Flailing

Here is some unusual advice for people working on a startup, or thinking about it: swim.

Don’t say you’re busy. Say you’re getting lots done.
If the latter isn’t true the former is irrelevant. 1

Here is some unusual advice for people working on a startup, or thinking about it: swim.

Most Kiwis think they can swim, because they had some lessons when they were a kid and perhaps spend time at the beach every summer.

But I’m not talking about a cheeky couple of lengths of a swimming pool or a refreshing dip off the side of a wharf.

Try and swim a long distance in open water. Say a kilometre or two.

(For example, if you’re in Wellington, imagine starting at Freyberg beach and swimming around the lighthouse at the point - that’s 2.4km; or if you’re in Auckland, think about the Viaduct to Bayswater - that’s 2.9km).

It will teach you a lot about your venture and about yourself.

Swimming for any length of time requires technique. We can have all the strength and fitness in the world, but without good technique most of our exertion is going to be completely wasted. The best swimmers are the ones who get the most forward motion out of each stroke. But, even then, a world-class swimmer is only about 9% mechanically efficient (that is, 9 out of 100 calories expended produce forward motion). For somebody like you or me it’s likely less than 3%. So, small improvements in technique can produce significant improvements in performance.

We also need to stay calm. The combination of getting physically tired and needing to spend the majority of time holding our breath with our head under water can quickly cause swimmers to panic and lose their form. This is accentuated when we’re swimming in close quarters with others (what triathletes call “the washing machine”).

To swim a long distance we need to relax and take the time to breathe properly. Unlike swimming in a pool there is no black line to follow. We need to set your own course, and that means we need to stick our head up on a regular basis and have some fixed landmarks to aim at. And it helps to understand in advance we probably end up with a mouthful of salt water from time-to-time, which will make us want to throw up the first time it happens. Taking a moment to regain our composure in those situations is to be expected.

Last but not least, it helps if we can swim with the tide rather than against it. If we can catch a wave as we get towards the finish it can help propel us along while we turn our mind to getting the blood back into your legs, so that we don’t face-plant when we try to stand up.

Start of a triathlon The washing machine at the start of a triathlon, Source: Wikimedia

Likewise with our startup…

We might have a superstar team and a big bank balance, but we still need to work out how to spend our time and money on things that make customers happy and actually grow our sales, otherwise we’ll just be flailing.

In the beginning, just about everything we do will be horribly inefficient, so we need to quickly determine what pushes us forward and what is wasted effort. We need to try and identify our constraints. Are they obstacle we can remove or do we need to live with them? We need to focus our energy where it makes a difference. An empirical and analytical approach to this keeps us humble. But a subjective perspective from a third-party who isn’t so close to it all can also be useful.

The pressure of working on a startup can be all-encompassing - we’re often pulled in many directions at once, and need to do everything ourselves. In those situations it’s even more important that we stay calm and keep focussed on the things that we have decided will help us, rather than getting distracted by the noise all around us. The winners are often not those who make the biggest splash.

Try to measure progress based on outputs (how much progress did we make? what did we create or learn in the process? what was the return on time invested?) rather than inputs (how much time did we spend working? how full is our calendar? how many emails did we respond to?)2

Take time occasionally to think about what we are doing and not doing, and what we could do differently. Be honest about what’s working and what’s not.

Be patient. Understand the trade off between good, fast and cheap. Focus on quality and efficiency, and on sustaining ourselves through the longer-than-you-think that it actually takes. Consciously choose a direction and go at it. Be careful that we’re not just blindly following somebody else, who may or may not be heading most directly to where we want to be.

And, remember, a positive industry or technology shift to push us along, such as the move towards mobile or software-as-a-service, can help accelerate our venture just as much, if not more, than any of the things we do ourselves.

Keep your arms turning over and keep breathing.

And enjoy it!


  1. See The ‘Busy’ Trap ↩︎

  2. There may even be a third level beyond this (there is always another level!) where we stop measuring ourselves altogether and rather than being deformed by our busyness optimise for enjoyment↩︎