From survival to excellence

Much of this week I’ve been thinking about how the life of successful startups falls into two phases: survival and excellence.

In the early life of a company success is all about getting to the next milestone. The team is small, everybody has to turn their hands to multiple tasks, cash is short,  and time is short. In this environment survival is the name of the game. There’s no time to build systems or perfect process, rather everything should be done so that it’s good enough. For sure there should be half an eye on the future and ‘good enough’ means ‘good enough for now’ and ‘won’t cause us problems down the line’, but the emphasis is very much on getting things done.

When Reid Hoffman advises that if the first version of your product isn’t embarrassing you’ve shipped too late, he’s making this point.

When Paul Graham and YC say ‘do things that don’t scale’ they’re making this point.

When Eric Reis talks about minimum viable products he’s making this point.

However, when companies go from being early stage to growth stage then the emphasis changes. The team is bigger, there are specialists for every task, there’s more cash, and whilst speed is still critical the constant need to get stuff done fast to avoid failing has passed. The challenges now are to keep growing really fast and maybe (hopefully) to start making progress towards profitability. In this environment excellence is the name of the game. Success becomes about getting all the little things right and at scale that requires great systems and processes.

The transition from survival to excellence doesn’t happen overnight, but happens piece by piece across the company. For most companies it starts somewhere between the seed round and the Series A and then never really finishes, at least not for the very best businesses.