Maintaining a sense of urgency in early-stage startups
This ‘magic’ can be brought down to one thing: a sense of urgency, and it is one of the most essential elements of a rapidly growing startup
This ‘magic’ can be brought down to one thing: a sense of urgency, and it is one of the most essential elements of a rapidly growing startup.
Urgency does not mean working 24 hours a day, sleeping in the office, or having no work-life balance, nor does it mean frantic and high-stress reactions. Rather, a culture of urgency means intrinsic proactivity, vigilance, energy and keeping ahead of the curve. As author John Kotter puts it, urgency is “not to just have a meeting today, it’s to have a meeting that accomplishes something today.”
Conversely, a lack of urgency leads to stagnation and low quality, which can cause a company to lose its edge, its positive culture, and become vulnerable to dynamic competitors. A lack of urgency is one of the complaints I hear most often from founders, who watch as their employees start trickling out of the office earlier and earlier, leave tasks hanging, and move with general lethargy and apathy.
What creates this sense of urgency? How does one sustain it for as long as possible? and what can one do when it disappears?
Firstly, as a founder it is important to remain realistic. You cannot expect your employees to match your intrinsic level of motivation and urgency- they do not own a fat percentage of the company, nor is this startup their baby.
It is also important to understand why a sense of urgency can disappear after time, especially at an early-stage startup where you are yet to interact with external customers and come face to face with the market. In a stage like this, there are no organic short-term deadlines and no customers waiting on answers, this demands that the urgency come from within.
Consequently, setting realistic expectations and understanding that your teammates may need extra sources of motivation and inspiration is a good starting point.
Tip #1: Set timelines to launches
Since there are no deadlines coming from the market yet, it is important to set internal timelines and short-term KPIs for each employee and team. These can take the form of weekly or bi-weekly demos where each teammate gets a chance to present what they were tasked with completing- whether it is a marketing plan or a product feature.
This is a great way to keep employees sharp and focused- knowing they are due to present their weekly product to the team, will enhance a sense of urgency to get it done, and get it done right. It will also encourage a feeling of pride for their presentations.
Tip #2: Promote a sense of ownership
When you are an early-stage startup in a phase of 4-10 core people, it is essential to make sure each teammate owns their part of the startup. If you oversee the product, all product-based decisions and discussions should include you, as you are the expert.
Ownership is a core ingredient of the sense of urgency. It creates the motivation to pull your weight, and it creates direct responsibility: you are in charge of your specific task, and if something goes wrong or right, you alone bear the responsibility.
Establishing ownership also makes team members feel needed. Nothing can inspire motivation like knowing you are needed and essential to an important process.
Tip #3: Consult with your core team
A common mistake I see founders make is to instinctively turn to external sources when they hit a problem. Board members, investors, and external advisors are all resources for founders and should be consulted when an external perspective is lacking.
However, your team should feel like your primary people, and be appreciated and trusted as experts. Before turning to external sources for solutions and ideas, turning to your team is a way not only to encourage creativity, and instill a sense of trust- but it is a definite way of encouraging urgency. When you feel like you are being consulted as a core member of a valued team, you feel far more ready to put in your all.
Tip #4: Lead by Example and Don’t Play the Blame Game
If you feel a lack of urgency becoming more prevalent among your team, your instinct may be to give them a scolding and call members out for their faults. However, this is an unproductive approach and can hinder your ability to rectify the situation. People are not encouraged or motivated by negative feedback, and when they are acting out of ‘fear’, their urgency will not be long-lasting.
Rather, if your founding team is acting with apathy and the spark in their eyes is absent, you should see this as a reflection of your leadership and trigger a change starting with you. Ask yourself: am I acting with the correct amount of enthusiasm? Am I creating a sense of excitement among my employees? Am I giving them enough positive feedback and incentives? Am I providing them with a sense of meaning and self efficacy? This is the approach that will begin your journey to rehabilitating that sense of urgency so vital for your startup’s success.
With little external validation and a long road ahead, the early stages of startups are by nature difficult and stressful, and a sense of urgency is one of the key factors to ensuring the greatest chance of success. As founders, it is your job to understand the hidden motivations of your core team, and to implement healthy frameworks that encourage a durable sense of urgency and excitement.
Noa Matz is an Operating Partner at F2 Venture Capital.