The annual Goodwood Festival of Speed in the UK (book now for July 12-15, 2018) is a model for a startup event I’d like to host. It brings together all manner of motorsports enthusiasts who are trying to get to the finish line in a hurry. Along that line, here are two of my favorite Mario Andretti quotes:
“If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”
“If you wait, all that happens is that you get older.”
You have to be in a hurry to build a successful startup. A fast decision, even if wrong, is often better than a slow decision. You can never recover lost time, and, as Mario says, if you dally, all you accomplish is getting older.
We all waste time every day. We’re stuck in traffic; we are dealing in person with a government office; we’re on interminable hold trying to get some simple matter resolved through a call tree; our meeting or our conference call is running late due to the other party’s fault; we’ve been snowed out (all too frequently of late in Atlanta); we’re stuck on the tarmac; we get the flu; and I could go on. These types of disruptions to our desired routine are parts of life, and they’re mostly beyond our control. I’ve just suffered through many of these in my interstate move from Austin to Atlanta, but thankfully not the flu.
Our congenitally attached smart phones are both a way to make some of those idle moments productive, if you are where you can stay in touch, and a way to expand your idle time when you get enthralled by your Facebook feed. It’s far more addictive than flipping through a year-old copy of People Magazine in a waiting room. If you ever get a view of a room full of knowledge workers with full Internet access on their screens, you’ll be duly impressed by how work gets crowded out by more entertaining pastimes. I’ve had offices in several WeWork’s, where the glass walls reveal all.
How do you operate at speed without being careless? Consider some of these ideas:
Never make anybody else wait for a meeting. It’s not only disrespectful, but you’re squandering someone’s time. You do not command respect by being the last person to join a meeting, you insult the others in the room.
When you have a task before you, get it done. Don’t wait to be reminded or prodded. Move it out of your queue after doing your part as efficiently as you can. Don’t expect the job to go away or be forgotten. This may sound like very elementary advice, but I have a mission in my current job that is highly time sensitive, and I’m dependent on others keeping apace with me. I have told by many people how fast I work, and I’m trying to get everyone around me at least to stay in my draft.
Understand the relative priorities of your to-do list. It’s always tempting to move unpleasant chores to the bottom, but sometimes those are the ones that unlock a major step toward a goal. We all have our share of grunt work, and a certain amount of that is just part of being responsible and achieving. I recall today that my most fearsome engineering professor at GA Tech required us all to read the 400-page classic Mutiny on the Bounty, which was an outsized assignment in the context of an already fully loaded curriculum, just to teach us one lesson – that great leaders are colorful. Reading a long novel was the last thing any of us students wanted to do at the time, but I will admit that lesson has stuck with me as much as anything I recall from my days in undergraduate school.
Don’t get the little things done and let the big picture slow down. Entrepreneurs with cool ideas can arrange meeting after meeting to get people excited about a project, and, after a while, they may collect a large pile of business cards without achieving any clear-cut progress. Worse yet, all those cards require some attention and interaction that consumes even more time. Every action you take needs to have the purpose of advancing your startup right now toward a goal. I’ve seen founders waste years of irreplaceable time having conversations but never driving toward the specific “ask” that moves the company forward. Then a competitor comes out of the blue and overtakes you, or your product and pitch become stale, and you have little to show for your efforts. Startups that take 15 years to succeed while the founders live on noodles are poor returns on time and investment. My best wins have been the fast ones. The math for everyone is pretty discouraging if you can’t reach a signal event in a two or three years. I’ve watched very capable founders in several communities let themselves be left in the dust by their peers who better understand how to operate at speed.
Do work with care. You can be very, very careful and very, very fast if you concentrate on the job at hand. If you have ADHD, my apologies. I am blessed with none of that; I find that I can write blog posts like this in an airport terminal or on the plane almost with more ease than sitting at my desk. The ambient noise and distractions fade into the background and allow me to focus exclusively on the writing. It’s something I enjoy, and I would rather be productive in these captive circumstances than just be a passive consumer of a book, music, or video. I do know how to relax and do read voraciously, but the point is that for many of us thoughtful concentration is possible just about anywhere. (In violation of that rule, I have written this essay at my home office; I would have finished it much faster if laundry, a meal, and the mailbox had not beckoned. This is also cutting into my cycling time.)
We’ll conclude now with an admonition on preparation. Mario Andretti never jumped in a car to compete without first understanding the track. He may well have walked the entire circuit to look for defects, off-camber sections, and other surprises. You can be sure he studied the layout enough to know the racing line. Driving fast is more about the brake pedal than the accelerator. If matters little how fast you enter a corner; it’s all about your exit. That’s where your advantage is gained. And, you can also be sure he knew all about his competitors and their strengths and weaknesses. When I preach about working fast, I’m talking about working fast according to a plan and with an objective in mind. I’m talking about getting yourself ready to perform at speed by doing your homework, by honing your skills, and by making a realistic assessment of where you stand versus your known competitors. Just like “racing incidents” can happen to the best drivers, you too are subject to fast moving parts flying around you. You take laps by yourself, when you are practicing or qualifying for the big show, but the wheel-to-wheel experience is entirely different. You may not be risking your life like Mario, especially in his earlier years before all forms of racing were blessed with dramatic safety improvements, but every one of your decisions is risking your business. Be ready.
As they say to begin NASCAR races: “Start Them Engines!” I would add: “Finish the Race.” Everybody can start; it’s the finishers that accomplish something.