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Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days

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Apparently sprinters reach their highest speed right out of the blocks, and spend the rest of the race slowing down. The winners slow down the least. It’s that way with most startups too. The earliest phase is usually the most productive. That’s when they have the really big ideas. Imagine what Apple was like when 100% of its employees were either Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak.

The striking thing about this phase is that it’s completely different from most people’s idea of what business is like. If you looked in people’s heads (or stock photo collections) for images representing “business,” you’d get images of people dressed up in suits, groups sitting around conference tables looking serious, Powerpoint presentations, people producing thick reports for one another to read. Early stage startups are the exact opposite of this. And yet they’re probably the most productive part of the whole economy.

Why the disconnect? I think there’s a general principle at work here: the less energy people expend on performance, the more they expend on appearances to compensate. More often than not the energy they expend on seeming impressive makes their actual performance worse. A few years ago I read an article in which a car magazine modified the “sports” model of some production car to get the fastest possible standing quarter mile. You know how they did it? They cut off all the crap the manufacturer had bolted onto the car to make it look fast.

Business is broken the same way that car was. The effort that goes into looking productive is not merely wasted, but actually makes organizations less productive. Suits, for example. Suits do not help people to think better. I bet most executives at big companies do their best thinking when they wake up on Sunday morning and go downstairs in their bathrobe to make a cup of coffee. That’s when you have ideas. Just imagine what a company would be like if people could think that well at work. People do in startups, at least some of the time. (Half the time you’re in a panic because your servers are on fire, but the other half you’re thinking as deeply as most people only get to sitting alone on a Sunday morning.)
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