How long will you wait?

By David Frankel

How long will you wait for your startup to succeed?

🗓️ A year? Easy.

⛳️ Five? Par for the course.

🔟 A decade? Requires dedication.

🪦 20?! This is your life’s work now. Startups are hard to schedule, but here’s why you need to consider the question of time on day one.

Patience is an easy virtue to claim, but it is much harder to practice in real life. Think about the course of a typical founder. They graduate from college and decide to start a company. In the early days, it can be intoxicating — you’re a newly minted CEO!

But a few years pass and your peers are being promoted rapidly within companies whose names your parents recognize. Other friends are rising in the ranks of government, medicine, and law. Meanwhile, you’re running a startup with little revenue and no name recognition.

Even worse, entrepreneurs who started at the same time are seeing their startups inflect. They’re attracting vast sums of venture capital, being invited to swanky events, and profiled in glowing media accounts. You struggle to get a call back from a potential customer.

Personally, your significant other wants to get married and start a family. But, unfortunately, your potential in-laws seem unimpressed by your prospects. You continue to believe your startup and the vision driving it has merit, but years are passing by.

At this point, there’s a natural tendency to try and find any sort of acceleration. Maybe you reframe your pitch in an attempt to raise venture capital at an enviable valuation. Or you seek out customers that will provide validation while distracting from your core goals.

These are perfectly understandable responses. However, they may ruin all the hard work you’ve put in. If you have reason to believe that your thesis is correct and is just advancing more slowly than you’d like, be careful trying to fast forward progress.

A case study in patience

I had a portfolio company that nearly went bankrupt five years ago. We organized a $500K bridge round hoping that the founder could find a soft landing. The money, along with some painful cuts and prioritization, got them to break even.

But they didn’t stop at break-even. They kept growing. And the market began to change around them. Technical and social trends that the founder predicted started to come to pass and benefit their business.

This entrepreneur was right all along! It just took nearly seven years for their vision to be realized. This vision didn’t make the company successful, the patience of its founder did.

Five years after nearly going out of business, and ten years running into the company, I think the founder will end up with a $100M exit — at a minimum. If they decide to stick with it for another decade, I wouldn’t be shocked if the number was significantly higher.

There were times along the journey when this founder wanted to quit. Slow progress tested their confidence. Even after the startup generated millions of dollars a year in profits, uncertainty remained. But after a decade of hard work, things finally started getting fun.

When people talk about how stressful startups can be, the image is often cinematic — a high-stakes negotiation to close a big deal that could make or break the company. The reality is often less dramatic. It’s a slog that requires stores of self-esteem and fresh capital.

Patience pre-supposes that you can also pull off the trick of keeping your cash balances healthy.

*Will* you wait is subordinate to *can* you wait.

That said, if you have the emotional and financial reserves, there is very little that can stop you on the road to success.

The biggest threat founders usually face isn’t a competitor or technological disruption but their own patience. Benchmarking yourself against peers, competitors, and even new technologies is understandable but often disastrous. Success usually just takes time.

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