In 2015, one year into his tenure as CEO of Y Combinator, Sam Altman wrote an essay entitled “The Post YC Slump.” In it, he says:
“Momentum is everything in a startup. If you have momentum, you can survive most other problems. If you do not have momentum, nothing except getting momentum will solve your problems…In fact, one of my top few startup commandments is “never let the company lose momentum.”
Maintaining momentum is easier said than done for a startup. As a founder, I remember times when forward progress felt hard and slow, and I remember other times when it felt like there was this invisible force at our back, propelling us forward and enabling us to successfully tackle even the most challenging work.
There isn’t much written about how to build and maintain momentum as a startup team, perhaps because it’s such an abstract concept (it’s far easier to write about tactical things like best practices in hiring or strategic planning or product-market fit), but I’ve learned over the years that few things are as important as re-activating momentum when you’re stalled and maintaining momentum when you have it.
The cold start problem
Newton’s first law of motion deals with inertia. It states that “an object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion remains in motion.” In the language of momentum for a startup, it’s easier to maintain momentum when you already have it, and it’s harder to generate momentum when you’re stuck.
So how do you solve this cold start problem? Three recommendations:
1. Shorten learning loops
The best way I’ve found to start generating momentum is to shorten the time between action and reaction. It’s hard to maintain momentum day-in, day-out if your goal is far away and intimidating (like trying to hit an annual 6-figure sales number for a salesperson). But it’s easier to generate momentum by setting extremely short-term goals like calling 10 people each week.
One approach is to transition from outcome-based goals (like raising a certain amount of money or hitting an annual sales figure) to rate-based goals (like reaching out to 10 people each week or spending 5 hours every month in customer conversations). Rate-based goals measure the rate or frequency of progress towards a bigger objective (think of them as micro-steps towards an outcome-based goal). Rate-based goals can break teams out of paralyzing inertia and provide a proven path of stepping stones where teams can act, learn, course-correct, and keep going.
Recommendation: Identify short-term rate-based goals that shorten your learning and feedback loops and provide a clear path to get moving.
2. Shorten your memory
Sometimes that biggest enemy to generating momentum is yourself. I remember days as a CEO when I felt like our organization was completely stuck or adrift, and I recall other days when I was stunned by how easily things were progressing.
The reality was probably somewhere in between, and I was likely a victim of multiple cognitive biases—like confirmation bias and recency bias where certain conversations or challenges had a disproportionate influence on my outlook.
Because momentum is such an abstract concept, we’re vulnerable to misinterpreting its existence or absence. Our ability to identify what actual momentum from forward progress looks like is crucial. It is perhaps more dangerous to believe you have momentum when you actually don’t than it is to tell yourself a story that you’re stuck when in fact you’re making progress. But both suffer from the same affliction of not seeing reality accurately.
3. Shorten your inspiring pep-talks
In my experience, momentum is better generated through consistent progress than one-time inspiration, but I’ve seen many leaders (myself included) resort to attempts at inspiration to try to generate momentum across the team.
This is often a mistake. Inspiring language and pep-talks are important, but they have a short half-life. Worse, they could be counterproductive to generating momentum if they’re laced with promises, visions, and high expectations for future progress. If those things don’t come to pass, it could send a message to the team that the company isn’t making progress.
It’s easy to mistake activity for progress. Churning through emails in your inbox might feel like momentum, but it probably has no bearing on the actual momentum of the company. True progress is different from a busy day of activities.
The illusion that you’re making real progress when you’re actually not will spell a slow death. You’ll think everything is fine, until you realize you’ve been boiling in water and didn’t know it.
The double-edged sword of having momentum is that when you have it, it’s easy not to question where it’s taking you (look at all those busy, high-achieving professionals who wake up one day and have a mid-life crisis). In the startup context, leaders must create the trip-wires that trip them back into consciousness so they can ask:
I actually disagree with Sam Altman when he says “never let the company lose momentum.” Losing momentum is inevitable; there are set-backs, there are unexpected problems, companies are run by leaders who get burnt out or engage in disorienting cognitive biases. If you don’t have doubts from time to time, if you never feel stuck, if you live in the perpetual fantasy of believing you have momentum, then you’re likely not working on the most important work.
Normalize that momentum will wax and wane, and then create a plan to reclaim it. The last part of Newton’s first law says that an object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion remains in motion at constant speed and in a straight line unless acted on by an unbalanced force.
In startups, this is the work of leadership: be the unbalanced force that activates and redirects a team’s momentum so it can stay focused on the most important work.