Startup Company Operations: The Hummingbird or the Shrew

The hummingbird identifies and harvests food sources with great but regulated energy, while the shrew forages furiously in a constant battle for survival. For purposes of discussion I will consider only the grass-roots startup company, not spin-offs or startups sponsored by existing companies.  Companies, like the people they are made of, exist on a continuum. Nobody is at the extreme or exactly in the middle of any range, but I will address relative extremes here to illustrate my point that well-planned and disciplined operations work best for the startup as well as the established company. The hummingbird illustrates the company that maintains and evolves a plan, and works to make the plan happen, while the shrew illustrates the company that operates on inspiration and enthusiasm, and often seems to be always late and scrambling, or operating as if in an emergency.  How does the startup company’s style of operation affect its prospects for successful growth and future prosperity?

A good business plan and process for evolving it, along with the discipline to follow it, permits a startup company to operate more like a hummingbird. Some startups operate like a hummingbird, busy but planned, while others operate like a shrew, foraging for opportunities that can be attacked and consumed in a frantic fight for survival that can risk burning out the participants. A good business plan, and the discipline to stick to it and evolve it on a regular basis, can provide a regulated, long term path to success for the company and all involved.

The hummingbird company, with a good plan to grow its business, can think and act with the long term in mind. Since the hummingbird, at least in the temperate region where I live, must migrate south for the winter, it must go through ordered phases of finding food sources, nest building, finding a mate, raising a family, and building up its energy reserves before the annual migration. Nature has evolved it to do these things in a timely way, and provides it the abilities it needs to not only do them but to adapt to changes in its environment. A surprisingly large proportion of its time is spent resting, which permits it to expend large amounts of energy in its daily forays to find food, though less than 15% of its time is typically spent in this activity. An intelligently run, hummingbird-like startup company similarly operates with realistic expectations as to the use of time, with substantial time spent on planning, recruiting, and other important support activities that enable the creative processes and “forays” to find and secure the customers it needs to survive. All activities are carried out in the context of intermediate and long term goals, which are typically established in a business plan of five or more years.

The shrew company, often without thinking, tries to substitute intensity for good planning. The shrew does not migrate, and seems more reactive in the way it lives. The shrew also lacks the mobility of the hummingbird, so it must find food in a smaller area, and it must find and often kill its food to survive. Both creatures have large daily energy requirements – each typically must consume 80-90% of its own weight each day to survive – but the hummingbird is better able to pace itself, map out and revisit its income sources, and survive in a more orderly way. The shrew company may come from a base of great inspiration and prospects, but often operates in a more haphazard, event-driven way that provides significantly less potential for long term success.

Failing to allow sufficient time for recruiting and interviewing can impede growth in a number of ways. A good long range plan, well-followed and including resources and time for the acquisition and training of new employees, can minimize thrashing and grow the company in an orderly way. Frequently a startup company’s operations are focused on landing those first customers or finishing the development of an initial product offering under significant time pressure, and activities such as staffing are not planned out. When the organization is responding to needs for more people in a reactive way, the process of interviewing and bringing new people in can be an extra and unplanned burden for people already fully absorbed in generating revenues or a first product. The result can be overwork and burnout for those responsible for new customers and/or products, with the result that those customer relationships or products may suffer from poor quality or omissions in their designs. Worse yet, the new employees selected may not be the best candidates, as their selection was rushed, or may have trouble quickly adapting and becoming productive as the existing employees don’t have time to bring them up to speed.

Maintaining a reasonable work week enables more effective performance over the long term. It is easy and natural, in the enthusiasm and big challenges of a startup environment, to work long hours and over-commit to the enterprise. It is an exciting thing to pursue new ideas and the promise of great success, and can stimulate high levels of adrenalin and other hormones, making one oblivious to the passage of time. People operate best, however, when they have had proper rest and are not struggling to manage their personal lives on top of their work. Working at high intensity and for long hours over too long a period can lead to burnout, with greatly reduced effectiveness on the job, and increased probability of personal crises that can take one away from the work entirely.

Startups that maintain realistic plans and reasonable expectations for their employees have better prospects in the long run. The 40 hour work week allows a planned and well-managed life, and provides the energy and distraction-free time to focus on the work and produce superior results. Sufficient sleep is essential to effective learning and good memory function, as well as the stamina needed to work with intensity throughout the day. The 50 hour or more work week can “stretch people thin”, leaving them sacrificing personal matters or their rest to keep up with the job, “contaminating” their work hours with excessive personal matters, or working at lower performance levels due to lack of rest or high stress. Travel times to many jobs effectively extend work hours, and highway travel in particular is stressful and exhausting. Many people in North America live an hour from their work, meaning that a 5 day, 40 hour work week is actually a 50 hour week, and overtime extends that even further. The hours in which they can maintain their homes and families and get adequate rest are compromised when overtime becomes the norm.

The thrashing and dashing operations of the “shrew” startup can extend to its later business phases. I have worked for companies of a hundred employees or more where, at least in some parts of the firm, shrew-like operations had persisted well past the startup phase. Sales departments, for example, may keep that hyper-intensity and “forage and kill” behavior pattern, burning out salespeople and resulting in a high turnover and lackluster results. Engineers and designers may work six and seven day weeks for months or years, leading to increased dissatisfaction, demoralization, mediocre performance, and high turnover, with negative impact on product quality and customer satisfaction.

A good business plan enables a better product and higher probability of long term success. A planned pattern of market expansion and sales growth integrated with a strategically managed product development effort can be much easier on the participants and much more productive. A realistic approach and good planning allow new customers and employees to be identified, contacted, groomed, and integrated in a much less stressful way, and product development to proceed in a way that minimizes cost and yields optimal quality. A staff operating under realistic expectations can be motivated and involved in the company’s success instead of driven to perform and overstressed by an environment of anxiety and demand, and can draw on their reserves when needed.

The startup that plans well and follows the hummingbird model will always do better than the model that thrashes reactively in a shrew-like way. Startup companies have differences from later stage organizations, including higher levels of intensity and demand on employees, but the hummingbird model allows the intensity to produce optimal results, and to be summoned when needed over the long term. Appropriate attention to planning and discipline, along with realistic expectations, will inevitably outperform pure inspiration and enthusiasm in the intermediate to long term, and short term performance doesn’t help if it doesn’t add up to long term success.

As always, I welcome your comments.  – Tim


4 Responses to Startup Company Operations: The Hummingbird or the Shrew

  1. Dan says:

    Great article.

    If you would like a tool to manage your small business activities and Projects, you can use this web aplication:

    You can use it to manage and prioritize your Goals (for business but also in other areas of your life), Projects and Tasks. It has a Checklists section, for the routines and repetitive activities that any business has to do. Also, it features a Schedules section and a Calendar, for scheduling you time and activities.

    Some features from GTD are also present, like Contexts and Next Actions.

    And it’s available on the mobile phone too, so you can access it from anywhere.

  2. timprosser says:

    Thanks, Dan. I appreciate the compliment, and will allow the commercial. 😉
    Your product looks good on the face of it, though I haven’t signed up to try it out. I know there are many competing and similar products out there, too, and encourage readers to evaluate them and find what works best for their particular situation.
    Thanks again – Tim

  3. JeanAnnVK says:

    I think that it is great to aspired to 40 hour work weeks…and I hope to get there one day, but man, it is hard in the beginning! Part of the critical issue is organization and knowing when to outsource and when to do it yourself. I think many people get stuck trying to bootstrap and do it all themselves, when some things could be done by others in an affordable way…that is why I am such a big proponent of virtual assistants. It frees me up to do things that will generate revenue instead of sticking to the minutia…

  4. timprosser says:

    Thanks for the comment, JeanAnnVK. You are right on – it is extremely hard in the beginning (or ever, in some companies) but it is a healthy goal. I also totally agree that organization and knowing what to outsource or delegate are critical. Virtual assistants are certainly a great and recent addition to business, and can be extremely helpful if properly understood and used.
    Thanks again for your excellent comment – Tim

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