A miniature tardis in front of a row of books

Are you ready to be a Time Lord ?

founder experience management risk Feb 01, 2022

Last week Peter Capaldi, the twelfth incarnation of Dr Who, let slip one of the show’s biggest secrets. Its success can be attributed to not having enough money to make the creatures look realistic. If they did, it would be far too scary for a Saturday evening family audience. I’m not convinced. A wheely bin with something thin sticking out of it in the dark is enough for my lizard brain to trigger a response to imminent Dalek attack. They showrunners must be doing something right…

The ace premises of Dr Who is that it is possible to travel through and manipulate time. The idea has teased us ever since HG Wells’ The Time Machine in 1895, although it was almost killed by Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in 1989. For now, it remains just that, an idea. But physicists are about to explore another of time’s frontier: trying to identify the point at which it starts. And for once they are not looking to the heavens for the answer.

The Japanese have a saying, koin ya no gotoshi, which means time flies like an arrow. It is linear. Once begun, it heads in one direction only. This is true for every living organism. They are conceived, born, develop, grow and then die. The process is –for now- irreversible. But this is not what happens at the quantum level, where particles have neither a direction nor any concept of time. They are eternal. Only when particles are combined to create something bigger, like a cat, do they become subject to the laws of time. Which means there must be a moment when the biological clock starts, and time begins. Jim Al-Khalili has just won £2m of funding for an international team to try and find this moment. In so doing, quantum biology may unlock the secret of life.

All of which got us thinking about the role of time in a start-up’s existence. In particular, the extent to which time is constant or immutable. Physics would suggest so, as would the clock on the wall. But if you look at what is happening at different stages, then the experience and importance of elapsed time can vary dramatically. Let’s look at this through the lens of a fictional start-up.

At inception, the start-up has its own quantum moment. The founder must find a problem and a solution. The particles are in a state of flux. They continue to move unpredictably as the problem is observed, tested, reframed and interrogated over and over again. At this stage, time has no meaning. The problems and possible solutions all endure infinitely. This process can go on forever until the particles are untangled or their entanglement is understood. Nothing begins until it comes to a conclusion, and the problem and solution statements are resolved.

This is the first moment when time matters for the start-up, and even then, not very much. For having a hypothesis is not the same as having a robust solution, and a robust solution requires customer discovery to be meaningful (i.e. have any chance of success). So usually time passes slowly during this phase, as you validate your assumptions and edge towards concrete answers.

When you have answers, time starts speeding up. Start-ups are by definition temporary organisations in search of a business model. That quest requires the input and effort of more people, who require more resources, that require more funding. So for the start-up to survive and prosper, they must find that model before they run out of time. There is a strange phenomenon here, namely time accelerates continually. What starts as a slow and steady pace towards a distant goal, becomes increasingly urgent. More and more things need to be achieved in less time than was ever budgeted. Our fictional firm has now become an authentic start-up.

Its founder realises that they need funding for their next phase of their development, to secure Product Market Fit. Time now splits. There are two parallel, interlocking forces at play. Everything you had to do before still needs to be done at the same rate of time, but now there are separate, equally urgent considerations from investors that also have to eb addressed. They are now part of your timeline and you are part of theirs. This sounds like some sort of warped physics, and it is. That’s why fundraising often releases just as much heat, light and energy as cash. The only way to survive this phase is to make sure you have your OODA feedback loops in place, so you can twist and turn with the reflexes of a fighter pilot.

When PMF is achieved, the start-up is free to secure more funding and grow exponentially. Two things happen here. Firstly the clock restarts. All those years of early exploration and evolution are dropped from your official reporting (and therefore documentary history), partly because they spoil the smoothness of your hockey stick growth curve, and partly because they don’t fit on the chart. The second change is that time speeds up again, but this doesn’t destroy the business, because the warped entanglement of your and investor timelines has now been resolved. You are in full alignment. The issue now is that you are travelling so fast, bits of your company are falling off. There is no time to stop and no looking back.

Our start-up is now no longer really a start-up, more a high growth business or a scale-up. One of three time outcomes faces them. The first one, is the end of time when they blow up, destroyed by the G forces that clash when you do business with someone else’s money at the speed of sound. The second outcome is that time slows. The company reaches scale and continues to expand. But it feels like you aren’t moving at all. Things are less manic than they were in your early days. Somehow your days expand to accommodate meetings with people you didn’t even know you employed. Decisions, once time critical, can drag on for months without resolution in torpid political debate. And yet the company keeps growing. It’s like the calm space travellers feel in sci-fi films even when hurtling towards the sun at warp speed.

The final outcome is that time reverses. For start-ups time is not linear. The arrow can bend as well as break. For businesses that attempt to scale can do so prematurely, and slip back towards an earlier growth phase. The time state reverts with them, the exact rate calibrated to the financial situation and length of remaining runway. While many will see this as a set-back, it is actually a chance to regroup before challenging again. Like Lucy Worthington’s BMX freestyle gold, where gravity-defying history was made only after a failed first attempt.

So start-up time is elastic, not constant. Expect the pressure of time to feel different throughout your quest. What ultimately matters is whether you complete the obstacle course, not that you record the fastest time on the clock. And you do have some control: how long you spend in each phase, when you transition from one to another, the nature, level and source of external funding. Maybe not as much as a fully qualified Time Lords, but certainly more than a quantum biologist.

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