Why I Want Startups to Slow Down

I love startups. My first proper job was at a SaaS startup. I love the energy, the passion, the belief that anything is possible.

But I also hate startups. I hate the always-on culture, as if longer hours means more work (hint: it doesn’t). I hate the idea of putting profits before people, and chasing after growth with reckless abandon.

Most of all, I hate the speed of startups.

Not because I’m slow. I’m actually a fast worker. What really annoys me is that there’s no need for startups to move so quickly. In fact, in most cases, moving too quickly is why startups fail.

Research from The Startup Genome, who have dissected thousands of startups and analyzed their journeys, has shown that premature scaling is the biggest cause of failure.

90% of startups fail, and two-thirds of those failed businesses tried to grow too much, too quickly.

Think of the amazing products, services, and ideas. Think of the super-talented people. The work, the sacrifices. All of it disappeared overnight because they didn’t take their time.

Perhaps you’ve experienced this first-hand. Maybe you’ve had a startup that failed because you tried to move too fast, tried to run before you learned to walk.

Like Icarus, many startups try to reach the sun before they’ve perfected their wings. The result is a startup culture that prides pace over perfection. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do it quickly.

Burning cash and burning out

Some people believe we currently live in a tech startup bubble. While I don’t have the bigger picture vision to know how true that is, I do recognize that a lot of VCs are burning a lot of money on startups.

If, statistically, nine out of the ten startups they invest in are doomed to fail, then these investments are hardly sustainable. Eventually, the money will run dry and the bubble will burst.

If, however, startups shifted to a slower gear, they’d have time to demonstrate value.

Rather than rushing to raise as much money as possible, they could build their product, taking time to get it right, and then release it. They could build a user base, start making a profit. Then, and only then, they could seek external funding to take their startup to the next level.

As every child knows, the key to blowing the biggest bubbles is to blow slowly and steadily. Blow the bubble up too quickly and it pops into non-existence.

But money isn’t even the biggest problem facing startups today.

Studies suggest around 70% of entrepreneurs suffer (or will suffer) from mental health issues. They’re twice as likely as the general population to struggle with depression.

Therapists and coaches are seeing never-before-seen numbers of young people who are utterly burned out.

Anyone reading this who has worked for a startup will know exactly why people, particularly the founders, would get burned out. Some of you reading this will know people who have suffered. A few of you will have suffered yourself.

One of the root causes of burn out is moving too fast, working too hard. The reason founders and employees at startups move fast is simply because startup culture demands it. If you aren’t growing fast, you aren’t growing at all. We need to work, work, work so we can grow, grow, grow.

12-hour days aren’t uncommon, and the dangerous myth that you have to “hustle” to succeed has pushed people to their physical and mental limits.

So far, rather than see this as a symptom of a broken culture, evangelists simply say, “Ah, well that person simply wasn’t cut out for startup life.”

This disregard for the health and wellbeing of people within the startup bubble, has also started penetrating outside of it.

Moved fast, broke things, sorry not sorry

In Facebook’s early days, Zuckerberg was a firm proponent of moving fast and breaking things. This idea quickly rooted itself in startup culture, and tech founders, believing themselves to be the next Zuckerberg, were happy to let it govern their decision making.

Fast forward to today, and it’s safe to say that approach hasn’t aged well. Sure, Facebook is the biggest social media platform in the world, and Zuckerberg one of the most powerful people, but trust in social media is at an all-time low.

Largely due to the rise of fake news, of political manipulation, and the damage it does to our mental health, trust in social media is at a lousy 41%.

While moving fast and breaking things seemed a good idea at the time, it’s become apparent that there was never a plan to fix them afterwards.

If startups continue to move fast and break things, then they’ll be breaking people’s trust in them. That’s not a healthy long-term strategy.

Not to mention that fact that if they aren’t careful, tech startups have the power to harm people.

Consider Amazon, no longer a startup but a behemoth. It grew fast, and in the process it swallowed up and spat out the mangled remains of local Mom-and-Pop stores, music, and journalism to name a few industries. Its working conditions are reported to be practically sweatshop-esque, and it’s invaded our privacy with smart devices.

Amazon is one example of many, highlighting the dangers of growing too fast, not on the startups themselves, but on the wider public. It’s no wonder that only 39% of people believe these companies put people over profits.

In a world full of hares

When Aesop first told his famous fable about the hare and the tortoise, I suspect he had no idea how fitting it would be for the state of tech startups in 2020.

But if Aesop were alive today, I like to think he’d have written the fable about two competing startups.

One moves fast, the other slow. In this case, the race is to growth and the eternal glory that comes with it (yeah, right).

At first, the tortoise seems destined to lose. The fast startup, the hare, takes off at a blistering pace. The tortoise carries on slow and steady.

But then, the fast-moving startup begins to struggle. Complacency kicks in. The founders and employees, all exhausted, decide they can stop and rest for a while. They haven’t paced themselves, they’ve been working at an unsustainable speed.

And, as the hare rests and recovers, checking in to rehab for various drug addictions, seeking therapy, trying to convince their families that they do actually love them — the tortoise ambles past and to the finish line.

Though the story is thousands of years old, the wisdom within it is still relevant today.

In a world of hares, your startup could be the tortoise.

That’s why I want startups to slow down. Because I love startups, and I want to see them win.

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