I say all the time that it's just as difficult for an entrepreneur to slow down, catch his or her breath, and take stock of the current situation as it is to keep constantly running full speed ahead 24/7/365. This is because I learned long ago that speed isn't of any use if you're running in the wrong direction. We keep insisting that "speed kills" in a good way and that everything today is about rapidity and response time--and, for sure, these are tremendously important considerations. But too much velocity can also be terminal. And honestly, the real competitive question in terms of building and maintaining a sustainable advantage isn't even how fast you are moving today, it's how fast your business is getting faster across all the essential vectors of delivery-- time, location, access, convenience, etc. You don't have to outrun the bear chasing you, but you always have to stay ahead of the guy running beside you.
I realize that this isn't theoretically as much fun as aggressively pursuing the newest, hottest and coolest new thing. There's a lot less to brag about when your peers and fellow YPO-ers ask you what you're working on. And I appreciate that directors, investors and especially VCs hate to hear things like this, but a little patience, timely infrastructure enhancements, and an actual ongoing plan to look inside as well as outside your business are what pay off in the long run. (See Slow and Steady Still Wins the Race.) If you get too far out over your skis, you're going to face plant and it's just a matter of when, not whether. The trick in business is to focus on building a foundation for long-term and sustained success. If you're simply aiming to take the money and run, you'll end up doing just about as well trying to rob a few neighborhood banks.
When you do take the time to look, you often find that there are plenty of opportunities for improvement right under your nose. (See Use a Mirror to Mind Your Own Business.) Typically, these immediately-available and quick-hit adjustments and process or procedural changes are low-hanging fruit, with modest implementation costs, and very little, if any, downside risk versus fairly obvious rewards. In addition, they're substantially easier to execute in a timely fashion. No one turns you down when you offer to make their jobs easier and their efforts more productive. No one really likes to change unless they have to (or you can show them clear and measurable benefits) and it's always a challenge to give up what was working pretty well for the uncertainty of something new. But the things that got it done in the old days just won't deliver tomorrow.
Of course, if things aren't working for you or haven't worked for you in forever, then you'd think it would be a lot easier to make the necessary changes happen. Not so. Change still requires a special kind of leadership, a lot of preparation and perspiration, fierce perseverance, and a willingness to be the most hated guy on the block for what seems like a painfully long time. If you were really unpopular in high school for some reason, you have some idea of what you're signing up for when you take on one of these campaigns.
As I watched the Houston Astros win the World Series for the first time since the team's 1962 inception, I found myself thinking about how tough it is for any startup entrepreneur to have the discipline to live with the short-term hits, complaints and criticisms - from inside and outside the business - and to take the longer-term view. And, of course, in Chicago last year, we saw the Cubs pull off the same kind of miracle after more than a century of awful. (See How the Cubs Operate Like a Startup.) In each case, management opted for near-term sacrifices and a lot of grief (but no compromises) in order to build a club and a business for the long term. Tom Ricketts set the bar for the Cubs the day he took over the team and Sports Illustrated put a target on the Astros' backs and a media spotlight on every step they took with a flashy cover story that ran more than 3 years ago predicting a 2017 Series win.
They both got it done and the lessons for every entrepreneur looking to build a business are pretty clear:
(1) Winning takes time and a thick skin. Nothing happens overnight.
(2) Winning takes a team willing to sacrifice for and support each other. Sluggers who are only out for themselves have to go.
(3) Winning takes character and a culture that cares about more than just winning alone. There are things more important than money. Making a difference matters most.
(4) Winning is about managing the terrible tension between consistency and flexibility. Agility is essential, but no less important than a long-term vision.
(5) Winning is about finding, nurturing and growing talent - mostly homegrown - and being ruthless about the ones who aren't reaching their potential. It's better to make one person miserable than to have a hundred unhappy people and a mediocre business.