Startups — A Game of Bumping Balloons
As a child, I used to play a game with my brothers. It was quite simple in concept. There is a point at which balloons are partially deflated and just barely float. They slowly fall to the ground. When we had one of these deflated balloons, we would work together to keep the balloon in the air by hitting it. Before it could touch the ground, we would hit it again so it went back into the air. That was the whole game. Once it touched the ground, you lost.
When we had only a single balloon, the game was quite simple. It was easy to track the balloon and keep it from touching the ground. It was possible to go hours without losing the game. Eventually, the game would get boring and we would move on to other activities. However, there were times after parties when we had access to more balloons. Tens of balloons that we could use to play this game. It was always exciting for us to challenge ourselves with more balloons.
Aside from us wrecking the house, we realized an obvious conundrum. The more balloons we tried to keep in the air, the harder the game was to continue. It was more likely we would lose quickly. Fatigue from running around, losing track of a balloon, or simply making the smallest mistake could lead to a balloon hitting the ground. The result was me and my brothers struggling to keep 10 different balloons afloat.
Today, I may not spend as much time chasing balloons around the house, but I still have the same fundamental problem with Shrimpy — A startup I’m working on in the crypto space. Instead of trying to figure out the maximum number of balloons I can keep in the air, it has shifted to a problem of how many features, products, or services our team can support.
Each new feature, product, or service is us launching a balloon into the air. Dividing our attention, demanding maintenance, and calling for improvements. Managing these priorities becomes a game of bumping each of these features back into flight before it crashes into the ground. The more items we have in the air, the more frantically we are running around trying to keep everything together.
At this point you are probably asking yourself, “are we done with this analogy yet?” Not a chance. This analogy has more steam in it and we aren’t stopping. Let’s take a look at how we should be evaluating our balloon management strategy.
When you’re bumping balloons in the air, one of the first strategies to keep them up is to heard them into a confined location. This allows you to keep as many balloons as possible in your field of view and reduce the effort you exert to move from balloon to balloon.
Startups require concentration.
This concept can be applied to startups. Concentrating on features and developments that are related makes it easier to have multiple items in the air at a time. The effort you exert for one feature can then be reused for other features because you don’t need to jump around. Everything stays in a confined area of focus.
Another popular strategy is to bump the balloon higher into the air using more force. The higher the balloon goes, the more time it takes to fall back to the ground. The problem with this approach is our accuracy of hitting balloons to the desired location decreases the more force we use. Less accuracy ultimately leads to proximity issues where the balloons end up in places we don’t want them to go.
Startups demand finesse.
Startups are much the same. It’s possible to propel a feature or product forward past the necessary requirements to keep the feature in the air longer. Like bumping balloons however, this can lead to deviating from the mission. Moving in a direction that doesn’t actually meet the objectives or align with the needs of users. The outcome of using significant force is dramatic shifts in direction while trying to find product market fit. Movements become long drawn out exaggerations, consuming excessive time, wasting effort, and ultimately capturing diminished returns. A better strategy is to execute smaller more deliberate movements. By controlling for force, developments can fluidly change direction as product market fit is realized.
One of the hardest lessons we learned from bumping balloons is the realization that it’s a game which cannot be won — a game which has no end. No matter how hard you hit the balloon, it will come back down. No matter how well you bump the balloon, you can never declare a victory.
Startups are “Infinite Games”.
Startups, like all business, are infinite games. The work doesn’t end, nor are there winners. We only push ourselves to stay in the game. These same ideas can apply to all features, products, or services we launch within our organization. Each new endeavor is it’s own infinite game. There is always more development, updates, maintenance, marketing, and more to perpetuate each endeavor — forever. No matter how fully we believe a new feature will be a one off effort that will end the day of the launch, it’s never the case. The expectation should be that the effort required to perpetuate each product, feature, and service is infinite. Although some may require less effort per time period, the effort is there nonetheless; indefinitely splitting time from other tasks.
Playing the game, there are times when the only way to keep every balloon in the air at the same time is to exert more effort. Run faster, work harder, and execute the balloon bumping strategy more effectively. During finite games, this strategy is practical. Infinite games like bumping balloons, on the other hand, don’t have this same luxury. Exerting more effort will eventually lead to fatigue. Perpetuating the game will become increasingly strenuous, ultimately leading to a balloon touching the ground and the game ending.
Startups need pacing.
Startups need pacing to compete in the infinite game of business. Since there is no end, the participants of the startup need to understand the pace at which progress can be made. Finding a balance between exerting excessive force to integrate new features, products, and services, and easing off the gas to improve past developments. Pacing is not just an execution issue, but an issue of what kind of work is done. Instead of only developing new features, older developments need to be factored into the equation for updates.
Once every blue moon, we would get access to larger balloons for the game. I don’t know why bigger balloons are more fun, but every child knows that bigger balloons are factually more fun. At the same time, larger balloons also require more effort to keep in the air. They consume more of our attention, need additional space, and require excessive force to bump back into the air. Playing with multiple large balloons resulted in less longevity for the game since we would fatigue quicker.
Startups crave ambition.
Startups crave ambition. The larger the vision, the more fun people will have advancing that vision. It’s thrilling to forward a mission that’s more than the sum of its parts. At the same time, bigger endeavors necessitate a more generous diversion of resources. Keeping a large vision afloat is far more burdensome than keeping a bundle of smaller ideas alive. When the vision is grand, startups can’t afford to siphon progress from that vision by diverting attention to multiple missions.
Startups require balance. Keeping one balloon in the air is easy, but not exciting. You won’t be breaking any records. Eventually, it might even bore you because there isn’t a challenge. At the same time, launching balloon after balloon into the air will make it difficult to perpetuate the game. The team will tire, balloons will start touching the ground after neglect, and hope for success will fade.
There will come a time when you will need to pop some balloons. They are just too tempting to keep in the air. Distracting you from the balloons that actually move your vision forward. Always tempting you to play with them.
This is your startup. A bunch of balloons you’re trying to keep afloat. If you have too many balloons, start popping.
Next time you consider launching a new feature, look at how many balloons you’re already trying to keep afloat. Think about the bandwidth you have to sustain these balloons. Determine the size and force required to bump this balloon back into the air indefinitely. Acknowledge the time it will take away from other features, products, or services.
Remember, startups are an infinite game.
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The Shrimpy Team