Startups: how to go fast without breaking everything

Everyone knows startups need to move fast, it is often part of their advantage. We hear it all the time: speed, speed, speed, 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 from the start. It isn’t all about time to market or even first-mover advantage. It’s about laying the necessary groundwork for your 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.

But what does moving fast really mean, and why is speed that important anyway? To answer this question, we need to first understand what people really mean when they say ‘speed’ because not all speeds are alike – and the need for speed in launching a startup has little to do with being the first to market as I’ve said, and everything to do with having the necessary mindset and philosophy, as well as holistically where all the ‘speeds’ converge.

On one hand, it sounds trivial – to launch a startup, you need to be agile and you need to be quick. Slow and steady will not win the race. You need to be efficient, decisive, and ready to learn and adapt. But for people unfamiliar with founding a company, moving at such a fast pace can be scary. After all, it’s your dream on the line and you don’t want to drop the ball in your haste.

In a startup, decisions had to be made on the ground, quickly, ignoring niceties and do strategy differently, listening to customers every day. The nature of a startup shows that what counts is alignment between your team on the strategic agenda coupled with the autonomy and appetite to act.  With the advent of speed and a fit for purpose mindset to get out of the building, startups don’t linger on finessing well-designed strategies plotted out in away days, they needed dynamic, real time thinking and doing.

This calls for a much shorter distance between planning, decision and action, and vice versa: changes in the market opportunity have to be captured immediately to change direction. A startup is based on building organisational agility and flexibility, and instead of asking how to implement strategic decisions they integrate strategy into everyday actions. This cuts the time to action because it brings clearer focus on priorities.

So how do you go fast without breaking everything? It’s not about being calm, but cathartic. This illustrates a classic conundrum: founders are threading a delicate needle between approaching problems with innovative thinking and pushing execution at pace. It’s a well-established playbook but the natural entropy of the universe wants to slow us down. There’s more chaos. There’s more hurdles to overcome. There’s more unknowns. But great startups use their speed to their advantage. Here’s how.

Speed of gaining customer insights The whole principle behind agile is that you can’t know everything ahead of meeting the market to truly understand what’s going on. Reality exists in the market with your potential customers. To move fast you must make sure that you are getting these insights as quickly as possible, and not just when they land on you.

Once you have new insight from the market, you need to decide what to do with it. In a world with so many unknowns, eliminating this uncertainty can take a long time, and usually, it doesn’t really go away, it can only be reduced. There is a fine balance between making the right decision, having it backed by data, and moving fast enough so that you don’t miss the timing, or pour the baby out with the bathwater. 

The key here is to understand that you are constantly managing risk, and risk resides on both sides of the equation: there is risk in deciding too fast, and there is risk in deciding too slow, but getting customer driven insights on a timely basis is vital.

Make lots of experiments at pace The classic founder mistake is to assume the thing they’ve built is so amazing that if you build it, they will come. Guess what? People don’t necessarily come. In the early days of startup ideas, it’s really easy to get married to the next big thing and all run towards it. But the next big thing is a phrase you won’t hear at We don’t think about things as the next big bet, because you need to have five or ten or twenty bets. Here’s why.

You need to think that there are many things that could potentially be the next great thing, but need to run experiments to figure out if indeed customers want those things, so think about how to run a number of those experiments at any one time. There’s a certain wisdom and discipline in being able to run multiple experiments. Treat it as a learning exercise, not yet a business exercise measured in pounds.

As founders struggle to master the juggling of multiple experiments and shifting their mindset when it comes to outcomes, it’s easy to overlook the part that comes next: what to do when it’s not a swing and a miss, but rather a big hit. Putting more firepower behind the bets that seem to be taking off is trickier than it might sound, but that’s when the other ‘speed’ drivers kick-in.

Move from communication to conversation When you’re getting traction with experiments, it’s time to ditch one of most well-worn management assumptions to give you more speed: that organisations need as much communication top down as possible.

Startups that make the shift in mindset to go faster don’t activate more town hall style, ask-me-anything sessions, they focus on engaging in free form frequent conversations. They understand that the more complex the situation, the more people must be involved in identifying and solving the most important strategic problems to focus their efforts for the biggest impact. They need to do this with a hands-on, democratic, socialised approach to decision making in the hands of those closest to the customer, and push for speed in evaluating the outcomes and resultant actions.

Seek question-data not answer-data You’re still testing your hypotheses, the temptation is to use closed questions to get to facts, but don’t go too soon. The opportunity for conversation spaces keeps startup folks on the nail by letting them focus on I don’t know all the answers, so we must ask the most important questions. 

Strategy is everybody’s business in a startup, and whilst founder thinking creates the spark to ignite, the answers aren’t found internally, rather creating the opportunities to identify and solve customer problems are found out of the building. This allows a startup to shape their go-to-market approach and positioning. The quality of your customer questions reflects the quality of your thinking, and think fast, turning insight into action is a key trait of successful startups.

Drop formal activities for informal actions Agility not formality, a startup is an experiment in finding problem-solution fit, so adopt this mindset. Instead of thinking of leadership as pursuing structured activities initiated by leaders, pay more attention to the informal actions the organisation needs to engage and enable value to customers. Democratise accountability, freedom to move and chose creates momentum, let curiosity and possibility be drivers of growth.

This involves speed shifts in mindset and focus, and it makes founders reconsider their own role in making their venture fit for the future. Make incremental learning a strategic growth driver, but be careful the bad habit of magpies – flipping around to follow the next bright, shiny things – doesn’t undermine the overall sense of direction.

Create a transparent culture Strategy will never be integrated in everyday actions if there isn’t an empowering culture of how we do things around here where speed is an embedded part of behaviours. This needs transparency, so encourage a culture of open two-way conversations rather than making decisions and then seeking feedback.

Create a sea change in accountability and responsibility, enable and delegate such that  free-flowing decision making and discussions empower everyone to think and act strategically – but sanction speed too. Remove fear of failure as an unintended consequence. Founders should make listening to their team a priority and act on the knowledge gained for new ways of working – that’s what makes a slow company act fast.

Outlaw perfectionism Startups rely on innovation, and when we hit upon something that gives us a competitive advantage, we can get excited and optimistic, and have an idea of how it will go perfectly. This is such a hopeful time! Unfortunately, reality has other plans. 

Our thinking of how our new idea will go is pretty much never how it actually goes, things get derailed, because our need for perfectionism and procrastination. This is one of the main obstacles to going fast. Think ‘fit for purpose’. Validated learning wins hands down in terms of making progress, no shenanigans, don’t hang around. Speed trumps perfectionism!

Align your workflow with customers Aligning the flow. Sounds like a yoga class. Optimising and aligning your workflow is not about twelve-month plans, it’s about continuous improvement sprint by sprint, working holistically with individual competencies to provide added value for your customers.

But often this is only considered with an internal perspective, instead it should be about focusing your team’s capability and capacity with customer’s processes and how they use your product, always on the lookout for ways to remove bottlenecks. For speed, it’s about breaking down relationships with customers to a level of intimacy, enabling sharing of data , as chances are making your startup go faster will provide added value to your customers.

Focus on throughput, not solely backlogs Alongside backlogs, give the team the autonomy and power of ‘now, next, never’ to accept, prioritise or reject new tasks, because they are well aware of their capacity and the ability to say ‘not right now, but definitely for the next sprint’. For speed, what you want to do is have very new stuff that’s waiting to be done and a way to make that decision right away,

Focus on your throughput rate, instead of trying to optimise for efficiency all the time, this means aligning teams and decision making around managing speed of throughput and delivering immediate value faster to customers than your competition.

Psychological safety has to be the starting point The ability for teams to understand their capacity and go-faster comes down to psychological safety, making sure people don’t feel pressured to increase their velocity because quality will suffer. The majority of software organisations are working at full capacity as it is.

It is an insult to teams to assume that they are not working as hard as they can, so if demand exceeds capacity, a team’s output should be assumed to be its current capacity.  It then becomes the founder’s job to make sure they protect their teams from being overburdened with an impossible amount of work, as overloading people is the quickest route to burnout. Remember, we all want to go faster, but it is people who matter.

Every fighter pilot mission is planned in enormous detail with extensive use of intelligence, experience and subject matter expertise. By the time that the pilots walk out to the aircraft, no stone has been left unturned in the effort to produce a comprehensive and detailed plan.

The pilots climb into the aircraft and then it turns out that one of the aircraft has a slight technical issue. Then the weather is worse than forecast. Then the mission priorities change. Then the adversaries do something unexpected. But the pilots are still expected to deliver the desired outcome.

In contrast to the planning process, decision-making during execution is characterised by time pressure, ambiguity and information which tends to be imperfect, incomplete or excessive, and the need to act at speed. Intellectually rigorous decisions following detailed analysis and team meetings are a pipe dream. 

Sound familiar? Every day? Changing priorities, a shift in the external environment acting unpredictably, new deadlines. The inconvenient collision of plans, aspirations and the real world is an unforgiving place.  The best you will ever achieve is ‘about right, now’ because if everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.

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