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Mat Vogels
Nov 15, 2017 · 5 min read

Momentum is a fickle thing. When you have it, hard things feel easy. When you don’t have it, easy things can feel hard…

Sam Altman has an excellent paragraph re startup momentum:

“Momentum is everything in a startup. If you have momentum, you can survive most other problems. If you do not have momentum, nothing except getting momentum will solve your problems. Founders internalize this during YC; many seem to forget in the few years after YC. Burnout seems to almost always affect founders whose startups are not doing well, and then becomes a downward spiral. In fact, one of my top few startup commandments is “never let the company lose momentum.”

This might as well be gospel. I’ve experienced it first hand — both from my own startups as well as dozens of others’. Momentum is the ultimate startup killer, and it’s always out to getcha.

What is momentum and how can startups maintain it?

Momentum is obtained in different ways, many of which depend on the motivations of the founders/company (money, sales, hiring a great employee, positive feedback on the product, etc), but the best way I’ve seen is to shorten your feedback loop.

The feedback loop is the process between action and reaction. A customer asks for a feature, you build said feature, customer uses feature, you get feedback, and repeat.

The faster you do this, the faster that wheel spins and the less likely it is to slow down.

If talking to customers is the best way to build momentum, then not talking to customers is the easiest way to lose it.

Talk to your customers.

It was the most common feedback we heard during YC, and Michael Seibel would commonly respond to questions with, “Did you ask your customers?”

Your customers can typically answer your questions better than anyone, and can help you keep momentum by telling you what to work on next.

Beware of Motion vs Progress.

TechStars (and Zach Nies) speak about the idea of motion versus progress quite often. Momentum can be built on motion (the act of doing work), but will ultimately slow without progress (reaching new milestones).

Imagine your startup as a marathon. Running feels pretty good, but as soon as you realize you’re just running for the sake of running, and not towards a finish line, it’s not very exciting. You might even stop running altogether.

One solution to this is to charge customers to use your product/service (Crazy, right?!). The best time to do this is as early as possible. Charge money from day 1. I promise you the feedback will be better, and revenue is a good way to keep momentum.

Talk to customers every single week.

Make a habit of scheduling talks as often as possible.

In fact, schedule at least one customer demo/sales call/meeting every single week.

Think of it as a hack. It works! You’re welcome.

What happens when you lose momentum?

I can guarantee you that regardless of what you do, at some point your startup will lose momentum.

It sucks.

Pretty much…

This is when I typically re-read Paul Graham’s How not to die.

It’s also at this point in the process I remember how important it is for founders to have at least one of the following drivers:

  • Scratching your own itch/solving your own problem (e.g. a freelancer building a better freelancing tool).
  • Be obsessed with the problem you are solving (e.g. Elon Musk sending people to Mars).

Many founders start companies for the sake of starting companies. It’s the new cool thing to do, after all.

Some founders have the perfect mindset for this and don’t require the traits I listed above. Their drive is from simply starting a company. There’s nothing wrong with this, and envy those that have this characteristic.

But in my experience most founders do not have this trait. They will lose momentum, not have enough insight or passion about the problem and just give up.

Scratching your own itch/solving your own problem.

If you’re solving your own problem, it’s easier to get customer feedback because you’re one of them (This does NOT make it okay to not talk with your actual customers). When momentum stalls, you can rely on your own experience on the problem to keep moving.

Alternatively, if you’re not scratching your own itch, lost momentum leaves you in a hole that only your customers can dig you out of. It’s not the end of the world, but it can make things more challenging.

If you’re regularly talking to your customers anyways, this probably isn’t a huge issue.

You’re obsessed with the idea and need it to exist or will die trying.

Many founders are driven not from their own problems, but from the problems/aspiration of others. I think of the amazing folks over at New Story Charity. I imagine they’ve experienced times of startup hardship, but overcome them because of their drive to improve the lives of others.

This isn’t only for nonprofits. I imagine the same drive is true for Zuck (bring the world closer together), Elon (send people in to space) and the Airbnb Founders (allow others to belong).

Their obsession with bringing their vision to life is greater than any momentum loss. Good luck stopping those trains.

In summation…

Momentum is key. The best way to keep momentum is to shorten your feedback loop. The best way to shorten your feedback loop is to talk with customers.

If talking to customers is the best way to build momentum, then not talking to customers is the easiest way to lose it.

Make a practice of talking/selling/demoing to a new customer at least once a week. Don’t skip weeks.

Every startup loses momentum at one point (often multiple points). Don’t panic.

It’s better to start companies that scratch your own itch or find a problem that you are obsessed with bringing to life — it will keep you moving even when momentum slows.

Mat Vogels

Written by

Founder (Zestful), freelancer, side-hustle addict and lover of movies/TV.

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