Running a start-up is a marathon, not a sprint

Entrepreneurs sometimes need to slow down in order to speed up, says Faisal Butt.

by Faisal Butt
Last Updated: 05 May 2017

In high school, I was a sprinter. Metaphorically that is. I took on way too much. I wanted to make it big, and do it fast. My ambition and enthusiasm for education, sports and extracurricular activities exceeded my output levels, mainly because I was spread too thin.

‘The fruit of patience is very sweet,’ my father repeated reassuringly over breakfast as I gulped down my hot chocolate, but the Urdu proverb didn’t resonate at all with a young man eager to take on the world.

Unfortunately, pushing oneself over the edge doesn’t usually have a happy ending. I ended up burning out. My productivity suffered, I probably let people down (most of all, myself), and I delivered well below 100% at the myriad of activities I had committed to.     

A few decades later, in 2013, as a young and ambitious Mayfair-based venture capitalist, I again miscalculated my capacity and backed several companies simultaneously. Perversely, it felt cool to be a serial investor, and my (flawed) sense of achievement was linked to the ‘count’ of investments I had made.  In retrospect, this was a mistake. Now I realise that my overstretched bandwidth meant that I could not give my new businesses the love and attention they needed to prosper. Counter intuitively, my speed of execution in 2013 actually ended up slowing me down the following year. 

We all push ourselves too hard sometimes. And it is true that you have to push yourself over the edge to know where the edge is. Sometimes, wrestling with the edge is not a bad thing; your own boundaries can expand as you challenge them. But, take my two personal experiences above as a stark warning; bandwidth is a finite resource. Not managing the gas in your tank will only lead to a roadside breakdown.

The Long Distance Runner

In recent years, I’ve realised that what's more important than sheer hard work and speed is pace, stamina, sustainability, balance, and strategic incremental steps.

Ambition is a virtue, but it can also turn into vice if not tempered by discipline, structure, and balance. To succeed in the long run, we have to tread the fine line between doing too much and too little. This is a daily balancing act. 

There is a lot of talk about the importance of work ethic, and the formula for success has been over simplified to ‘the harder you work, the more successful you’ll be’.  This explanation is in itself lazy. The path to the top is far more complex and has many subtleties and nuances that I’ve only learned the hard way. Managing your bandwidth is important.  Working over your physical and mental capacity has a corrosive impact.  Pacing oneself strategically, just as a marathon runner would, is paramount.  Sometimes, we need to slow down in order to speed up. 

The long distance runner realises that his baby steps will lead to a quantum leap over time, much the same way as compound interest, bit by bit, over a long period of time can grow wealth substantively.  £100,000 invested at 20% compounding over 5 years will give an investor 2.5 times his initial capital.  Over 20 years, he’ll get 38 times his money! Albert Einstein once purportedly said, 'The most powerful force in the world is compound interest.' The multiplier effect of compounding is also at the root of how Warren Buffet has snowballed to financial success. Similarly, taking baby steps in the right direction over a long period of time has a compounding impact on your overall career. 

Long Distance Investing

My long-term mantra is very much alive in the types of businesses I run or invest in as well. In 2014, I founded Pi Labs (‘property innovation labs’) as a VC platform to invest in digital start-ups that would be paving the way for the future of the property industry.  At Pi Labs, when looking at new companies to back, we are less interested in what a company did yesterday than what it has the potential to achieve in the next decade. We know the property sector will look very different 5 to 10 years from now, and we have put our flag down as catalysers of and investors in this inevitable digital transformation. 

Final Thoughts

When Mo Farah won gold in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, he didn't do it by bursting out of the traps and running with maximum effort. He did so by knowing the size of his tank, and making sure that he distributed his energy output correctly to run the fastest time over 10,000 metres. 

Like Farah, the winners in life and business run a strategic, long-term race, factoring in lulls for rest, recuperation, and planning. Winners know endurance trumps sheer speed – they don’t gas out before the finish line. As a burnout veteran now very conscious of the size of my own tank, the advice I would humbly leave with my readers is:  Play the long game and keep on making steady, baby steps. You will be surprised at how quickly they turn into a giant leap.    

Image credit: Aurelien Gulchard/Flickr (creative commons)


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