The Pleaser
What Are The Patterns?

The Power of Velocity


Running a startup can sometimes feel like hell. And as Churchill said, if you’re going through hell, keep going. Forward progress can be hard to maintain when there are customer disasters, technical setbacks, funding challenges and more. But what other option is there?

As a startup, making forward progress is essential. And if there is any competitive advantage a startup can have over larger competitors, it’s that it can and must move faster.

Let’s face it, most large companies, no matter how agile they once were, get bogged down. The more success they have, the more they grow, the slower they get. Middle managers are hired, rules are made, and new processes are created all in an effort to ensure that no mistakes are made. But those processes and the bureaucrats who create them also cause a side-effect of slowing things down. The culture that once boasted of moving quickly, becomes complacent and accepts that because there are more people, things take longer.

New competition? Let’s take a wait-and-see approach. Sales problems? Schedule a review at the end of the quarter. Need more engineers? Budgets have to be approved. New product idea? Surely that can wait.

Most startups move fast. But if you’re not careful, you can end up re-creating the same bureaucracy found in larger companies.

If you’re the founder, CEO or executive, you can’t make all the decisions youself. That will only result in slowing things down as a pile-up forms outside your office, your email in-box or your Slack DMs. So you must create a culture that empowers others to make decisions. And you must set the pace for making decisions quickly.

In an efficient startup that means if a problem is found on a Monday, you’re brainstorming ideas on Tuesday, picking the best solution by Wednesday, implementing it Thursday and measuring the results by Friday. That might seem optimistic for some problems. Engineering complex solutions might take weeks. But for many other problems in sales, marketing, customer service or finance, it should be achievable.

Startup leaders need to demonstrate the importance of velocity to their teams. There will always be a desire for more more input, more discussion, more research, more data, more analysis. But that must always be tempered against eroding the advantage of startup speed. And in truth, how often does delaying a decision yield better results?

In the early days at Zendesk, we faced significant competition from Salesforce who had acquired a smaller competitor of ours called Assistly. Assistly was priced cheaper than we were and appealed to very cost-conscious small businesses. We created a “never lose on price” campaign which gave our sales managers the ability to aggressively compete on price against Assistly and other low-end competitors. We trusted our sales team to not lower their price unless they had to. And we knew that by approving a price match in real time with the customer demonstrated our ability to respond quickly to their needs. We also knew that getting a similar discount app, a trial period extension, or other change from Salesforce would typically require three levels of escalation taking weeks inside of Salesforce.

It’s possible that we left some money on the table with customers who might have gone with Zendesk instead of the lower-priced rival anyways. But the confidence the sales team developed during this process, the momentum within the company and impact on the culture was well worth it.

As you grow your company, you will often need to develop additional layers of process. There will be board meetings, executive meetings, departmental review meetings, pricing committees, product councils, launch meetings, and a myriad of short-term task forces. In all cases, these processes will be set up to generate better decisions, or more transparency, or higher collaboration, fewer surprises.

However, if you’re not careful, meetings and processes may end up bogging down decision making and watering down accountability. So whenever you define a new process, be clear on who owns the decision and when it will be made. And at any point if you are reaching the point of diminishing returns from these meetings, ask that the decision gets made immediately.

If a process or meeting has outlived its usefulness, don’t be afraid to disband it. This is especially important as you bring in new managers or executives. Give them the opportunity to eliminate the bureaucratic processes of their predecessors by paring back the number of attendees or scope of meetings.

As you look across your organization, are there decisions now taking longer than they should? Are there too many layers of approval? Is there confusion about who makes the decision? What steps can you take to cut through the layers so that speed remains a competitive advantage?

Let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below.


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Gregory Todd

Spot on Zach! I just joined a multi-billion dollar organization with my start-up mindset and I'm working on how to build that start-up velocity.

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