Pursuing excellence at startups – balancing speed and quality

We’ve been thinking a lot about excellence at Forward Partners recently, for our own operations and to help our portfolio companies.

At one level it’s an easy topic. As far as possible everything should be excellent, and we should all go the extra mile to make sure The Path Forward, our events, and most importantly the help we give to our portfolio companies are as good as they can possibly be.

But once we are all working hard and understand the importance of getting all the small things right it gets more complicated.

Easiest to understand is the excellence of individual things. Products, press releases, processes, new hires, office space – I could go on and on. This is the sort of excellence that Stuart Butterfield was asking his team for back in 2013, just as Slack was launching:

The reason for saying we need to do ‘an exceptional, near-perfect job of execution’ is this: When you want something really bad, you will put up with a lot of flaws. But if you do not yet know you want something, your tolerance will be much lower. That’s why it is especially important for us to build a beautiful, elegant and considerate piece of software. Every bit of grace, refinement, and thoughtfulness on our part will pull people along. Every petty irritation will stop them and give the impression that it is not worth it. …. It is very difficult to approach Slack with beginner’s mind. But we have to, all of us, and we have to do it every day, over and over and polish every rough edge off until this product is as smooth as lacquered mahogany.

As smooth as lacquered mahogany. Wow! Who wouldn’t want to build or use that?

More complicated is the excellence of companies as a whole. Excellent companies are excellent because they make rapid progress, they have excellent things within them, but they have other things that are non-excellent. Every business is a hotch-potch of trade-offs between speed and quallity. The better companies are more successful because they have compromised excellence less, not because they haven’t compromised it at all.

Amazon is an amazing company which tolerates some shocking working practices.

Apple ships great hardware but their software is …. not so great.

Uber is perhaps the startup success story of the decade, but struggles with public relations and crisis management.

In these three examples management have consciously or unconsciously chosen to focus on their main goal and accept second best in other areas. They did that because it’s the only way to get things done.

The problem is much more acute at small companies with limited resources. There are only so many hours in the day and hard choices need to be made between doing everything to perfection and achieving milestones to secure the next round of funding, or shipping software before customers lose patience.

In practice the trade-off between speed and quality bites with individual decisions like:

  • Do I hire the great person I’ve just met, or should I run a process to make sure I’ve properly calibrated the market?
  • Do I hire someone good or do I hold out for someone great, even though the position may be vacant for a year? (that happened to a company we talked about yesterday)
  • Do I launch today knowing that 2% of customers will experience a product on checkout, or do I wait a week to fix it? (another real example)
  • Do I spend an extra 2 hours improving my pitch deck, or do I email it now like I said I would?
  • Do I focus on growth or do I optimise my unit economics?

Startups that make rapid progress take the expedient option some of the time. The art is knowing when to compromise and when to insist on quality. The best founders know what their top priorities are and hold standards in those areas whilst accepting second best in lower priority areas where speed is important.