Great companies are built in the first year

Zach DeWitt
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Speed thrills — but it's often the steady and meticulous approach that seals the win. Discover how to build startups with a careful blend of patience and urgency

Everything moves fast today. It’s no surprise that when founders start companies, they want to go fast. 

Come up with the idea, build, sell, scale, go, go, go.

But what if the secret to long-term success was actually … slowing down, particularly in the early stages of a startup?

Let’s look at why you need to understand your customers’ needs (and get their feedback) before you create your product, and talk about how to create a balance between patience and urgency when you’re executing ideas.

Why it’s better to do your research before you build

In working with many early-stage companies, the teams that go slow in the first year tend to have the best trajectories. The first year should be about customer research, ideation and hypothesis testing. 

Some of the founders I meet have interviewed 50+ customers before they start building a product. They know exactly who their user is, what the user’s problem is and what the best solution is.

I give these founders a major gold star.

Although it can be painful to go slow when other founders are posting about their overnight success on LinkedIn and Twitter, taking the time to put in the foundational work will set you up for success. 

There is a great talk from the Stanford Center for Professional Development where some of the early Y Combinator founders give advice on how to build product.

Emmett Shear, a co-founder and former CEO of Twitch, argues that most disagreements in startups arise because people come up with product ideas without talking to users first:

“You talk to your users first, and then you have ideas about your product. Almost everyone does it in the opposite order.”

He continues:

“If you find yourself thinking: ‘I’m going to go talk to my users to validate my product idea,’ you’ve gone horribly off the rails … If you haven’t talked to users and you haven’t looked at data, you don’t get to have an opinion about the product.”

Lenny Rachitsky recently shared a chart in his Substack about how long it has taken some of the most successful companies to find product-market fit (PMF). Many of these companies didn’t have a live product for 6-24 months, and then it took another 12-36 months to find PMF. 

Source: Substack

When companies do the upfront work to talk to users, then ideate and iterate on the idea before breaking ground on the product, the chances of building a successful company increase.

Once you start building the product, it is hard to change course. If you point the product in the right direction from day one, your odds of creating a winner will be much higher.

Balancing patience with urgency

While the early stages of a startup benefit from a slower, methodical approach to customer research and product development, it's crucial to distinguish between "slowing down to get it right" and "lack of momentum." 

Once you solidify the foundational understanding of your customer and product direction, the next phase of execution requires drive and relentless focus.

Frank Slootman, the legendary CEO of Snowflake, preaches urgency to gain momentum. In his book, Amp It Up, he says:

“Raise your standards, pick up the pace, sharpen your focus and align your people. You don't need to bring in reams of consultants to examine everything that is going on. What you need on day one is to ratchet up expectations, energy, urgency and intensity.”

While the initial phases of your startup demand a patient approach to customer research and product ideation, once you're past that stage, it's all about amplifying intensity and gaining momentum.

The value of critical feedback

In the early days of your startup, you’ll need to take a methodical approach to understanding your customer and product direction. Gathering honest, critical feedback is part of that process.

Constructive criticism during these foundational stages can be the difference between creating a product that resonates with customers and one that misses the mark.

These days, many startups engage influencers for product promotions, but they miss the opportunity to hire experts to stress-test products, give candid feedback and highlight areas of improvement that you might have overlooked internally. 

As you lay the groundwork for your startup, remember that taking the time to understand your customers also means listening to their critiques.

Start slow to finish first

The strategy of slowing down, deeply understanding customers, and valuing critical feedback can pave the way for sustainable growth and innovation. 

Do the hard thing and take your time in the first year to understand the nuances of your customers before you start building — it’s what lays the groundwork for your future trajectory in the startup world.

For insights, strategies and stories from the world's leading PLG founders and companies, sign up for my Substack newsletter.

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