The Long Island Expressway entrepreneurial parable

I was describing what it is like driving on the Long Island Expressway in a snow storm and it hit me that there are a lot of similarities to startup and young company management behavior.

I used to live in Huntington Bay, Long Island. I often drove the Long Island Expressway and sometimes had to drive through blizzards, particularly at night. The funny thing was that during a blizzard, the average speed of the traffic increased and the space between cars decreased. I don’t have scientific figures to support these claims, but I have my vivid memories.

In fact, you can even see this during rain storms on most highways. When people might be expected to slow down because of the hazards presented by the rain such as hydroplaning and inefficient braking, a good many of the people get nervous and apply more pressure to the gas pedal. Perhaps they don’t even realize they are adding an extra 5 or 10 mph to their normal dry-weather speeds. Stress does that to a person.

So, during a blizzard, speeds on the LIE tend to rise to 70 or 80 mph and cars spin out into the accumulated snow on the roadside. This makes drivers even more nervous so they drive faster and closer to the cars in front of them, and when they spin out, they take other cars with them. The sides of the roadway and the center divide are littered with cars facing all sorts of improbable directions.

I have seen entrepreneurs behaving the same way, and I think this is what accounts for so many failures among startups.

The real truth about driving in a snowstorm is that it will take you longer to get home, if you drive slower you are less likely to spin out or get into an accident and it is always best to steer the opposite direction from your spin and resist the temptation to step on your brake pedal.

That is pretty much good advice for anyone starting a company.

Starting a company, or growing one, will take a long time. It will take much more work than you expect. Your potential investors and customers aren’t concerned with your timetable – they have their own to worry about. Be patient and take care to conserve your resources.

If you try to speed things up because you are afraid your company will not get off the ground, you are likely to spin out. Don’t try to launch with a big expensive splash. Don’t spend money on hand-out trinkets or client entertainment, hoping that will bring in business. Don’t cut corners on quality. Do apply careful consideration to how you are spending your money and your time. Manage smart – not fast.

If you start to spin out, steer in the opposite direction of the skid and keep your foot on the gas pedal – gently. If you are not getting the investment or revenues you need, cut expenses and figure out a low-cost side product or service you can offer to bring in a little money until your big idea finds customers and starts bringing in revenue. Also, take a critical look at what you are doing that isn’t working and make some changes.

Don’t slam on the brakes. Downsize into your extra bedroom to cut office costs. Let your employees work from home. Bring in contractors for projects. In other words, sell off the office furnishings and artwork, but don’t sell-out the enterprise goal. Even small steps toward the goal will eventually get you there.

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