What Is Your Benchmark For Moving Fast?
Have you ever had to do a huge task and completed it in an incredibly short amount of time?
Maybe you pulled an all-nighter in order to ace an exam in college. It seems like everyone has done that at least once. Perhaps your boss saddled you with a huge workload just before the weekend, prompting you to go intro productivity overdrive and power through it as fast as humanly possible. Or — if you were anything like me — you completed your final thesis over the course of three caffeine-fueled days.
This type of extreme focus on speed is an exception for most. A one-off. Something you had to do in order to reach a deadline. To Elon Musk, that type of insane speed of execution is just an average Sunday.
Musk always wants to go fast. At 1AM on a Sunday morning, Musk called an all-hands meeting at the South Texas site where SpaceX is building his Starship spacecraft. The rocket-producing factory wasn't operating as well as Musk would like. They weren't moving fast enough. The engineers responded that they needing more employees, allowing each person to specialize.
“OK no problem,” said Musk. “You can hire people—just know your reputation is on the line. … Bring the person who you’d put your reputation on the line for.” He told his team members they would have a recruitment gathering just 12 hours later, at 1pm that Sunday. Recruitment would happen immediately. No time for HR or job postings, he told the engineers to recruit their family and friends.
Cars and trucks jammed the roadside up and down Boca Chica Highway. At 11pm on Monday night, SpaceX was still hiring.
All told, the company the company added 252 people to its workforce at the South Texas Launch Site. In less than 48 hours, he doubled the workforce. Just like that.
Elon Musk will do anything to go fast. And so should you.
Everyone knows what it means to “go fast”, right? I don't need to write a full article about it. After all, we've all been on the freeway plenty of times.
However, moving fast is a vague term, which can mean a ton of different things to different people, in different circumstances. To some, it means being able to get out of bed and get ready for work in less than ten minutes. To others, it might mean pulling all-nighters to finish that screenplay. And for a select few, it means to double the workforce at your rocket factory over the course of a weekend.
We're fallible. We can truly, deeply understand a specific concept in one area of life (let's say building rockets) but completely miss the same principles at work in another area. This is what Nassim N. Taleb calls Domain Dependence in his book ‘Anti-Fragile’. He very convincingly states that statistician professors who spend 12+ hours per day on understanding probability with statistics will make the most obvious mistakes when presented with similar problems in their daily lives. They don't completely understand statistics and probability, they merely understand it within the domain of academics.
The same goes for moving fast and rapid execution. Going fast can mean:
1.) Doing today what you could put off until tomorrow.
2.) Not letting outside forces dictate when you should be taking action. Taking action right now instead of waiting until “the right moment presents itself.”
3.) Having an internal set of guidelines on what constitutes an acceptable pace and “good enough.” It's a compass that points you to your true north, which then compels you to do things right now, even though others might expect (and even encourage you) to put it off until a later date.
In practice, this can take a myriad of different forms. It can be simple things like immediately sending out an email or taking care of an issue right away. It's beating your desire for procrastination procrastination. Full disclosure, I am absolutely terrible at this. Especially email.
It can mean writing an essay the day it is assigned and handing it in immediately. Rather than putting it off until the last week, you set an internal deadline and stick to it. Seriously though, try this once in your life. The look on your teacher's face will be priceless.
While going fast in and of itself will not guarantee success, it massively increases your odds and optionality.
Moving fast allows you to jump on any opportunity that comes your way. If you see a job opening that appeals to you, send out an application that same day. Best to over-commit than to put off writing the email and the position going to someone else. If you think you've spotted an inefficiency in the market or a business idea no one has thought of, you can quickly launch a prototype over the weekend to test your assumptions. Or you can spend the next two months writing a business plan, only to see someone else building the business you dreamed about.
Going fast allows you to iterate rapidly. It guarantees that you put in the reps, ensuring you grow and learn with every iteration cycle. If your business launches a new product every few weeks, you'll get a better understanding of the market and your customers than a competitor who spends 12 months developing a product without any interaction with the market. (This is why silicon valley is so keen on having entrepreneurs talk to customers on a daily basis)
Finally, don't underestimate the fact that people admire speed of execution. The entrepreneurs, conquerors, and inventors that are idolized these days all prided themselves on moving fast, to the point that it became their major claim to fame. Examples include the aforementioned Elon Musk, Erwin Rommel, and Thomas Edison. Not to mention Steve Jobs, Napoleon, and Nicola Tesla.
People will take notice when they see you're moving fast. People appreciate and admire the dedication and ambition that it shows. It will engender attention, admiration and — without fail — jealously. Within your industry, thought leaders will take note of your work. At your day job, executive management might take an interest in your comings and going, short-tracking you for promotion. Customers will notice you're adding substantially more products and services to your line-up than your competitors and switch over.
Speed of execution is one of the biggest competitive advantages you can have. And to thousands of entrepreneurs on the West Coast, it has become gospel.
In Silicon Valley, moving fast has become something akin to religion. For years, Mark Zuckerberg had a mantra at Facebook: “Move fast and break things.” If you weren't breaking things, you weren't moving fast enough.
And while the motto has become slightly tarnished with Facebook's less-than-stellar record over the past few years, it is certain that it has served Facebook (and the wider startup ecosystem in Silicon Valley) extremely well.
Sam Altman, the former president of Y Combinator (the biggest startup accelerator), tells the founders he mentors: “Move fast. Speed is one of your main advantages over large companies.” He believes startups can win wherever the cost of experiments can be low and cycle time can be fast. This is why he believes that startups do particularly well in industries with rapid technological change. A startup's ability to move faster gives them more opportunities to be right compared to a big, lumbering firm. With every passing cycle, it gives the startup a chance to get lucky and the big competitor to stumble and make a mistake.
Everything in startups is optimized for speed. “Hire slow; fire fast” has become another mantra that gets pounded into the heads of prospective startup founders. If an employee is not contributing to faster growth — or even slowing it down —, he should be replaced with someone that does drive the company forward. It's why a lot of Silicon Valley startups offer catered breakfast, lunch, and dinner, on top of laundry services, daycare, and nap pods. The more the company can facilitate their employees being fast, the better. Engineers can even geek out over keyboard shortcuts they use to speed up their coding by a few percent, some even going as far as adopting a different keyboard lay-out (DVORAK instead of QWERTY).
It stems from the belief that growth solves (nearly) all problems. It's why work-life balance is often hard to come by when working at a startup. Working 10-12 hour days is the norm, as is working over the weekend, especially if a deadline is looming. The reasoning is that if they don't work harder and move faster, their competition undoubtedly will.
Daniel Gross, the founder of Pioneer, gives a good anecdote on the importance of speed within Silicon Valley and spending money in order to speed up the process:
“Spend like a king on speed, like a pauper on everything else. Faster computer? Go.
Faster Internet? Go.
Better sleep? Go.
Expensive dinner? Stop.
Expensive dinner to close a candidate? Go.
If you can, use your capital to move faster. Your competitor is taking the shorter flight. Book it.”
Let's say you were running your own rocket factory and it was your burning desire to build a rocket to go Mars. As it happens, there's only one person alive who's dealing with that exact situation. You guessed it, it's Elon Musk
As we've already established, Musk wants to move as fast as humanly possible. But the reason why he's so keen on fast execution is interesting. There are few people alive who've spent more time building systems that are designed from the ground up to move fast. In improving his rockets and factories, (and electric cars - but who's counting?) Musk has a very simple equation he uses for the process: progress in any given technology is the number of iterations multiplied by progress between iterations. Furthermore, he's a massive believer in having a high iteration rate:
“A high production rate solves many ills,” he said. “If you have a high production rate, you have a high iteration rate. For pretty much any technology whatsoever, the progress is a function of how many iterations you have, and how much progress you make between each iteration. If you have a high production rate then you have many iterations. You can make progress from one to the next.”
Not only does fast execution lead to greater progress and a faster production rate, it also compounds into competitive advantages. If you move fast, you will accrue a small advantage compared to others. Your test scores might be better than your peers. You might delight your boss by having the report ready well before its due date. Your startup might have an extra feature that your competitors are lacking. Or it just might so happen that your factory can turn out more rockets.
Whatever domain you find yourself in, small advantages often compound.
Being slightly better often leads to further opportunities for you to distinguish yourself and become even better. If you're 5% better than the rest of your class, you might get singled out for an advanced program, get more personalized tutoring, which'll lead you to score even better. This then proceeds to open up more opportunities. After a while, what was initially a small advantage has compounded into a massive (personal) competitive advantage.
In his book ‘Outliers’, Malcolm Gladwell discusses how most elite Canadian hockey players weren't necessarily the best athletes in absolute terms. Rather, they gained a competitive advantage early in life, which then compounds and propels them into their careers. In the case of hockey, players who were born in the first quarter of the year were massively overrepresented in the total number of players. It turns out that Canada's hockey league groups athletes based on the year they're born.
So because of the way the hockey season is structured, the slightly older players were comparatively bigger, stronger, and more mature than their teammates who were born later in the year. What stands out though is the effect being scouted has upon a player’s skill.
“And what happens when a player gets chosen for a rep squad? He gets better coaching, and his teammates are better, and he plays fifty or seventy-five games a season instead of twenty games a season like those left behind in the “house” league, and he practices twice as much as, or even three times more than, he would have otherwise. In the beginning, his advantage isn't so much that he is inherently better but only that he is a little older. But by the age of fourteen, with the benefit of better coaching and all that extra practice under his belt, he really is better, so he's the one more likely to make it to the Major Junior A league, and from there on to the big leagues.”
So what started out as a tiny advantage quickly snowballed into a larger and larger competitive advantage. The hockey player starts out a little better than his peers. That little difference leads to an opportunity that makes that difference a bit bigger, and that edge in turn leads to another opportunity, which makes the initially small difference bigger still - and on and on until the hockey player is a genuine outlier. But he didn't start out as an outlier. He started out just a little bit better.
It is those who are successful who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success. It's the best students who get the best teaching and the most attention. This is what sociologists call “accumulative advantage”.
The exact same happens with startups, academics, writing, whatever. If you execute quickly on your business, you might gain a slight advantage over you competition. You might have put out a feature over the weekend that your competition lacks. New customers might then flock to you because they value that new feature. With extra users and revenue, you can start to expand your feature set a bit more, making your product more enticing for users.
If you do that a couple of times, you'll become the biggest player in an industry, at which point users will flock to you because you're the industry-standard.
So what originally started out as quickly putting out a couple of features before your competition eventually snowballed into becoming the dominant market player.
I don't care if you're an aspiring hockey player, a mid-level manager trying to climb the ranks, an ambitious startup founder, a budding YouTuber or you're trying to colonize Mars.
Moving fast pays off.
Executing quickly is one of the biggest competitive advantages you can get. And the best part: you have complete control over it.
There's no inequality here. Being born to rich parents or into poverty doesn't affect it. The only thing that has any impact is how quickly you move.
Moving fast pays off because it leads to small comparative advantages. And as they say, the rich get richer and the successful get more successful. That small advantage will open new doors for further growth, leading to compounding behavior. Remember, compounding is considered the eighth wonder of the world. Make use of it.
It opens doors.
And it just might be your recipe for success.