Balancing Patience and Urgency
How to manage the tension between patience and urgency when growing a business.
Patience is the most difficult mindset to master when you are naturally urgent. It doesn’t come easily to me or many of my colleagues. And the irony that entrepreneurship is equal parts patience and urgency isn’t lost on us either.
I have found that while you need to be urgent and patient simultaneously, the mix of each one changes with time. The issue is you only realise that in retrospect.
In the early days of a venture, founders are in full control of their time. They can design and tinker in the relative privacy of their development environments. Urgency is high, patience can be low.
As ventures grow and expectations on investment and growth start to take hold, that mix should change.
And it might. Slightly. From say a 90% urgency, 10% patience ratio to 80:20.
This slight increase in patience is afforded to internal activities where larger teams take longer to collaborate and get things done. And for the most part, the activities the team are focused on are relatively contained and controllable.
The nuance here is that growth also comes with additional external dependencies, all of which take time.
The one thing that founders never want to think, hear or embrace is that despite their best efforts to create urgency, the world outside their venture’s walls moves at its own pace.
Partnerships take longer to form, consumer marketing takes time to optimise and product development needs to respond to a broader audience.
The cumulative effect of these realities puts obvious pressure on runways. It also creates stress on the already limited bandwidth of small teams and narrows the universe of available tactics to extend the time in market.
I think the urgency to patience ratio is an important mindset to help founders manage teams and think about time (this would be advice I would want to hear as my younger self).
This ratio is not about having an amount of patience and a separate amount of urgency to deploy.
The point is that you have a finite amount of energy to deploy. And you can choose to deploy it being urgent and being patient but it’s impossible to be 100% patient while being 100% urgent.
Think of the changes in the urgency to patience ratio as the gears that change in a car when you accelerate. To create motion from a standing start urgency is high and patience is low. Urgency is still required over time but as momentum starts to propel the venture forward, the need for patience increases as the next level of products and partnerships are built to fuel growth.
The urgency:patience ratio changes over time and being aware of it is half the battle won.
It’s also important to understand what stops founders from moving from one gear to the next. The way they think about leverage usually has a lot to do with it.
Markets are made by creating products that few companies can make and that many people love. The scarcity of supply creates a number of advantages. One of them is leverage.
In most cases, leverage allows suppliers to scale and charge (more) for their products.
What makes decreasing urgency and increasing patience more difficult to achieve, agonisingly so, is a lack of leverage.
And in startup leverage is the one thing you never have in the beginning.
As most founders (and investors) comes to realise with time is that the tide on leverage only turns if you stay in market long enough to crack the code of value for large groups of people.
When leverage takes longer than expected and founders get stuck in a high urgency, low patience gear, they tend to commit a cardinal sin of building a business: mistaking ambition for leverage.
Don’t get me wrong, ambition is to be admired. It will convince a lot of people of future value.
But there is a line that should be approached with caution.
And that line is crossed when a founder is so convinced of the (future) value of their product that they try to make a prospective investor or partner feel as though they have no choice but to engage.
In other words, they use leverage they don’t have to force an outcome.
This is a bummer because the founder loses twice.
Not only do seasoned investors and decision makers see this coming a mile away and disengage, teams also see this behaviour and start to question their grip on reality.
Take these fundraising and partnership scenarios as case in point.
In an investment round, this can look like a founder saying that they have commitments for a large proportion of the capital being raised and that demand is so strong that it looks like the round will be oversubscribed.
All it takes is for the investor to ask for the term sheet and tell the founder that they will be the last money in.
In a partnership negotiation, this can look like a founder trying to play two companies in a duopoly or close-knit industry off against each another.
All it takes is for former colleagues to make a call and ask if the founder’s story is legit and if it’s not, the game is over.
It’s not worth overplaying leverage
As a hustler from birth, born impatient and known for enjoying ‘the thrill of the chase’, I can tell you I’ve visited, and on a couple of occasions crossed, the ambition line just to fall flat on my face due to a lack of leverage.
It’s up to each founder to know when they have leverage and when they don’t. Just know that investors and partners know when you do and know when you don’t.
Either way, be honest about the leverage you have at any given time and adjust the urgency to patience ratio accordingly.
How to be urgent and how to be patient
I think about the component parts of the urgency to patience ratio like this:
Being urgent means:
- Getting product into the hands of users and customers as quickly as possible (and being embarrassed because you think it’s not ready)
- Being continuously and constructively dissatisfied with the status quo
- Learning as quick as possible by creating a rapid experimentation tempo on sales processes, product platform and features, marketing and culture
- Planning for the long game while creating and capturing value in the short and medium term to increase momentum. In sales, this means maintaining your strategic and run rate businesses.
- Forcing time in the week to stop, reflect and (if need be) course correct
Being patient means:
- Maintaining what it means to be urgent, PLUS
- Increasing the discipline of planning and precision of delivering on the plan
- Over-communicating the context of the company and progress across all areas of the business
- Creating more value for allies at prospective customer businesses and also subtly reminding them that timing is everything for a startup
- Finding ways to help fanatical users or customers share their love for your product
Urgency:Patience in action
I use time as the guide to adjust the ratio. It’s not a hard and fast rule, and there are exceptions, but it’s served me well.
- 100% Urgent 0% Patient: First six months. Side project. No co-founders. Learning through experimentation. Focused on pre-sales.
- 85% Urgent 15% Patient: Six to 12 months. Start working with potential co-founders. First version of a product in the hands of users. Iterating like mad to deliver on pre-sales.
- 70% Urgent 30% Patient: 12 to 24 months. Raise first round of financing or cash flow is small but growing and stable. Building a team. Managing growing pains.
- 60% Urgent 40% Patient: +24 months. Clearer than ever that there is a there, there. Enter and exit multiple troughs of despair. Capital is raised and invested. Teams expand and contract. Sales and business development activities evolve. Business pivots (and pivots again).
Three last things …
People don’t often associate urgency with marathons but if you understand building a great company takes ~10 years, you’re likely to recalibrate how you organise your time and lead and provide air cover to your team. The idea of urgency can be misunderstood for a high level of activity. Don’t make this mistake. Momentum isn’t created by output, it’s created by results.
Second, and while mentors can be very helpful, I find having a small tribe peers who operate in similar roles huge help in trying to work out how patient I should be. They provide the moral support and real examples that you can relate to. My tribe has people who work in senior business development roles at Xero and Cisco to name a few. Assemble your tribe, you won’t regret it.
And finally, rest.
You and your team will be running hard for a long time. Give permission to your team to rest. At AirShr the entire team, founders included, stopped work at 12 pm every second Friday and did whatever they wanted. There was only one rule: Don’t be working. Perspective increases when you have time to stop, decompress and reflect.
It will also help you work out if the urgency to patience ratio is on the right setting.