October 3, 2017

Hey VCs/Advisors, Stop Telling Founders To ‘Focus On The Long Term’!

As a founder, I’m sure you’ve heard ‘build for the long term,’ ‘focus on the long-term’ or some variation of this?

As an advisor, you’ve probably given this advice to a founder, haven’t you? ‘Well, stop it!’

Focus on the long-term’ is a trope that advisors, investors and successful founders tend to throw about. What these advisors don’t know is that when a founder is told this, she thinks

  1. You, the advisor, aren’t being empathetic know nothing about the founder’s context.
  2. You, the investor, are just repeating something you’ve either heard a lot but have never truly given much consideration to.
  3. Or you, the successful entrepreneur, have forgotten how it was in the early days.

And you could very well be suffering from all three above.

So why do we still keep sharing this advice? And why does it bother me so much??? Well, why don’t I start with the scientific reason why this is bad advice?

Relativity of Time

Science [PDF] shows that time, which is what the advisor is alluding to by saying ‘long game,’ is relative. A difference in elapsed time is possible between two events as measured by observers either moving relative to each other or differently situated from a gravitational mass or masses. So scientifically, an advisor’s long-term and the founders long-term cannot be the same because of the mass (i.e. the startup) relative to the advisor and the founder. In layman terms, the founder is weighed down by the startup a lot more than the advisor is and so the long-term does not mean the same thing. Ps: that was for you geeks who don’t care about the emotional explanation I’m about to jump into below.

Relativity of Emotional Time

When a founder is going through the daily pains and travails of trying to get even one customer to pay attention to their startup/business, the suggestion that they should look beyond the immediate horizon is not helpful or particularly good advice. It is a state of heightened emotional sensitivity where all the founder is thinking about is ‘will my business be able to survive this crisis.’ Because running a startup makes time slow down. Particularly during the pain. But then it speeds up during the joys. Only to stretch again as you wait for a response from a client.

It’s why you hear founders look back on their time running their startup and they say ‘I ran my startup for seven years, but it felt like 20 years’.


Photo via VisualHunt.com

A founder does not care about the long-term when she is dealing with an existential crisis. And you know the crazy thing? Every single day in the life of an early stage startup is an existential crisis!!! You, as an advisor, either i) don’t know this ii) have forgotten how it feels or iii) don’t care that the founder will probably not have a startup tomorrow if you continue to suggest she ‘focus on the long-term.’

The best advice I’ve heard about this, especially when the short term looks bleak, is that the founder should just ‘do the next thing.’

The best advice on dealing with a short term crisis is to actually take action right now. Any action. Now.

This might translate into

i) calling your creditors and negotiating an extension on the convertible note.

ii) The next thing might be calling the co-working space you work out of and asking them to move you and your team into a smaller office.

iii) The next thing might be calling your customer and requesting payment today, even if the payment terms say ’30 days’.

The best advice for a founder in the early stages of their business tends to be the most practical and actionable at that point. Anything else assumes that the company will survive. And you and I know that an assumption of the long-term survival of a startup is foolishness…

So does the long term even matter?

Of course the long-term matters! But that’s where the founder’s vision comes in. If a founder does not have a vision, there are bigger problems for that startup. Because of the vision, a representation of the long-term the founder wants to create, is not something for the advisor/investor to help the founder shape or define. It should be inherent in the crazy notion of even starting a business in the first place. No advisor can help with creating that.

That’s why your job as an advisor is to help the founder figure out the next thing to keep her startup alive. Today. Not two years down the line. Today. And then the next 24 hours.

Because the long term is truly just a culmination of a lot of days a startup stayed alive…

Sign up for my Polymathic Monthly Newsletter here; I guarantee you will love it. I do product marketing for energy and tech companies through Harper Jacobs & utility consulting at Asha Labs. And buy 40 Semi-Obvious (Startup) Lessons.

Seyi Fabode

Strategy @AshaLabs, Writer @HarperJacobs. Check out my book "40 Semi-Obvious Startup Lessons".

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