In the early morning of the day after Christmas, Tobi Lütke, the CEO of Shopify, let loose a flurry of tweets. Shopify is the sales platform behind more than a million small online businesses. The company has grown from a shoestring operation to a best-in-class platform, worth some $50 billion. Yeah--with a B.
Shopify is a classic Silicon Valley story--except it isn't in Silicon Valley. For one thing, it's in Ottawa, Ontario (that's the capital of Canada), and it attracts a workforce of Canadians and Americans happy to be thousands of miles east of Menlo Park, California. For another, the culture isn't a blast furnace of aggro engineers and Monster-fueled marketing teams. "My job is incredible, but it's also just a job," Lütke explained in one tweet. "Family and personal health rank higher in my priority list."
The culture is the antithesis of the canonical mythology of startup life. Instead of hiring for 18-month stints, Shopify aims for 10-year retention. For a startup on a firecracker fuse, an 80-hour workweek might make sense. But in that dynamic, he noted in his post-holiday tweets, "you need value day 1. The relationship is exploitative." Rather than expect employees to burn fast and bright, Lütke expects them to--get this!--have a life. "Apparently, going home at 5:30 or sleeping a full night is like cutting-edge technology that's just being discovered," he told me recently in an email. "I'm partly amused by this, and partly horrified."
Shopify's slower, longer time horizon changes the equation. It allows the company to plan better, work smarter, and create more value--for employees as well as for customers. This is the long play. For me, reading Lütke's tweets was like finding a cipher in the sands of social media, because it offered an exemplary expression of something I'd been wrestling with: how to answer the Blitzscale Gospel that all innovation rests on speed, that only faster can equal better.
In my experience, this gospel has been twice challenged. First, I've observed that the earliest mover doesn't always win the race (see Shopify, Google, Basecamp). And second, I've learned that even on lean, thrifty, crafty teams, things still take longer than hoped or planned for--and that as much as a delay hurts, a slower schedule often turns out to be beneficial.
For example, at my last startup, Iodine, we needed a year (OK, 15 months) to build the team and release our first real product. At that point, the process seemed agonizingly slow. But thankfully, that gave us enough slack to get some critical things right: The user experience was well thought through, and the site was much better than the competition's. Within six months, we started to get more users than the incumbents, despite spending twice the time getting off the ground.
Here's another reason why getting it right is worth taking extra time: You often get only one shot. Sure, you can iterate, but you won't get another chance to build the perfect product.
Case in point: At Iodine, we had a long list of planned improvements, post version 1.0. But inevitably, once we launched, we never had a chance to retrofit--we had to move ahead. Our second major product release, a mobile app, came faster--conception to release in four months--but again, even a relatively indulgent timeline forced us to strip out features we were excited about, with the intention of building them later. And again, later became never.
My point is that time can be an ally--not an enemy. When you try to optimize against time, when you demand speed to market over everything else, you're setting up your team to fail. When the prime variable is quality, things take longer. Longer means smarter. If your team is working the problem and sweating the details, being reasonable with time means you'll avoid stupid mistakes and prioritize the most useful and promising features. Think of it this way: Most likely, version 2.0 will never happen. So take your time to put everything you have into version 1.0. There's no penalty for having a better product.