Startup lessons from the tortoise & the hare: go fast, go slow

The Tortoise and the Hare is one of the memorable Aesop’s Fables, the story of a hare who ridicules a slow-moving tortoise. But tired of the hare’s boastful behaviour, the tortoise challenges him to a race.

Look at me! said the hare, look how fast I can run, he boasted. The hare was very fast and knew it. So when the tortoise agreed to race him, the other animals didn’t think the tortoise stood a chance.

The hare soon leaves the tortoise behind and, confident of winning, looks back to see the tortoise is so far behind him that he decides to rest under a tree, falling asleep. He is later awakened by the cheers of the other animals as the tortoise crosses the finishing line first – the hare had slept too long and allowed the tortoise to pass him, and slowly but steadily, had arrived before him.

Would that happen in real life? Could a tortoise really beat a hare in a race? And what if the race were a metaphor for a business startup, what’s the best tactic – steady progress or go-for-it-all-in-dash? First, we need to consider what kind of race it is. Different races have different requirements. If we break it down into three races, all might have quite different results:

– In a sprint, given that it can reach speeds of 60km/h, the hare would win hands down.

– If it was an endurance race, it might be more even – tortoises have the ability to persevere through harsh conditions over long distances. However, the same goes for hares, who are also well adapted to extreme conditions.

– If it’s a long-term race, the tortoise wins. In the evolutionary race, hares have been around for 40 million years, whereas tortoises 200 million. Couple this with their long lifespan, and the tortoise comes out ahead.

But there is another factor we could consider: the distance travelled over a lifetime. Given its long lifespan, would the tortoise travel further? If we consider that a giant tortoise might travel 120km in one year, over say a lifespan of 100 years, they would travel 12,000 km.

A hare would smash that in one year if they were running at their top speed for three hours of each day. That would come out at 65,000km a year, but anybody who has spent time outside knows that hares spend most of their time running in circles.

In the simplest terms, no metaphors, the tortoise would win if it depends on how long the race is. If the race was over a day, the tortoise doesn’t have any chance, but over its long lifetime, my money is on the tortoise. Clearly it’s difficult to compare the two animals like-for-like when you consider all the variables, but the biological evidence suggests there is some truth to Aesop’s fable: slow and steady can win a race over a lifetime.

So, back to the startup analogy, pity the tortoise you may think. Steady, careful, slowly-but-surely, the ways of the tortoise seem quaint in the face of an onslaught of hares running amok. The tortoise is the old business model, cautious and slow to react, whereas the hare is the epitome of the entrepreneur, dashing around, energised creating new businesses models or disrupting old ones.

How many times do we find ourselves living as the hare rather than the tortoise? We define goals, become excited, pursue them with fervour, and, then all too often, get distracted and forget them and leap into the next challenge.

The story teaches us the virtue of setting and maintaining a pace to achieve our goals. How do we balance the pursuit of our startup dreams between speeding away and burning out like the hare and plodding along like the tortoise, afraid we won’t ever get there? I think we all know deep down the tortoise is, undoubtedly the winner of the race, but the hare has its place too. The fundamental task in achieving our goals is breaking them down into many smaller goals and assigning ‘tortoise’ or ‘hare’ characteristics to them.

The tortoise represents our overall, long-term startup goals and the planning that is required to achieve them. These are not goals that can be completed tomorrow. You must set a pace for yourself to reach these landmarks by breaking them down into smaller, more easily attainable goals. It is through this slow and calculated process that you will build the framework that will guide your decisions towards the end result

We know, certainly, that we can’t sustain ourselves trying to sprint our way to a finish line that could be years away, so where does the hare and his hyperactive tendencies come into play for us? Well, since we took our time when we started off and carefully pieced together an outline that breaks down our goals into bite size pieces, we can now pursue each of them, one by one, with lightning pace.

The tortoise teaches us that a slow, methodical pace is what will efficiently take us long distances. The hare teaches us that agility and quickness is useful for short term impact and bursts of activity when needed. Be it big or small, make it a point to take one step forward every day.

So, here are a few lessons I learned from this popular fable to take into my startup thinking.

Lesson 1: Sometime we take too long to make decisions

The hare did not think out his plan clearly, but he acted when he saw his opportunity. The lesson here is though he probably had many failures, he learned a valuable lesson that would take him through life. Then again, you can’t get anywhere if you’re still sitting at the starting line when others are pushing forward!

Lesson 2: It’s ok to make mistakes, they only make you more aware

The hare learned to be more thoughtful, and that being the fastest does not always equate to being the winner. You have to take a holistic view to your startup, otherwise you become inefficient and a short term focus means you don’t achieve your long term goals.

Lesson 3: Competition is not always between you and someone else

As we saw for the hare, his only competitor was really himself and his own thinking. Our beliefs, his being ‘I am the fastest so I can lie around and take a nap’, was his downfall. Some of us think this way as well, I am the best, strongest, etc. so I don’t really need to learn more, do more or expend extra energy to accomplish the next task. Complacency, as we see in the tale, leads to failure.

Lesson 4: Slow and steady really does win the race

The tortoise was a perfect example of this, even in the face of sure defeat he persisted. He kept going and never ever looked back. Persistence will take your further than boasting or fear any day. You already won it in your mind, that’s where it all begins.

Lesson 5: Don’t worry about the startup next to you, just run your own race. 

There’s no denying the need for speed, start-ups spend more time on their pivots, learning and moving forward and need to make decisions quickly. This experience may not bring speed per se, but it does bring a greater ability to reflect and put into perspective what is happening around you an respond quickly.

Of course, startups are all about growth, but speed isn’t necessarily the only virtue to consider. The thing about startup growth rate is that it’s inherently unsustainable. Sure, your revenue will keep growing, but as your revenue continues to increase, your growth rate will inevitably diminish.

So if the success of your startup is measured by your growth rate, how do you know if you’re growing fast enough? It’s back to the tortoise and the hare again, what is the race being run – and it’s important to run your own race.

Lesson 6: Go slow, then go fast

We hear it all the time speed, speed, speed, speed. Speed is important, but it’s your own speed. But while I 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.

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 startup 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. Everybody wants to jump right into 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.

With your customer validation and your product-market fit, you can go fast when it really counts, but go slow at first. There are challenges that come with making assumptions about your customers first-hand. Go and test your idea with two or three early users of your prototype, who will give instant validation on what you’re doing.

Of course, that results in an imperfect understanding of your business model. You have to go find the naysayers. You have to go flesh out ten, maybe twenty different customers. Depending on your market, it’s going to be a different number of customers.

Going slowly at first ultimately enables you to go faster in the long run. If you don’t know who your customers are, you end up spending a lot of time and funds on people that probably aren’t going to buy your solution.

Also, let your newfound understanding of your customers inform your development of the product or service you’ll offer. Once you’ve fleshed out your different customers, 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 your pricing strategy.

Every new venture that survives the first few iterations of its business model starts to drift away from their entrepreneurial thinking and assumes they have achieved the path to longevity, but no startup can afford to lose the agility, flexibility, and innovation of the early days and thirst for experimentation – so keep the mindset of the hare.

Whatever your pace of growth, short or medium term objectives, the lessons from the race run between the tortoise and the hare offer real learnings around focus, decision making, tactics and how complacency can undermine you. However, the real message for your startup business is that in reality, it’s not a competition with another business that matters, rather it’s a competition with yourself.

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