During one of the many flights I’ve been on in the past year, I’ve started reading Great by Choice, by Jim Collins. The title does not give the book justice as it is a good resource of valuable cases from various businesses.
There were two tales that stuck in my head. The first one was that companies, polar explorers or climbing missions with a clear plan and paranoid leaders tend to survive longer or at least stand a chance of surviving. I’ve touched this topic a while ago in The Plan, before reading the book.
The second story that stuck was about consistency and the 20 mile march.
Imagine you’re standing with your feet in the Pacific Ocean in San Diego, looking inland. You’re about to embark on a 3,000-mile walk, from San Diego to the tip of Maine. On the first day you march 20 miles, making it out of town.
On the second day you march 20 miles. And again, on the third day you march 20 miles, heading into the heat of the desert. It’s hot, more than 100˚F, and you want to rest in the cool of your tent. But you don’t. You get up and you march 20 miles.
You keep the pace, 20 miles a day.
Then the weather cools, and you’re in comfortable conditions with the wind at your back, and you could go much farther. But you hold back, modulating your effort. You stick with your 20 miles.
Then you reach the Colorado high mountains and get hit by snow, wind, and temperatures below zero — and all you want to do is stay in your tent. But you get up. You get dressed. You march your 20 miles.
You keep up the effort — 20 miles, 20 miles, 20 miles — then you cross into the plains, and it’s glorious springtime, and you can go 40 or 50 miles in a day. But you don’t. You sustain your pace, marching 20 miles.
And eventually, you get to Maine.
Now, imagine another person who starts out with you on the same day in San Diego. He gets all excited by the journey and logs 40 miles the first day.
Exhausted from his first gigantic day, he wakes up to 100˚ temperatures. He decides to hang out until the weather cools, thinking, “I’ll make it up when conditions improve.” He maintains this pattern — big days with good conditions, whining and waiting in his tent on bad days — as he moves across the western United States.
Just before the Colorado high mountains, he gets a spate of great weather and he goes all out, logging 40- to 50-mile days to make up lost ground. But then he hits a huge winter storm when utterly exhausted. It nearly kills him and he hunkers down in his tent, waiting for spring.
When spring finally comes, he emerges, weakened, and stumbles off toward Maine. By the time he enters Kansas City, you, with your relentless 20-mile march, have already reached the tip of Maine. You win, by a huge margin.
After over a year building vox.io the product and the company I can relate with this story a lot. We’ve been constantly marching at a good pace (~25 miles per day), but whenever we tried to sprint too fast (40+ miles per day) it turned out that speed would come back to haunt us in terms of lower quality of delivery or a chunk of bugs hidden somewhere deep.
What is very different in startups is that you have no idea if you are marching in the right direction, but that is a different story that deserves a standalone post in the near future.
I firmly believe building a company that will stay around for a long time and eventually dominate the market is not an overnight project. It is a long march, where a consistent good pace is needed.