Slow change good for startups

09/12/2021 - 15:16


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Startup founders seeking hockey stick growth are in for a surprise.

Slow change good for startups
The Blackberry dominated the market for years due to its more familiar functionality. Photo: Stockphoto

A popular refrain from business keynotes and startup slide decks is that ‘change has never been so fast and will never be so slow again’.

It’s a quote from a 2018 Davos speech by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, although you can find earlier instances of its use from various commentators.

So, is change accelerating?

Look how we totally rely on our smartphones these days, turning to them an average of 150 times a day, proponents say.

It makes one wonder what we did for entertainment, news, and chat pre-2007. And yet we’ve only had them for 14 years.

See how Uber and Airbnb blasted into our market, totally disrupting and changing the way we move around the city or stay in other cities (or have total strangers to stay with us).

Slow, not fast

Yet even these tech businesses demonstrate that the strongest changes – the ones that stick – take time; they were not overnight successes.

Probably the best marketing trick Apple did with the iPhone was to announce itself as the game changer.

Despite all the hoopla, iPhones took a while to catch on.

Early versions’ battery life was poor, and not everyone liked using a finger to tap on a virtual keyboard through glass.

Meanwhile, the Blackberry ruled supreme.

It had built-in buttons for typing, which was much closer to what people were already used to. Its devotees became known as ‘crackberries’.

The iPhone 3 was the version that took off, launched as it was with the app store in 2009.

It was this moment – and the years that followed – that started the inexorable shift to the smartphone (which really should have been termed the ‘app phone’, as phones had been ‘smart’ before; it was the apps that made them different now).

The creation of the cottage industry of app makers was the true revolution, and this underpinned the smart phone’s rise.

Soon, Samsung and Google jumped on board.

Slow is normal

Uber and Airbnb did not take off instantly, either.

Launched in 2007, it was 2011 before Airbnb would launch in multiple cities on the back of some serious capital raisings in 2010.

Likewise, Uber, founded in 2009, took three years and a major seed round in 2011 before it could launch in various jurisdictions in 2012.

It arrived in Perth in 2015. Uber was not even the first ride-sharing service.

It held development back while awaiting various rulings regarding its legality.

Purists could argue that ride sharing had been around since the early 1900s.

The fact is even wildly successful, game-changing disruptors began with relatively quiet early years when things were far from certain.

They were learning, pivoting, and inching their way to the best formula.

When I meet tech founders who think they’ll take off immediately with ‘hockey stick growth’, I can relay stories of hardship, years of struggle, before even the best break out.

Are you up for that?

Slow lasts

The best ideas always grow slowly, and that’s a good thing, because things that grow slowly tend to last a long time.

No flash in the pans these.

Moreover, as you enter a market, quietly, remotely (as in Perth), incumbent businesses will probably ignore you.

This gives you time to work things out, and chip away at the market, working with early customers.

Meanwhile, incumbents should be more worried about the tortoises than flashy hares.

They not only succeed in the long term but are much harder to spot in their early years.

Charlie Gunningham is founder and principal of digital strategy advisory business Damburst


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