Startup Founders: Slow Down to Speed Up


Author: JohnLewis Zoeckler

It seems like many startup founders are trying to drive their businesses the same way I would handle being given the keys to a Lamborghini. I would stand, speechless, at the side of the car, slowly looking up and down the sexy and powerful machine. As I walked up to this beast I would be flooded with images of my flowing locks (if I had any hair on my head) whipping my face as I took each turn through snow-capped European mountains. After hearing the lion-like roar of the engine I would grab the wheel with my hands enveloped in Italian leather driving gloves and pull onto the road while pondering this question: How long until I punch the gas and see what this thing can do?

I take my first turn, punch the gas, scream, and immediately realize how difficult it is to control. I fly off the road and hit a tree, and then ponder another question: What the hell just happened?

Sound familiar? 

In startups, this crashing reality may come when the first product launch falls flat. Or when the lawyer emails to say the current product is violating another company trademark. Or when customer acquisition costs are suddenly 300 percent higher than in the initial launch phase. Or when all three key investors still haven’t wired the money they committed and stop answering your texts.

Going fast and iterating on the fly is the standard advice given to founders. The startup bible The Lean Startup by Erik Ries gives solid tips on how to grow quickly, shedding the traditional business practices that often impede progress. But sometimes following this mantra of “faster, faster, faster” and “iterate on the fly” can lead to a frantic approach that ends poorly, hurting your confidence and straining the relationships you depend on for support.


I originally heard this philosophy from Magali Charmot in the context of the product development process as she masterfully consulted with Fortune 500 companies. Leaders of large corporations, just like startup founders, feel the pressure to move as fast as possible to the finish line. Brand managers and vice presidents are compelled to make product development decisions, marketing strategies, and launch programs faster and faster, with few options aside from skipping steps.

And that’s a problem.

In the last four years of my consulting practice with large corporations, I observed this rushed behavior. My job was to help marketing and product development managers make smarter decisions, but the process agreed upon was often shortchanged by a compressed timeline adopted by these managers. The time that was saved by shaving off important steps in the process would be overshadowed by the time that was later lost as these leaders had to go back to the drawing board, taking months to reassess the consumer insights, design decisions and marketing campaigns. Consultants have watched this happen so many times that a phrase is frequently shared with sarcasm, “There’s never enough time to do it right the first time, but there’s always time to do it over.”

“There’s never enough time to do it right the first time, but there’s always time to do it over.” - all consultants at some point in their career

If the leader had taken an extra week or two (even a month) to make sure the insights, design, and marketing strategy were right, they would have saved three or four months — and a pile of money.

Tips to slow down and get it right

Following are some skills to hone and steps to take that I believe will help you get behind the wheel of your powerful startup machine and race to the finish line with confidence:


As a consumer, I rarely know what I want until I see it, so how can you, as a business leader, know what the consumer really wants? Derek Sivers, a musician and accidental founder of CD Baby, talks about how his original idea to serve independent musicians led him to build a company that later sold for $22 million. He exemplified what it means to make the end user the top priority and I highly recommend reading his story in the short book, Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur. He didn’t always know what the end user wanted, but he did the most important thing: he cared deeply about serving those in the music industry.

Learn more broadly

Stretch your understanding beyond the problem your product solves and why the product is needed. Thinking about your product category, don’t just focus on your competitors or how your product is used. Look at the user’s entire life, the generation they are a part of, the trends in society, and the life tensions they deal with on a daily basis. Take time to understand your users to help you figure out exactly the person you want to help and what they need. Questions you need to answer about your user include:

  • What are their struggles today? What are they worried about? What are they trying to accomplish? What frustrates them?

  • What are their most important values and life philosophies?

  • What practical problems do they have on a daily basis (outside your category)?

  • What companies are they in love with right now (outside your category)?

  • What major emotions do they experience when interacting with products and services in your category? See Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions to select from the 24 emotions that humans experience.

To answer those questions:

Go online and find the places where your user is talking. Think about what they say on Twitter, what YouTube videos they watch, and the kind of products they might review on Amazon. By going to these pockets of the Internet and reading, you will learn about your target user’s passions, the words they use, and the things they care about.

Setup learning events so you can quickly learn from your users in a natural and inspiring environment. The key with user insights is to think about their whole life experience. Ask these questions: Where is a good place to learn from them? How can we creatively observe them? What did we learn about them broadly? If they love going to local, independent concerts, run a learning event in conjunction with the concert. Contact the concert venue and ask if you can sponsor the event for a small fee and create an experience where concertgoers can interact with you. You will have the ability to observe people in their natural environment and see how they respond to you and your brand. Set aside ample time after the event to document your observations. If you can get a small team together to help you with observations, you can compare notes and look for patterns that will clue you into the big learnings.


After developing a deeper understanding of your user, the next step is to make it personal. According to recent publications in psychology and neuroscience journals, we are hard-wired to make empathic connections with other people. James Coan, the main researcher from the journal article, summarizes “with familiarity, other people become part of ourselves.” There is something satisfying about connecting with the people you serve on a human-to-human level. Engaging empathy is beyond putting yourself in another’s shoes; this is learning to get outside your own understanding of your user’s situation and really feel what they are feeling. While this isn’t how we typically approach our connections with others, with practice this can become a more natural process. Here are some tips to engage empathy:

  1. Highlight the emotions your user feels. Think about all the different times they feel the emotions and why they might feel that way.

  2. Consider times in your life when you have felt those emotions. For example, if they experience insecurity, think about a time in your startup journey when you felt unsure or lacked confidence. Get specific and go deep, remembering the moment you felt it and why you were feeling that way.

  3. As you imagine those moments in your life, you will activate the emotions again. Now you can consider what you needed when you felt that way. As you consider what you needed, you have considerable insight into what will help another person when they feel that way, even if they experience that emotion in a different situation than you. You can now make smarter decisions about your user because you have personally felt what they feel.

“With familiarity, other people become part of ourselves” - James Coan, Professor of Psychology at Virginia University


So, you slowed down and developed a better understanding of your user and you have personally connected with the way they feel. Now you are ready to address the questions regarding product design, customer acquisition strategy, and marketing campaigns. You can lead your team and make decisions with a deeper conviction, knowing what the user really needs.


  1. Please share how this process works for you. Whether you are a corporate business leader or a startup founder, please share a commentor email me with any questions or comments.

  2. If you want more help with this process, I am ready to help. I have assembled a collective of independent rockstar consultants called The Band Consultancy. I would love to hear more about your challenges and objectives so we can help you determine the right approach. Email me to set up a quick call.