I hope you missed me last week. I was at the GA Tech Foundation summer board meeting at the beach, enjoying friends, great news, and a wealth of interesting content, not to mention a bit of sunny recreation. I’ve been going to this gathering for about 30 years, and this was the best one yet. In addition to the customary business agenda, the staff delivered superb extracurricular programming and entertainment across the three days. I wish it had lasted longer.
This leads to the topic for this week, maintaining the proper pace in all your startup activities. That doesn’t mean being fast. Those of you who play golf know that a slow, steady, rhythmic swing gives you better distance and lower scores than thrashing the ball with all your might. All of you deal with people as employees, customers, or partners, and you’ve learned that you have to adapt your style to the speed at which you can best persuade others to act according to your wishes. Sometimes things just take time, and you must develop the skill of discerning just how slow or fast you can safely advance your cause with any given counterpart and in any given situation. Just don’t let yourself be the one who impedes progress by being too deliberate or by being careless about follow through. If you are the startup founder, never let another party outrun you; stay out front and always be cognizant of the preciousness of time.
You have probably watched Mad Men. I binge watched that series a couple of years ago, and I’m starting over from the beginning now with a friend who has never seen it. I am reminded of how tightly it was edited and how many brief scenes in early episodes foreshadowed major themes as the story advanced. It’s captivating, to the extent that it’s hard to imagine turning away from it to look at my phone. This editing standard is what we have all come to expect from high-end theatrical productions, and it makes us all the more intolerant of spending our time in meetings and events that don’t match that benchmark.
Think about the last meeting you organized and hosted, whether an internal discussion or an external presentation. How much dead air was there in the flow of the meeting? How much time was lost getting the A/V to work at the beginning? Exactly when did attendees start sneaking glances at their phones? At what point did someone ask an off-topic question that took the steam out of the discussion? If you were charting the general enthusiasm in the room, when did it peak, and when did it wane? I find as an audience member that it’s pretty entertaining seeing what people sitting around me are watching on their phones, tablets, and notebooks. I can assure you none of it relates to the topic of the hour.
How do you deal with these issues? Only invite people who have a reason to be interested and who are likely to contribute to the conversation. Start on time; keep the ball rolling; spell out some ground rules about staying on topic; use the hook mercilessly if you have multiple presenters with time limits; make sure everyone is seated with crystal clear access to the presentation audio and video and has no excuse to drift off; use some music; throw in some humor that is both appropriate and consistent with your personal style; exude enthusiasm – it’s infectious; take cues from an Andy Stanley sermon where he preaches to tens of thousands using PPT slides to teach the Bible, and where I’ve seen very few people in his live audiences ever turn away to their own screens. Be the show person, even if you were never destined for the stage. John Imlay at MSA (acquirer of Peachtree Software) used live animals in company meetings, e.g. tigers and eagles. We once rented a coffin so he could accentuate a talk about the death of the minicomputer. (Try “renting” a coffin sometime.) I think you get the point. You are competing for attention with all media, even the fake media, now that everybody has nonstop access to that in their pockets. The bar has been permanently raised.
Some people, like me, absorb information, and often even emotional tone, more readily though the illustrated and printed word than through oral presentations. As a result, I try to avoid conference sessions where I can have no active role, even if that role might only be a tiny opportunity to ask a question. I can listen to books on tape or podcasts and recall nothing that was said. I know I can read and comprehend much faster than the spoken word is normally delivered, and I can jump ahead at my own tempo. Many other people, perhaps most, are auditory learners and thrive on going to passive sessions to get immersed in a topic. In either case, it’s the individual conversations that occur outside the formal gatherings where you put your brain to work, develop relationships, and start to make good things happen. Here again is a situation where you should measure your pace to get the most value. First and foremost you want to be a good listener, but you can also be a good influencer if you get into the flow at the proper speed and pick the conversations where you are more the driver than a passenger.
One other business aspect where pace has meaning is asynchronous communication like email, Slack, and the many other messaging options, even voicemails. We all know people who always seem quick to respond at almost any time and who never let messages languish until another business day. We also all know people who choose to ignore messages even from known individuals with whom relationships exist and paths will cross from time to time. No one is obligated to respond to any email, especially an unsolicited pitch from a stranger, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I personally think there is value to being responsive to those in our circle. As a company founder, you are rallying a number of constituencies from investors to customers to colleagues, and you never want to be inaccessible to them when they need something from you or have something to convey to you. It might be your next important deal; I’ve raised big dollars (in the day) just by immediately answering a phone call from a VC I had never met. Keeping yourself highly focused is a good trait, but startup founders don’t have the luxury of selectively ignoring what may appear at first to be distractions. You’ll get much better results from your circle when they know they can reach your predictably than if you maintain an air of mystery.
I trust that you read this at a pace that suits you.