Heroic WW II General George C. Marshall taught officers at Fort Benning that the crucial issue on the battlefield is usually when a decision is made as much as what is the decision. I’ve learned that many founders ignore this all-important dimension of time as they proceed with their startups. It proves to be the key element of nearly every decision you make.
Patience is never a dominant trait of successful founders. An inherent sense of urgency is necessary to stay apace of both opportunities and problems. Just like the higher you progress in playing football, the speed of the action picks up dramatically as you move through the various stages of a startup. There are times when you will be wise to choose to be patient and let situations play out to your advantage. There are other times when you will be forced to be patient because you have no bargaining power to elicit faster action from whomever is key to your next big deal. But, patience should not be confused with losing track of your time dimension.
You must remain mindful of the rhythms of the calendar. If, for example, you decide to raise money, the process will be more painful if you launch your quest during summer break or after Thanksgiving. You can generally count on a lengthy dead time during the end-of-year Holidays. Individual angels are tax planning, and VC’s are busy dressing up and shoring up their existing portfolios. Incoming deals tend to pile up for later attention, yours among them. If you get the urge to join an accelerator program, the entry points tend to occur in flights with application deadlines well in advance. Part of the value they provide is the mutual reinforcement of the cadre of startups in each class; you have to compete for a spot and can’t join at your own convenience. Similarly, if your business sector has a few key shows or conferences where you get to mingle with your peers and your prospects and have hopes of making meaningful deals, you need to plan well ahead. Extensive prep work on product, messaging, lead gen, demos, and scheduling specific meetings starts months ahead of an action-oriented conference. Buying a plane ticket and a badge and just showing up is not likely to be productive. All this may seem obvious, but I can’t overstate how often I see these basics ignored as founders get caught up in the daily excitement of the start.
Personnel management has its own timeline. If you are growing and hiring, you will find people more amenable to changing jobs at some times than at others. For example, those with families including school-aged kids have limited windows for relocation with minimal disruption. Startups are so dominated by 20-somethings in most major tech centers that little thought is given to the issues of the more mature set from which may come the most important cogs in the next stage of the organization. There’s likely to come a time when you need to hire an industry veteran, or the best rainmaker in the field, or a hands-on and wizened operations person to make sure you are meeting customer expectations. Expect longer lead times to find and attract these players, and plan to devote considerable attention to your hiring decisions. The price of hiring mistakes goes up exponentially as you start to scale. Keep in mind that tending your core team is calendar sensitive as well. The end of the year requires wrestling with benefits renewals, otherwise known as premium increases, but it also leads to career introspection by your employees. Raises, option grants and performance reviews are expected; it’s best to do this early in the year on a predictable schedule so you won’t be creating doubts and exposing your team to being hired away. If you have sales people on quotas, those must be measured and recalibrated for the next year as well. In tech startups you may not have any employees watching the clock, but you can be sure they all pay attention to the calendar.
Would you like a way to stop time? I’ve in some ventures thought that if I could just stop the overhead and expenses for a couple of months, I’d have no problem getting the revenues up to plan. Ideally we’d all like to get to a point where we have recurring revenues and make money while we sleep; but, short of that, we all live with the realization that a startup is unrelenting in consuming money 24/7 every day of the year whether we are asleep or awake. Overhead is an unstoppable force. If you really want to experience a time-out, the sure way you can decide to do that is to let the word get out that you have a material transaction in the works. Investors will close up their checkbooks until that gets resolved. Employees and even customers will be on edge if they know something major can possibly happen and don’t know exactly what it is or how it will affect them. The overhead won’t stop, but incoming investments and revenue streams may take an unwanted hiatus. I’m familiar with many deals where a looming strategic investor froze all other fundraising. That’s a natural reaction for individual angels or smaller institutional VC’s who realize their shares could be worth a lot more or a lot less depending on which way things land; why not wait it out and remove that one risk? This stoppage time is not to your benefit as a founder; you are gambling that the transaction will get done on favorable terms and with favorable expediency. And, the waiting period is mostly out of your control. If you push too hard, you show weakness and may lose the deal; if you push too softly, you may bleed out. Just anticipate that time is perhaps the most critical dimension when you choose to engage with a “make the company” partner.
When we sold Peachtree Software, the only direct instruction I was initially given by MSA Chairman John Imlay was to get back to people quickly. That was the MSA style, and it’s always been an ingrained business practice for me. Response time is a measure of respect. If you have a business discussion with someone, the worst decision you can make is to dawdle over the next logical step. You characterize yourself as a slow-moving, bureaucratic, and possibly disorganized person, or you are signaling that you have better things to do with your time. None of those are good. You might be the one wanting a speedy response the next time. I’ve noticed in Austin’s Capital Factory job ads that they expect applicants to be able to get to “inbox zero” every day. That too is a good practice. Even if you can’t reply fully to a complicated email request, you can at least acknowledge that you got it and are on it. If you can’t adhere to such practices, perhaps you need more staffers to share the load. Just decide to take actions that keep you from being the dead end on substantive threads in your business conversations. A related notion is keeping appointments on time. All the same nuances apply. If you’re not a physician, you’re not entitled to have a “waiting room” outside your door. Choose to show your respect for others by appearing or being available at the appointed hour, even if it’s just a conference call.
This essay is not about personal time management. That’s a topic for which many books have been written, and hopefully it’s something you mastered before you took the plunge as a startup founder. It is about managing your business with a sense of the timelines, cadences, deadlines, schedules and related interpersonal behaviors that determine success or failure. Time is the one resource you cannot replace, either your company’s time or your own. It is also a resource you cannot ignore. If you make decisions without proper regard to this dimension, your venture may suffer a premature expiration date.
For decades now I’ve often said startups never fail, they just run out of time. In my view that’s still timeless advice.