rolling out a new feature or version of the app. Maybe it's marginally improving sales leads, signed contracts or social media engagement.
Secondly, simplifying allows the team to focus more on effort than outcome. When it takes months or years for a concept to reach the market, the stakes are much higher, which adds stress to the team and can lead to finger-pointing, accountability concerns and more. When the team constantly delivers in short cycles, it is easier to measure performance.
When I launched InList, it took me upwards of six months to release a new version of the app. This was partly because a large part of the development was outsourced to agencies. I brought the work in-house and managed the entire development team myself, which allowed me to have a weekly release cycle. Before, if we thought up a new feature or change for the app (for example, a timely tool to let users see which safety measures venues had in place), it would have taken at least several weeks to roll out. Now, it's usually released within a week and costs us considerably less.
Keep it simple
Startup leaders can take several actions to recognize opportunities for incremental improvements and gauge the effect of those changes after implementation. These steps are:
1. Evaluate. Determine whether the team and the industry are better suited for a short, iterative cycle for product development or a longer life cycle. Hint: The vast majority of businesses are better suited for a short feedback loop that focuses on small improvements. Streamline the development process and eliminate as many unnecessary steps as possible shorten the product-development cycle and get to market faster.
2. Educate. Learning the various methodologies available to entrepreneurs is key to accomplishing incremental improvements. The lean product life cycle is one of many. There's an ideal match for every startup and small business.
3. Cultivate. Avoid perfectionism. This is really hard for me, as I'm a recovering perfectionist. But I've also learned that, as they say, the perfect can be the enemy of the good. I've adopted a culture of celebrating effort, not just milestones. And when large milestones are reached, I break them into smaller ones and reward all the stakeholders at each step along the way. It's been a game-changer.
4. Align. I expect my partners, investors, staff and vendors to share a similar mindset. If the board of directors expects a perfect waterfall-type product launch, it makes it a lot harder to take an "imperfect" incremental-improvement approach to the product/business. LinkedIn recently found that 90 percent of sales and marketing professionals agree that when initiatives and messages are aligned, the customer experience is positively impacted. Unfortunately, that same percentage says their companies "are misaligned across strategy, process, content and culture."
5. Check in. Of course, the risk with incremental improvements is that we lose sight of the big picture and the long run. For me, evaluations with an accountability partner ensure that I'm on track with long-term goals and not just treading water. Often this person can be outside the board or staff, perhaps an advisor or mentor. These evaluations can be scheduled quarterly, semiannually, yearly or whatever frequency makes sense for the business, as long as they happen regularly.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Elon Musk as someone who has put forward the process of "failing fast." Musk didn't fail fast with manned missions to space, but he was finally able to be the first to launch astronauts from U.S. soil in many years, thanks to having failed fast on many unmanned missions and getting right back to the drawing board each time.
Failing fast is tangential to making small improvements. Both fork from the same principle: avoiding overthinking of things. Less is very often more.