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  • Sujan Patel

Why Startup Founders Must Go Slow to Go Fast

"We hear it all the time: speed, speed, speed, speed. Speed is important. But while we fully believe that getting a product into customers' hands fast is critical to the success of any startup, if you try to do it insanely fast, you're going to make so many mistakes that, ultimately, you'll slow yourself down."

Those are the words of Will Herman, co-author of The Startup Playbook: Founder-to-Founder Advice from Two Startup Veterans. Herman, along with co-author Rajat Bhargava, argues that the way we talk about startups is all wrong.

It isn't all about velocity. It isn't all about time to market or even about first-mover advantages.

It's about laying the necessary groundwork for your company's success -- even if doing so takes longer than you'd like. It's about going slowly at the start when it comes to your funding, your customer validation and your product-market fit, so you can go fast when it really counts.

I had the chance to chat with Herman and Bhargava recently, and loved the battle-tested advice they shared on embracing this "go slow to go fast" philosophy if you're a startup founder.

Go slow with your funding.

Both Herman and Bhargava acknowledged that most founders are funding-focused. According to Herman: "It's what on everybody's mind: 'How do I get money?' Our point is, 'Don't put that first, because you'll get screwed if you put that first.'"

Bhargava further explained, based on his experience as the founder of 10 startups, that "everybody wants to jump right into VC meetings or investor meetings. Don't do that. Go take the time to really understand your business model, how you want to pitch it and who invests in companies of your style and genre. Really do your homework on who is going to be potentially the right fit to invest in your business."

Then, make sure your presentation, your business and financial models and your team are all put together in a way that gives you the best opportunity to get funded, Bhargava said. "Founders want to jump into meetings because they're exciting and fun," he said, "but what those investors start to do is dig in and ask questions. And when you don't have those answers, you lose momentum -- and it's hard to get funding when you start to lose momentum."

How do you get answers to those questions? According to Herman and Bhargava, they come from validating your customers and your products ... slowly.

Go slow with your customers.

As the founder of five companies, an investor in more than 70 and an advisor to several hundred startups, Herman has seen the challenges that come with making assumptions about your business's customers first-hand.

"They'll go and test their idea with two or three, basically, friends of the company, who will give them instant validation on what they're doing, and they'll say, 'Good. I'm ready to go forward. Product/market fits. Here I come,'" Herman said.

Of course, that results in an imperfect understanding of your business model, which is why Herman also advised: "You have to go find the naysayers. You have to go flesh out 30 to 50 different customers. Depending on your market, it's going to be a different number of customers."

Bhargava tied this back to the whole point of the book: that going slowly at first ultimately enables you to go faster in the long run. He stated, "If you don't know who your customer is -- if you haven't defined that super tightly -- you end up spending a lot of time and a lot of money on people that probably aren't going to buy your solution."

The approach both advocated looks a bit different from much of the standard startup advice that's out there. "At the beginning of a company, we advocate finding the smallest possible group that really just is dying for your product or service," Bhargava shared. "Understand them deeply, because if you can get them to buy, you'll have a good understanding of the characteristics of that group. If you don't understand that at the beginning, you're going to flounder."

Go slow with your product.

Finally, let your newfound understanding of your customers inform your development of the product or service you'll offer them, the authors told me.

Once you've fleshed out your different customers, advised Herman, "find out what they really need. That's at the core of it. That's how you start to build your value proposition, and that's how you start to learn how to differentiate yourself. That's how you learn what your go-to-market strategy is going to be, and even how you'll make money."

"If you do all those things," he continued, bringing the process full circle, "you can actually figure out if you can get funding for what you're doing."

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