"How long will it take?"

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Of all the questions that I overhear or am asked, the one with the most variants is without doubt ‘how long will it take? The simple reason that it has the most variants is because ‘it’ can apply to almost anything and everything in a startup or a business at any other stage. 

The one very major difference with an early stage business is the general lack of resources – financial, manpower, expertise, and everything else – means that there is inevitably more of a dependency on things happening quickly and the implications of them not happening as soon as anticipated can be hugely detrimental on cash flow and many other aspects of the business as a whole.

Regular readers will have heard me say on many occasions that everything typically takes twice as long and costs twice as much as might be hoped. But if we look at the question in a little more detail we will have a better chance of actually providing some guidance on the answer. When founders ask this question the ‘it’ would normally fall into one of the following categories:

  • Raising finance
  • Growing and scaling the business
  • Negotiating with delivery partners / major sales contracts
  • Finding the right senior hires
  • Setting up systems and procedures
  • Obtaining regulatory or any official certification required
  • Obtaining IP protection such as trademarks or patents
  • Applying for grants

The blanket answer remains that of my standard comment that it will take at least twice as long as might be hoped. One of the reasons for this is that founders are trying to do many tasks themselves because they often do not have the luxury of enough resources to get others to focus on one matter exclusively. Another reason is that often they either simply underestimate how much will need to be done and how much information provided, or are unrealistic in their expectations of how quickly the other side will respond to each point.

A final reason is that in an early stage business matters tend to evolve quickly and founders either do not know enough about some issues as early as they should, or they simply do not get round to progressing something at the earliest opportunity because they are rushing around attempting to do everything else.

The list above is not exhaustive but it does capture most of the regular categories for that ‘how long will it take?’ question. It is a diverse list of topics but there is a very crucial central theme running through it. If they are delayed much longer than expected they all have the potential to slow growth or stop the business trading in the first place or, if it is already trading, potentially to make an existing business fail.

If we drill down in a little more detail into some of these it enables us to subdivide them and then to provide a slightly more detailed answer. Some of the items above such as ‘setting up systems and procedures’ suffer because of the need to constantly be doing a range of things and those that seem less urgent are constantly pushed down the queue and so are not completed as soon as they should be.

Many of the items above are basically administrative, and inevitably the process requires more information than might have been imagined and so the first part of the delay is from having to collate and submit the information. The second part of the delay comes from the response time from the other side.

Some of them, such as ‘major contracts and partners’, and specifically ‘raising finance’, are delayed for both the above reasons and even more so because of the very slow process to find the right partners, negotiate terms, agree on obligations, and then complete all the necessary agreements.

Lastly, do not forget that overlaying all of the above is the fact that nothing is actually finalised until it is ‘signed, sealed and delivered’ as every company has experienced the situation where they believe that they have an agreement in principle only for that agreement to fail to actually materialise. This can be for numerous reasons and whilst some will mean further delays, others will mean that ‘it’ does not go ahead at all with that partner and so the process needs to start again causing much more significant delays.

Being an entrepreneur and running an early stage business will always have its challenges and if you start with the premise that ‘it’ will take twice as long as you might wish then you manage your expectations at the outset and are better able to allow for any external shocks. This approach will lead to less stress and enable you to drive your business forward in a better way.