Tsunamis are fascinating. Often caused by tectonic plates shifting under the ocean floor, they can reach upwards of 120 miles in length while traveling at over 500 mph. What makes them so interesting, is that despite their massive size they are nearly undetectable at sea. Taking up to 30 minutes to pass a tsunami can often be mistaken for a large tide change. At least until it crashes on to shore with such devastating force it wipes out entire towns.
Startup success follows a similar, ambiguous path. Despite the vast amounts of research, it is hard to predict the forces that will enable a team turn their idea into a world changing movement. Even experience and unlimited capital is no guarantee of success. There are plenty of overly funded startups that have failed (i.e. Color) and plenty of unpredictable, rags to riches tales (i.e. Snapchat).
The only thing we really understand is that to build a successful startup, you need an incredible amount of momentum. The only metric that really matters, momentum haunts our dreams. It is the driver of the gears in our head that never stop turning and the catalyst that has us constantly asking…how do we go faster?
Even if you try to fake it, artificial momentum can’t be sustained. Which is why most startup success stories are not overnight. They are gradual movements, created one step at a time.
The Perception of Momentum
Momentum is often misunderstood, especially by first time founders. They falsely assume that actions such as reaching new milestones, adding more people, increasing product features, raising more money, or opening additional markets will create positive momentum.
They get stuck in a cycle of slapping on more and more, even without understanding the fragile foundation by which they stand upon. The result is the need for more money and more people to satisfy and increasing number of expectations.
We used to do this at Contour. We didn’t actually understand what was driving our momentum, so we kept adding. We mistook our growing list of work for positive momentum.
What Actually Drives Momentum
Building an increasing level of interest doesn’t require you to add more work, but it does require you to constantly have a fresh approach.
We watched this first hand with GoPro. They executed the same elements over and over, each time with a new perspective. Mounting their cameras on everyone and everything their creativity was a devastating force. Even with less people early on, their efforts resulted in faster growth, a cash rich business model, and market leadership.
Now as we build Moment, we are trying to execute a few things really well. Using our small team as a constraint we end up spending a lot of time talking about what we aren’t going to do. It’s a level of discipline that we never established at Contour and something we know will be hard to maintain. There is already a growing list of ideas we want to pursue.
Why Is Momentum Hard?
Momentum can make you famous or it can crush you.
On one hand, you can add so many ideas that you burden the team. Your list of key objectives becomes so long that you need bullet points to keep them organized.
On the other hand, if you don’t create enough momentum, then nobody cares. The press won’t write about you, your sales won’t grow, great employees won’t join, and investors won’t fund.
To make matters worse, you don’t know when good news will arrive, so you are quick to overhype success, while going silent during setbacks. You end up turning a gradual process into a roller coaster of big highs and the perception of big lows.
How Do You Manage It?
Momentum has a lot to do with how you control the message. It’s easy to recognize success. It’s even easier to ignore failure. And it becomes paralyzing trying to figure out how to message everything else.
It turns out that almost everything you do in a startup is down the middle. It’s really not a huge win or a massive loss. It fits in this gray area that ‘just is.’
So what do you do?
Pick a cadence by which you update people (investors, customers, board members, etc) and deliver news at the same time regardless of its contents. Don’t over message big wins and ignore information that is negative. Just tell the truth.
When you are dating, you don’t blurt out your feelings the first time you meet. You share just enough, but not too much. You want to keep people interested without sharing all of your creative ideas up front. Sustaining momentum has a lot to do with slowly unveiling your direction.
Subtract What Isn’t Working.
This is easier said than done. In a startup you are going to try a lot of random ideas, but just because add something, doesn’t mean you have to keep it. Building momentum requires continuous trial and error until you get the mixture of culture, creative, and communication correct. Taking away can be even more important than adding.
Impacting millions of people takes time. Each person you reach is one more addition to the foundation that you are building. Don’t be surprised if it takes a long time until you fully understand the movement you are creating.
Not Every Startup Will Be A Tsunami
It’s important to recognize that not every company should become a tsunami. Some startups are meant to be small and that is okay. Size is not the ultimate metric of success, so don’t get caught up believing that you have to create a massive company. Building an organization that takes care of its people, has happy customers, and makes the world a better place…is success.