The Biggest Mistake I See Entrepreneurs Make? Moving Too Fast
7 minute read
Having fought through pretty much every crisis that an entrepreneur can face over the last 15 years, I’ve learned a lot of lessons about what it takes to become an effective leader. I have no shortage of stories about the ups and downs of building a business (which is why I decided to put pen to paper a couple years ago and recount those stories in my new book, Undaunted: Overcoming Doubts and Doubters.)
So, here’s one of my biggest pieces of advice that I give to people starting a new business: take your time.
Taaaaake. Youuuur. Tiiiiiime.
When I left my last corporate job back in 2001, I made a promise to myself. The years of constant business travel had taken their toll, and I wanted to dictate the pace in the next phase of my career. More than that, I wanted to work on something that I believed in deeply – something that had the power to change people’s lives, over the long term.
So when I started Hint, I recognized pretty quickly that I was ahead of the consumer. Most consumers at least. People went into the beverage aisle looking for a sugary blast of energy or, otherwise, just plain water in a bottle. But the idea of a product that somehow fit in between? That didn’t necessarily compute. Some of the more adventurous shoppers tried Hint though, and they liked it. In fact, they loved it! And they told me so. How would I find more of those people? I had to be patient and allow the consumer to discover it. And that took time. You can’t shove a new idea down a consumer’s throat. They need to discover it. They need to understand your story. That’s the way that great, lasting brands are built.
But wait a minute. In Silicon Valley, though, you constantly hear the mantra, “Move Fast.” Start-ups are judged on their ability to achieve 10x returns in just a few years. Investors are eternally in search of the next “unicorn” that will earn that One Billion Dollar valuation. Here’s the truth though: that’s rarely a recipe for success. What I’ve seen in my time as a founder in the Bay Area is that half of start-ups go belly-up within the first five years. Really. Companies that move too fast often lose perspective on growth. They don’t allow the time for the average consumer to discover and understand the innovation they are bringing to market. And having raised a sizable amount of money – for what might truly be a great idea – they head off to races in frantic pursuit of customers and revenue. Sadly, most end up burning through that cash unable to allocate resources wisely and efficiently.
That’s why we expanded Hint so strategically, taking the time we needed over the past fifteen years to scale to the 30,000+ stores that we are in today. Honestly, that decision was partly by circumstance and partly by design. Starting out, I came to the beverage business with basically no experience. I tell a story from those early days in my book, Undaunted, that pretty much illustrates where I was at:
“I had never been involved in the creation of a physical product before, so I started to research bottle designers and bottling companies to see if there were companies who would work with a start-up. I collared anybody with a connection to the food and beverage industry and peppered them with questions. I picked up industry jargon along the way. I learned, for example, that in beverage-industry-speak, a bottle cap is called a closure. Who knew?”
It’s a small thing, but try talking to someone in the industry about a “bottle cap,” and you’ll get laughed out of the room. I realized early on that I had a steep learning curve to scale. Was I intimidated? Sure. No doubt about it. But I believed in my product and my mission, so I was relentless in climbing that mountain – and I gave myself the time to do it.
It wasn’t like I was looking to create a knock-off of something that already existed in your average vending machine. I wanted to offer a healthy alternative to all that junk. What I soon found out was that crafting a shelf-stable, sweetener-free, preservative-free product was no easy task. It took years to get over a number of logistical and formulation hurdles, solving problems that oftentimes I was told had no solution. Maybe it’s just my personality, but as I describe in Undaunted, “Tell me I can’t do something I want to do, and I want to do it even more. So, the ‘no’s’ and ‘you can’t do thats’ I got from beverage industry people just had an energizing effect on me.” Again, I’m grateful for the long runway because I had to solve a lot of tricky knots. They required time and trials and endless testing in order for me to know that we got it right.
The other unavoidable reality was that I was trying to wedge myself into a business that was dominated by a few deep-pocketed and ruthless players. And they had no intention to cede even an inch of shelf space to some lady in San Francisco who thought she could create a new category in the beverage business. Earning those coveted spots in deli cases and fridges and beverage shelves took time. A lot of time, and a lot of convincing. The wonderful thing for us was that we rarely blew that chance when we got one. Curious consumers tried Hint, and invariably came back to the store asking for more. Our fans slowly, but surely, built our brand and saw us to success.
Another reason I’m thankful we took our time? When I started Hint, I had a young family – four children under the age of six. Here’s where circumstance worked to my advantage. The fact that I was ahead of the consumer; that I had those logistical roadblocks to clear; that I had stubborn retailers to convince – all those obstacles that had to be overcome one by one – they also gave me the time and space to devote to my family.
Don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t kicking back and waiting for these issues to resolve themselves while playing peek-a-boo at a Mommy & Me class. I was relentless, looking at problems from every angle, knowing that competitors were eager to kick us off the shelves at a moment’s notice. But at the same time, you can’t force consumers to rethink their relationship to sugary drinks before they’re ready. And you can’t speed innovation or cut corners when you’re trying to solve complex technical problems.
Consumers gradually discovered what Hint was all about. Shelf-life issues got resolved without sacrificing the most important thing: delivering a consistently delicious product. I realized we had gained the knowledge needed to succeed. We grew Hint nationwide and as we expanded, we did it always thinking about the consumer and what was right for the business.
Today, Hint continues its steady march forward, growing its footprint with more space on the shelves, in more stores, and selling online to customers each day. Our team numbers just over 200 employees, which is incredible when you consider the impact and reach they have each day with consumers. So don’t believe speed is the key to success. It’s a false promise – and many entrepreneurs regret it in retrospect.
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