“It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
When stories first began to pour out about the U.S. killing of Osama Bin Laden, one detail immediately struck me as especially remarkable: that President Obama and his intelligence and national security teams had known of Bin Laden’s whereabouts since August, 2010, and had navigated a patient, steady path that resulted in getting their man eight months later. And this phase of the manhunt came after a decade-long process of painstaking intelligence gathering efforts, full of promising but ultimately dud leads, near misses, empty caves and dead-end alleys.
The hunt for Bin Laden is packed with lessons for entrepreneurs. It’s a story of strategy and leadership, risk and reward. But the most powerful takeaway for new and aspiring business owners is that President Obama and his team (and I would include George Bush and team in prior years), succeeded as much because of level-headed perseverance and restraint as from bold and gutsy decision-making.
The same is often true in getting a great business idea off the ground. Here’s how I describe it in the final chapter of my book, 6 Secrets to Startup Success:
You can do everything well. You can prepare yourself as a founder, aim for a robust market, design an economically sound business model, move forward with flexibility, and surround yourself with straightforward truth-tellers. Still, getting your venture safely off the ground will likely take more of your time, money, and effort than you expect. Most great ideas require time to work, and it may take a long series of sparks to finally create a roaring fire. Just as overnight successes are often decades in the making, “home run” businesses are due to the accumulation of many swings at the plate, where founding teams persevere over time to seize opportunities that couldn’t have been scheduled—or even anticipated—in advance.
Unfortunately, one of the common side effects of falling in love with a business idea is the founder’s assumption that success will come quickly and easily. Due to the nearly universal tendency to over-project early sales and under-project costs, the startup runway can evaporate quickly and dangerously. This is the immediate reason why many ventures fail without ever turning a profit. But it also points to a significant opportunity: Entrepreneurs who do what is necessary to stay alive over time—treating time as a competitive advantage rather than a dwindling resource—can dramatically elevate their odds of venture survival and growth. “The first thing we know about being successful as an entrepreneur is: if you can make it through the early years, your odds of success will go way up,” writes Scott Shane, Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at Case Western Reserve University and author of The Illusions of Entrepreneurship. Shane cites more than twenty studies showing that, when it comes to new ventures, “the odds of your new business failing are highest when you first start and decline in relation to the length of time you have been in business. And it isn’t just the chance of staying alive that increases over time. The data also show that the average start-up also becomes more profitable as it gets older.”
In your race to launch your big idea, keep in mind that the vast majority of successful businesses started small. They experimented and iterated forward, making steady progress over months and years of hills and valleys and long barren plains. Stamina and staying power are required to find that golden opportunity.
In coming weeks, I’ll write additional posts with tips from the book on how to build your venture’s staying power — with the aim of staying in the game long enough to finally win it.
Meanwhile, please share your own experiences and ideas.
What strategies are most effective for extending your venture’s runway? What are the challenges and benefits of startup perseverance?