Speed is your only competitive advantage

Without speed, your startup is destined to die a quick death

The first job ad that Jeff Bezos posted for Amazon was for a developer. Bezos said that they should be able to build and maintain complex systems, "in about one-third the time that most competent people think possible."

His thinking made sense. Hiring a developer that could work much faster than others would allow Bezos to get ahead of his competitors and have enough of a lead to become the dominant online book seller.

One of the things that has surprised me working at Amazon is that operating fast is the norm. That’s why I loved working in startups, we got things done quickly. This was reinforced whenever I worked at startups that sold to large enterprises. It took ages to arrange a meeting with stakeholders, to be approved as a vendor, to negotiate contracts, and to get paid.

The best businesses are built for speed.

Bezos understood that speed matters in business. This may seem obvious, but history is littered with companies that died miserable deaths because they could not move fast enough. They were out-innovated, out-marketed, and out-hustled.

At Amazon, we call this culture of moving fast Day 1 culture. Bezos first shared this in his 1997 Shareholder Letter, but he clarified it further in a 2017 company town hall, when he answered the question, what is Day 2?

“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death.”

Most companies epitomize Day 2 culture. They are overloaded by processes, disconnected from customers, and blind to market change. This is exactly why startups can move faster than established incumbents and legacy companies.

However every successful company started as Day 1. They listened to customers, worked backwards from their problems, innovated rapidly, and moved fast to scale the business. Their nimbleness gave them a wide lead in the market. Then eventually they kill off their incumbent competitors that cannot catch up.

Day 2 mentality however can creep into any organization, especially startups. We see this often with founders that become too attached to initial signs of product-market fit to see that it was a mirage. They optimize too early, build up processes, and become comfortable. The result is that founders begin to fear failure and shy away from experimentation.

At Amazon, we weaved the spirit of experimentation and speed into how we operate through our Leadership Principles. We are encouraged to “think big” to serve customers. We show “bias for action” and do not let the lack of data or evidence inhibit us from trying something new. Then we will “invent and simplify” to remove roadblocks that slow our ability to innovate.

One interesting point on roadblocks is that we think these are external issues. But we have seen how the biggest roadblocks for startups are self-inflicted through rigidness and implementing processes that slow innovation and learning. Bezos agreed, saying:

“If you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us? In a Day 2 company, you might find it’s the second.”

As a startup, it is important to never get too enamored with early successes. Instead of building processes early on, focus more on experiments with customers, markets, and features. Avoid happy ears and be bold enough to question assumptions and data. As the saying goes, "be willing to kill your darlings", if the data is not showing breakthrough growth and momentum.

The most successful startups have been the ones that braved pivoting from their early OK ideas to ideas that were truly game-changing. Companies like Slack, Uber, Airbnb, Twitter, and many others famously started with another idea. In fact, we just listened to Kevin Lim, co-founder of Twitch share in a 42Geeks fireside chat in Taiwan about the journey from Justin.tv to eventually finding their calling with Twitch and serving gamers.

What are the roadblocks your startup faces? How does your startup operate at speed?

We have been spending some time in Taiwan, and our impression is that it is the best kept secret when it comes to startup ecosystems. How did that happen?

Here are some facts about this island nation of 23 million that sheds light on how it fuels global innovation and startup creation:

  • The largest semiconductor company (TSMC), the largest contract manufacturer (Foxconn), and three of the top ten PC companies (Acer, Asus, MSI) are based in Taiwan.

  • Taiwan is a global center for product design, creating everything from Lululemon clothes to professional sports equipment to 75% of parts in Telsa cars.

  • Notable startups like Gogoro, KKBOX, KKday, 17 Media, and iTutorGroup have become or are close to becoming unicorns.

  • Taiwan graduates the largest number of technical talent in the globe per capita, and Taiwanese engineers are highly respected and sought after.

  • The government has invested into supporting startups through a robust set of accelerators, grants, and work spaces such as Taiwan Tech Arena, Startup Terrence, and Taiwan Startup Stadium.

  • The government also launched the Gold Card, a 3-year visa to bring talented professionals to Taiwan to boost the talent pool, and has already brought in folks like Steve Chen, Kevin Lim, Tim Draper, Vitalik Buterin, and others.

  • And Taiwan is a very desirable location to live. It is 1st globally for health, wellbeing & safety, 2nd for quality of life, and 3rd for top expat destinations.

However, as with any emerging startup ecosystem, Taiwan has challenges. The population is growing older, management culture is highly hierarchical, innovation differs from the West in focusing more on a cost down model, and there is a very large talent gap yet to be filled.

Despite the challenges, it is exciting to see Taiwan rising as a place where startups can launch, grow, and thrive!

The 42Geeks East Asia tour has begun! So far it has been an awesome kick off and huge shout out for the first day speakers Jonathan Liao, Elisa Chiu, Bruce Bateman, and Kevin Lin for all that they shared, as well as to the teams at Futureward and ARK TPE for hosting the geeks!

Geeks in Taipei with an awesome first day of talks!

The tour continues in Taiwan and two other cities:

  • Taipei – Mark is currently in Taiwan from October 4th–7th for the start of the 42Geeks East Asia tour to dive deep into various startup hubs.

  • Seoul – Part two of the 42Geeks East Asia tour lands in South Korea from October 7th-10th to explore startup and investment ecosystem.

  • Tokyo – The last stop on the 42Geeks East Asia tour winds down in Japan to meet with local startups and investors from October 10th-14th.

Let us know if you are going to be in any of these cities over the next several days, we would be glad to meet up!