Startup Urgency: A Balancing Act



I recently finished reading Ben Horowitz’s book “The Hard Thing About Hard Things.” Normally I am not one for business books, but this one was pretty solid. Maybe at some point I will do a review, but the reason I bring it up now is the single word that whirled in the back of my mind as I was reading: urgency.

The word itself came up a few times in the book, particularly around CEO psychology, but the idea of urgency was in many ways the underlying thread of the narrative. In peacetime, urgency is not valued and rightly so. At some point, an organization cannot continue to operate at breakneck speed and needs to slow down to accommodate process and order and structure. But early-stage startups are not at peace; they are in constant war mode.

In war, decisions are truly life and death. Strategy is important, but, ultimately, execution is what wins battles. As Mike Tyson once quipped, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

So you have to play the role of battlefield tactician, constantly adjusting as the events on the field play out. And, often, you have to make decisions with less than perfect information. When you are starting a new company, with a new product, in an untested market, how could you expect to know anything in advance? Handling the events and affairs of each and every day is in and of itself a major challenge.

It is a balancing act, and the currency is risk. Does one risk the company on one bold assault on the hope that it means victory, understanding failure means total capitulation? Or can one jibe and juke through smaller battles while learning the field to find the winning combination?

That could work, but it risks missing the broader strategic picture that could leave you completely exposed or take so long you end up stalled in a prolonged game of trench warfare. Instead of dying because of one big bet gone awry, you die through a million little cuts, bleeding capital and energy until there is nothing left.

But whatever choice you make, speed has to be a priority. Paul Graham talks about speed being the natural state of startups. There is even a book called “Do More Faster,” where every other vignette emphasizes speed.

Early startups have few process or organizational inhibitors; they are, by nature, an engine built for fast iteration, quick pivoting and constant experimentation. You are testing hypotheses on product-fit, on customer segmentation, on lead development, on sales process, on inbound demand generation, on hiring practices. In fact, there are so many thing to test, you have to be laser-focused on execution, efficiency and urgency.

Urgency is more than simply speed. I like this definition that I came across: “Importance requiring swift action.” In the context of startups, I think of urgency as doing things smarter and learning in less time than the typical large corporation. Given the limited resources of young companies, the imperative is to focus on those things that move the needle toward the goal right now and to do so with persistence and conviction.

Now regular readers of my blog may remember my earlier posts about the “slow startup” and doing less slower. While, on the surface, it sounds like I am contradicting myself, the ideas actually complement each other. You want to be able to execute quickly and iterate faster, but results can be painfully slow to materialize. It can take months and sometimes years to see the fruits of one’s efforts.

In the tech startup world, taking years is generally not an option. However it is important to build slowly to have a clear understanding of the market and how your product best fits to address the needs in that market. Because you do not have years to figure that out, you must get the most out of the short timeframe and limited resources at your disposal. Results take time and patience, but the work to achieve results requires urgency.

Do you have a sense of urgency? Are you executing with speed, efficiency and conviction toward measurable goals? Do your efforts move you closer to a specific objective? Ask yourself these questions and be self-aware enough to realize when your activity to date has been less than focused. Remember, it is not only speed that counts—it is the learning during the process and making that learning count.

This article was originally published on Strong Opinions, a blog by Birch Ventures for the NYC tech startup community.

Image credit: CC by Aarongr4

About the author: Mark Birch

Mark is an early stage technology investor and entrepreneur based in NYC. Through Birch Ventures, he works with a portfolio of early stage B2B SaaS technology startups providing both capital and guidance in the areas of marketing, sales, strategic planning and funding.

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