Startups · Product management

How do you balance patience and urgency at startups?

Josh Elman Partner at Greylock, longtime product manager

July 8th, 2015

I just did an interview on the FD Blog and in it I talk about the importance of patience and urgency within startups. Urgency is necessary when it comes to the product, but there are also times when you need to let things flourish over time. Interested to hear how others have experienced this balance. What has helped you maintain a healthy patience/urgency balance? And how do you know when to lean more towards one than the other?


Tim Parks VP of Growth at UpCounsel, Inc.

July 10th, 2015

Great question and great string of responses.  In my experiences @UpCounsel and @Udemy, both urgency and patience are incredibly important in different parts of your business.  They can also be equally as damaging.  Here are some areas where I have seen urgency and patience manifest in positive and negative ways:

Urgency (+)
  1. Driving metrics that you (or your business) has a firm grasp of understanding based on past performance.  (ie - We have sales data to prove that an Account Rep should be able to send out 'x' emails -> 'y' calls -> 'z' conversions)  
  2. Creating a cadence of clear and transparent deadlines for tasks / projects that you and your team can work on.  (ie- Every week have 2-3 projects that have a deadline and complete your sprint)  There are always 1,000 things that your or your team could be working on, so to prioritize create urgency around a limited number of them so that people feel a sense of accomplishment each week.
  3. For Managers / Founders - have a personal sense of urgency when things are going wrong for anyone on your team.  Too often have I seen managers or founders ignore challenges or issues of people inside their organization.  In order to gain trust of your team, you need to be there in the grind when sht is hitting the fan and try to be helpful.
Urgency (-)
  1. Face time in the office.  Creating urgency around being in the office for 120 hours per week is typically a lack of vision and clear goal setting for specific team members.  Obviously people need to put in a lot of time to be successful, but forcing people to come in on a Saturday for no other reason than to just be there is culture killing and a lack of direction on management
  2. Creating a sense of urgency around metrics that cannot be directly controlled by someone.  Focus on things that can control and execute relentlessly on them.
Patience (+)
  1. Hiring.  In my experience, the potential success of any startup rests in the quality of its people. I have spent days upon days screening, interviewing, and evaluating candidates that I do NOT hire.  I do not regret one minute of it when it leads to top quality talent.
  2. Listening.  I am guilty of being very opinionated and quick to judge, but the art of listening to others, whether they are colleagues, customers, or competitors you can learn an incredible amount by just being patient and listening.
  3. Teaching. When working with a colleague to teach them a new skill, be patient.  If you get frustrated right off the bat because it is taking longer than it would if you completed, you will fail to scale and delegate.

Patience (-)
  1. Firing.  If someone is not performing or working well with the team, remove them quickly regardless of the perceived "extra work" that will come from their dismissal.  Its amazing how much more effective a team can be when they cut out people that for what ever reason do not fit with the team or are under-delivering.
  2. Not reacting to customer feedback and problems identified by your colleagues.  Clearly you need cannot react to every piece of feedback, but I have seen many people stick to their guns because it was their idea or way of doing things instead of iterating and reacting to real live feedback

Varun Mehta CEO of Disqovery

July 8th, 2015

I never thought of it that way, but I have struggled with the patience/urgency balance in the past. For me and Disqovery it has taken a few forms:
  • I wish I knew a year ago what I know now.We have pivoted a few times now to find purchase, and I could have saved a lot of time by abandoning concepts more quickly and moving on. This was entirely on me.More urgency, please.
  • I wish my customers would jump onboard faster.This might exclusively be part of being a B2B startup, but the sales cycles with medium and larger companies is long; sometimes I feel the urge to say, "hurry up guys!" I've learned from my fellow founders to be prepared for this. Here being (somewhat) capitalized affords us the capacity to bepatient.
  • I wish my amazing team could coalesce faster.I don't yet know where to strike the balance here. Perhaps it's best to manage this with temporary team members (urgency) while you search for the high-quality permanent team members (patience)? I imagine this depends heavily on outside pressure from your investors, especially if you have VCs.
Is there a theme here? I don't think I could come to a conclusion without being reductive, but here it goes:

In startup matters that involve your product/service/business model, lean on your inherent urgency. In startup matters that involve outside parties, lean on your patience. Expect to have this advice subverted regularly. It's a struggle, but it's an exquisite struggle.

Some other tidbits?
  • Surround yourself founders who are going through the same challenges as you, or have done so in the past. That has been a helpful sanity check for me.
  • The same holds for smart investors; fortunately even our friends & family investors are quite savvy.
  • I am very vocal on the importance of buildingsupport networks. All of that advice applies.
  • Trust your gut except when it's wrong. Consider trying the George Costanza "Opposite" approach.Warning: I've never done this. I, Founder Dating, Jerry Seinfeld & the Seinfeld cast & crew, and NBC take no responsibility for your subsequent success or failure.


July 8th, 2015

This is a great question. From a project management standpoint, some sense of urgency combined with focus (and patience) can help everyone be more efficient with their time and get things done faster. But always running in crisis mode can actually hurt productivity in the long run if no one ever believes that this new emergency truly can't wait. 

In more creative projects, I've found that a little bit of patience can lead to a lot better results. Walk away for a few hours and come back with fresh eyes. It can lead to a whole new burst of creativity after feeling stuck.

Sometimes I'd like more time to settle in with a challenge, let some ideas percolate, and "do it better" but I also know that unchecked, my perfectionist tendencies could keep me in that stage forever. Does a sense of urgency help me get something great out faster, or does it result in something "just good enough" because corners had to be cut or there wasn't enough time to do anything better? 

I've asked more questions than answered, but I think the perfect balance is always a moving target and maybe a little different for everyone.

Thomas Sutrina Inventor at Retired Pursue Personal interrests and family

July 9th, 2015

I come from a corporate background.   They have the money and the people so why do they fail often?  My experience;  Not following the practices that they KNOW WORK.  If you want popcorn next week you do not start with 50 seeds of corn and plant them now.  You know how it works.  Yet that have the money and people to plant the seeds.  They  wish for a different outcome.  So they let their wishes define what they do.
When urgency is eating at you the first question to be answered I ask is what is the outcome needed?  Then historically what is the process or path to get there?  Can i find other paths that have been used that are shorter but almost always successful, or can I create one from a combination of successful historical paths?  What test do I need along this path to increase success?  This will let you act with urgency but not recklessly.  
Corporations create product to a schedule but do not meet the outcome needed.  The product fails or has to be redesigned.  Urgency to meet the schedule became more important that meeting the need it became the need.  But it is not the customers need,  was not a need the customer was willing to pay for.  Patience level needed is measured by not changing the customer's needs.

Richard Bullwinkle VP of Products & Marketing at

July 9th, 2015

Loved the interview - really insightful.  I have built a lot of products (TiVo, MP3 players at Rio, TV Guides and suggestion engines at Rovi, and IoT products at Samsung). Invariably, you create a vision, test it, and build the most important aspects for customers into the 1.0.  Invariably, as you begin, you start seeing the potential, and the perfect product starts to materialize in your mind. But there's a benefit to not getting everything you want at the beginning. No matter how much consumer testing you do, and how good you are as a product designer, you get feedback from users in those early versions of the product that change your course.  Sometimes it's micro changes, sometimes it's big ones. And sometimes the technology improves so you can do things you didn't dream of in the beginning. 

I try to remember that even at the quickest pace possible, it's important to reassess where you are at every stage. But's never fast enough.


July 8th, 2015

Awesome interview! While I agree that you sometimes need to let things flourish from an activity and growth standpoint, I think you should be talking to users to gauge their reaction and iterating from there.  You can kind of feel if there is something there or not at the beginning. Where it seems to get unhealthy is when the urgency is always reactive and you're thrashing priorities and the team so I think overall urgency is important and of course sometimes you react but if you're constantly reacting to mini events you'll create issues.


July 9th, 2015

I would say the key challenge is more to decide when you need to persist vs. when you should give up is a harder challenge. Between urgency and patience, here's what I have learnt. Be patient with what you don't or cannot control but persist without giving up or changing track frequently. On the other hand, there are things that you do control - bring a sense of urgency into everything and everyone that you do control.

Scott McGregor Advisor, co-founder, consultant and part time executive to Tech Start-ups. Based in Silicon Valley.

July 19th, 2015

I've found the book The Goal: A process of ongoing improvement by E. M. Goldratt & Jeff Cox, and the Theory of Constraints it expounds to be extremely valuable to all my advisees in answering this question.

Growth of your business is always limited by constraints.  When you know what those constraints are, you can see if they are removable or not.  If they are not removable, you need to focus on being patient and finding out ways to most efficiently marshall all your other resources so that they flow through the constraints at maximum capacity.   If they are removable, you might want some urgency to get them removed,  since that will boost growth immediately. 

This surprisingly simple insight has repeatedly proved to be of great value to advisees in "prioritizing" what to focus on now.

John Petrone CTO at LaunchPad Central

July 9th, 2015

A healthy balance of team members that tend towards more patient or more urgent. Multiple perspectives helps me assess my patience/urgency balance more objectively, and if my opinion is an outlier (on either end) it's a warning to take a closer look at why I'm so far off from everyone else.

Steve Skura, MBA Looking for a social media manager for my magazine startup.

May 7th, 2018

Set regular milestones, so that you recognize your progress and where you on your long-term plan.