“There’s never enough time to get it right.”
That is by far the most frequent frustration and form of burn out I see inside startups. It feels like your team is perpetually failing, when in fact it might be succeeding wildly. Because startups are constantly growing, you never reach a comfort zone where everything runs like a well oiled machine.
This happened just last week at Mattermark when one of my team leads came to me saying we needed to delay shipping a new investor search interface we’re working on. The interface included thousands of investors, and it seemed like it would take weeks to make all the data 100% accurate. This would have delayed a marketing initiative the team had already worked hard on, but our data and engineering teams were exasperated.
It occurred to me while talking with them how similar our situation is to what forest fire fighters face.
How to fight a fire
When dealing with a forest fire, one of the first tasks is to size up the situation and figure out what is actually on fire. Next, prioritize saving areas where lives are at risk, where the fire is heading, and how weather will affect the situation.
For us this meant figuring out the most broken and worst looking parts of our new investor list feature about to go out the door, and separating those issues from gaps that annoyed us, but would be very unlikely to show up to customers. In the forest fire case, strategic areas will be directly attacked, often by dropping water from the air. As you can imagine this doesn’t work the same way as a conventional residential fire where you can bring more than enough water to cast upon the situation. In startups, there is a temptation to get stuck wishing you could put out all the flames perfectly with bails of water. Instead most forest fires are defeated by drawing up firebreaks, essentially destroying a thin stretch of the forest to stop the fire’s path of destruction.
Fires inside startups
Working on projects inside a startup often comes down to strategizing about where to draw up firebreaks. Once a startup gets going and has any kind of product market fit, customers will start complaining about all the things that could be better. Developers will build up long lists of technical debt that need immediate attention. Everywhere you turn, it seems like things are on fire, and there’s not enough water to put it all out. It can become disheartening, and the natural temptation is to want to pause and slow growth. This rears its head as building in scalability, putting polish on the features, or fulfilling more of the customer’s goal. In the meantime, you’re losing chances to grow and aggravating your current customers that don’t get the benefit of your best laid plans. The forest is on fire the whole time.
The best engineers and leaders in startups find where they can make smart trade offs. They know what they are working towards long term, but they make strategic decisions about where to draw firebreaks. Draw the line too close and you risk shipping something that alienates customers and makes your ops work harder. Draw it too far out and you risk sabotaging your growth while customers fatigue and give up. Going back to the story of the investors search interface, we decided that the right fire break is to focus on making the data for the top 200 investors 100% accurate, shipping only with a few days delay.
Bottom line, it is normal to feel like things are on fire. Never let that stop you from engaging with customers to learn and move forward.