Jun 23, 2015

Rhythm - the missing foundation in startup support

Consider the benefits of customer contact, growth hacking or forming habits – all require a regular rhythm. The value comes from frequency and repetition.

Around the world, whether it’s universities, incubators or accelerators, I’ve noticed this sense of rhythm is usually absent.

Customer contact

Experienced founders know the value of frequent customer contact. Paul Graham put it well:

To benefit from engaging with users you have to be willing to change your idea. When you let customers tell you what they’re after, they will often reveal amazing details about what they find valuable.

You want to push forward, but at the same time twist and turn to find the most promising path.

This requires forcefully and regularly shipping to customers. It’s not an when-we-feel-like-it thing, it’s an all-the-time thing.


Joel Gascoigne, founder of Buffer, relied on rhythm to create the habits that led to his success:

Working on good habits is probably one of the things that’s helped me the most to make progress with my startup. The habit I’m happiest with is my morning routine. It gives me a fantastic start to the day and lots of energy.

This precious early morning time for work when I was the freshest was one of the things that helped me get Buffer off the ground in the early days.

Adding it in

At an institutional level, we have a few role models.

Google uses OKRs (Objectives & Key Results). Skype and Seedcamp use PPPs (Plans, Progress, Problems). In the programmes I’ve designed, we’ve used a variant of PPPs called Braintrust with a stronger focus on learning goals.

The unspoken truth for most of us is that these formats don’t stick. With Braintrust, around half the groups last the duration of the programme. Still worth doing, but not a panacea. PPPs and OKRs also drop off tremendously - in most cases only a small minority maintain them. When other elements of the program become the focus, like pitch days or big workshop weeks, filling out an OKR or PPP email doesn’t get done, and the programme managers don’t have the time to chase them up either. The momentum dies.

Baking it in

The root problem is that these techniques are often afterthoughts, or at best, add-ons. The programmes aren’t designed around rhythm.

University entrepreneurship programmes offer a clearer example of the same effect. Students learn the theory of startups, but never get the true feeling because they never get the weekly rhythm. They end up informed but inexperienced, and leave without a sense of urgency.

It’s like showing them a jetfighter cockpit, but then training them in a Volkswagen. They don’t know how it feels to fly fast, so they don’t.

When designing startup support, the solution lies in using rhythm as the structure, and filling the program based on that rhythm. A 3-month or 4-year programme are the same; ship something to customers on day 1. Then day 7, 14, 21 and 28 and so on. The rhythm is set from the beginning, and the lessons, support, mentoring and goals all fall into step around that pace.

If the medium is the message, our medium is momentum.

By maintaining momentum we’re communicating a clear message. Founders then learn from experience. They understand why frequent customer contact, product iteration and regular experimentation matter so much. They feel the need for speed. This underlying message of momentum, delivered with a regular rhythm, becomes pervasive and connected to everything in a programme.

If our goal is enabling our founders to shoot away at startup speed, our job is to put rhythm in their bones.

What am I up to these days?

I’m a new parent, and prioritising my attention on our new rhythms as a family. I’m also having fun with slow creative pursuits: making a few apps, writing, etc.

Work-wise, I’m trekking along at a cozy pace, with a few non-exec, advisory roles for cryptography and microchip manufacturing programs.

In the past, I've designed peer-learning programs for Oxford, UCL, Techstars, Microsoft Ventures, The Royal Academy Of Engineering, and Kernel, careering from startups to humanitech and engineering. I also played a role in starting the Lean Startup methodology, and the European startup ecosystem. You can read about this here.

Contact me

Books & collected practices

  • Peer Learning Is - a broad look at peer learning around the world, and how to design peer learning to outperform traditional education
  • Mentor Impact - researched the practices used by the startup mentors that really make a difference
  • DAOistry - practices and mindsets that work in blockchain communities
  • Decision Hacks - early-stage startup decisions distilled
  • Source Institute - skunkworks I founded with open peer learning formats and ops guides, and our internal guide on decentralised teams