One of the most common recommendations which entrepreneurs receive is to execute fast. In the uncertain environment of startups, you’re told to try something, see how it works out, and iterate until you find something that sticks. Since ideas are a dime a dozen, superior execution is required to succeed. While it’s true that you can’t do without superior execution, superior doesn’t always mean fast. At times it pays to be patient, even in startup land.
There are two common cases where patience is a virtue for startups. The first is when you want to obtain more information to make a better decision. For example, if you’re looking to land a customer, it’s often wise to delay your pitch to the biggest account. Instead of going after the biggest fish in the ocean on day one, you should test your pitch with smaller accounts. This patient approach will help you capture more information about the requirements of your customers and their most common objections to your pitch. This will allow you to refine your offer to better meet customer needs while also improving your pitch to preempt their most common concerns. By the time you present to the big fish, the information you’ve gained by being patient will ensure that you’re better prepared and more likely to win the account.
The second big advantage of patience lies in its signaling value. Whether you’re interacting with a potential customer, supplier, employee, or investor, keep in mind that you’re dealing with people. We haven’t changed much since our high school days. If you show too much interest in someone in too short a time, they’re more likely to run off than to reciprocate your approaches. You’re essentially sending them the signal that you’re desperate, and they’re drawing the natural conclusion. If this guy is desperate, chances are that he’s not the cream of the crop. It’s exactly at the moment when you back off that they start reaching out to you.
The same is true for startups. If you received a term sheet offer from an investor and made a counteroffer, but the investor hasn’t responded to your calls or emails since, chances are that they’re no longer interested. I don’t buy the argument that they might be very busy, because even if they were, they would create the time to reach out to you. You’re simply not a priority for them right now. And continuing to reach out to them won’t help your cause. On the other hand, if you take a patient approach, you’ll be signaling to them that you don’t need the funding right now or that you may have secured it from another source. Just like in high school, that may be just what’s necessary to trigger the investor’s attention.
Each of the languages I speak has a saying which expresses the virtue of patience. Our ancestors clearly recognized the informational and signaling advantages of a patient approach. If they could see how we treat patience in startup land today, I imagine that they would be scolding us from their graves. Rather than repeating the same mistakes that produced sayings like “patience is a virtue”, I recommend that entrepreneurs learn from those that have gone before us. Be fast in your execution, but only if this is what makes sense. If being patient can give you an edge, don’t hesitate to slow down. Our ancestors will thank you for it.