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. You can have all the strength and fitness in the world, but without good technique most of your 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.

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

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

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

Likewise with your startup…

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

In the beginning, just about everything you do will be horribly inefficient, so you need to quickly determine what pushes you forward and what is wasted effort. Try to identify your constraints. Are they obstacle you can remove or do you need to live with them? You need to focus your energy where it makes a difference. An empirical and analytical approach to this keeps you 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 - you’re often pulled in many directions at once, and need to do everything yourself. In those situations it’s even more important that you stay calm and keep focussed on the things that you have decided will help you, rather than getting distracted by the noise all around you. The winners are often not those who make the biggest splash.

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

Take time occasionally to think about what you are doing and not doing, and what you 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 yourself through the longer-than-you-think that it actually takes. Consciously choose a direction and go at it. Be careful that you’re not just blindly following somebody else, who may or may not be heading most directly to where you want to be.

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

Keep your arms turning over and keep breathing.

And enjoy it!


  1. See also, The ‘Busy’ Trap
  2. There may even be a third level beyond this (there is always another level!) where you stop measuring yourself altogether and rather than being deformed by your busyness optimise for enjoyment.

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