It’s Easy to Be Great…It’s Hard to Be Consistent

The title of this post comes from the book Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, Steve Martin’s memoir about his days of stand-up comedy. It’s a crazy startup-like story that details his 14 year ascent to the top of comedy, followed by 4 years of wild success playing sold-out arenas; an unprecedented feat at that time.

Among the sage-like insight Steve imparts in the book is the observation that many performers have outstanding shows now and again. But very, very few are able to consistently nail their performance. Steve proposes that it’s consistency that makes someone successful in the long run, not having a great show now and then.

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with your startup.

So let’s get to that part.

Your Tenth Appearance
One of Steve’s diatribes surrounds the number of times you have to be on The Tonight Show before people recognize you in the street. In his early career he believed that appearing on The Tonight Show would be his “big break” that would set him up for the rest of his career.

In other words, it was his “link from TechCrunch.”

Steve says that after your first appearance no one recognizes you.

After your third time people start to think you might look like someone…but they can’t figure out who.

After the sixth time they start to know you from somewhere…maybe you work at the post office?

And after the tenth time they start to recognize you as someone who might have been on TV. But they have no idea who the hell you are.

After 10 times on The Tonight Show.

There is no “big break.” Not in comedy, and not in startups.

No link from TechCrunch, write-up on Mashable, mention by Leo Laporte, or Tweet by Ashton Kucher is going to make your business. Each of them will send some traffic your way and a very small portion will “stick” if you have the right mechanisms in place (you want email and RSS subscribers, not drive-by visitors).

But forget the fairy-tale notion that you’re going to have a “big break” after which everything will be a walk in the park.

The Madness
Why is it so hard to be consistent? Because of something called The Madness. (A term coined by the TechZing guys during one of my recent appearances).

The Madness is the feeling you get when you have a new idea. The insatiable urge to start researching, marketing or coding. The unquenchable, zombie-like quest to turn your idea into something tangible.

During the time you’re infected with The Madness you can be more productive in 12 hours than you were in your previous 40.

Talk about getting into the zone…you go days without showering because you just need to get one more part of your idea completed (oh wait…I’m the only one?). The Madness is amazing for productivity!

But the problem: The Madness fades.

Sometimes it comes and goes in a few days, other times you can keep it around in a more manageable form for months (meaning you take showers). But at some point every one of us loses interest in a project.

We’re entrepreneurs – we’re made to be passionate about ideas, and the next idea is always the easiest one to be passionate about.

Yep, it’s tons of fun to think of ideas. And it’s easy.

It’s also fun to start building them. And still relatively easy.

But finishing the implementation of an idea? Seeing it through the 4-6 months (or more if you’re playing with fire) until it turns into a real product? That’s when it starts to get rough.

You will inevitably start to question if the idea is any good at all, and why you started working on it in the first place.

Then there’s your launch, supporting it, improving it, and building a consistent, ongoing marketing effort that brings in a sustainable flow of people interested in buying your product. This is when it becomes drudgery.

This is the point where most who’ve managed to make it this far throw in the towel.

Wrap Up
It’s easy to come up with great ideas, and it’s a breeze to start coding them. It’s only slightly harder to turn them into a functioning product.

But it’s extremely hard to consistently focus on an idea over months or years. Very few people have the discipline to do it.

This is not a lesson reserved for startups. Look at all the bloggers who’s come and gone over the past 5 years.

Think of every post that hits the front page (or even the #1 spot) on Hacker News (or Digg or Reddit). Many were probably better writers, had more insight, and better ideas than the big name bloggers you read. But publishing a post every week is hard work, and consistency trumps that one or two great posts someone wrote back in 2008.

It’s easy to be great…it’s hard to be consistent.

What Can You Do?
I can’t end this post without some practical steps that can help you maintain consistency. I’ve mentioned a few ideas in previous posts and I’ll state them here again:

Give Yourself a Cooling Off Period
(from Lesser Known Traits of Successful Founders)

I have a rule that I never spend money on an idea in the first 48 hours. During this time my judgment is clouded by the euphoria of having this amazing new idea. Given that I’ve had several hundred ideas over the past few years, at a minimum Ive saved myself a few thousand bucks in domain registration fees.

When you have an idea, write it down and come back to it in 2-3 days. You should have a better sense of its true merits after giving yourself time to cool off.

If you do your research and decide to pursue it you should stand a better chance of making a decision based on logic rather than emotion, which will ideally mean you’ll have a better chance of sticking with it in the long-term.

Find Accountability
(from Why Startup Founders Should Stop Reading Business Books)

Find some kind of accountability group or startup community. If you can do it in person all the better, but I’m now starting to see accountability groups forming over Skype, as well.

Hit Meetup.com, and search Facebook for other tech entrepreneurs in your area. Find like-minded startup founders and get to know them.

Then hand pick 3-5 others and organize a small, private, committed accountability group that meets every 1-2 weeks where you can discuss your projects. You’ll be amazed at the impact this has on your motivation, your consistency and your overall success.

Other Ideas?
If you have another approach you use to maintain consistency please share it in the comments.

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18 comments ↓

#1 @harscoat on 11.04.10 at 9:29 am

Great post – We started a company around this idea that what matters is not the performance but regularity. Quantter.com wants to help people so that they don’t quit. I take away this great point “there is no big break”, and I think of AirBnB presentation at StartupSchool 1000 days to prepare a growing success.

#2 Antonin Hildebrand on 11.04.10 at 9:41 am

Great article Rob, this is exactly my experience. Thanks for posting!

#3 Tom on 11.04.10 at 12:39 pm

“We’re entrepreneurs – we’re made to be passionate about ideas, and the next idea is always the easiest one to be passionate about. ”
Isn’t the meat of an entrepreneur running with the ideas, seeing which pan out, doing the leg work, iterating, pivoting etc?
Ideas are cheap – yes, be passionate about the ideas that you’re running with, but surely being pragmatic about the ones you run with, being selective helps.

#4 Ryan @NoMoreBacon on 11.04.10 at 1:06 pm

I have a hard time with this very thing. I completely understand the concept behind consistency and executing on a consistent basis but I just seem to be so damn flighty! I’m really focusing on taking my best ideas and following through with them long term. Avoiding distraction is a new point of emphasis for me!

This was my first time here and this post alone convinced me to subscribe. Great stuff!

#5 It’s Easy to Be Great- It’s Hard to Be Consistent on 11.04.10 at 1:30 pm

[...] .:softwarebyrob.com-> No Comments, Comment or Ping [...]

#6 Ivan Walsh on 11.04.10 at 2:04 pm

Hi Rob,

Sacrifice is another thing one needs to consider.

It mightn’t be a cool thing to say but setting up a new business involves a lot of small little sacrifices that others don’t see.

It’s a bit like the overnight stars… who took ten years to make it.

Think long-term and go for it!

Ivan

#7 Chris Whamond on 11.04.10 at 3:36 pm

I admit it: I’ve experienced “The Madness” at times. It can be intoxicating. (As a side note, it’s the absolute WORST time to spend money on domain names or make other purchases).

A great model for success is 37signals. I think one of the keys to their success is their consistency. They’re innovators, but they don’t chase the “next big thing”.

They’re more the “Mom and Pop” approach to running a business: building value, serving their customers well, listening to feedback, nurturing relationships and educating.

This is a decidedly different approach from most entrepreneurs.

I think most entrepreneurs are more like “hunters”: We scan the horizon for the next big kill. We’re out there looking for that huge, lumbering mastodon, the cash equivalent of the wooly mammoth. When we don’t see any “game” in a particular area, we tend to move on and lose interest.

Problem is, business is a game of farming. It’s about nurturing relationships, checking your crops, sowing for a later harvest, being patient, investing time now for a payoff in the distant future.

The guys at 37signals are farmers. Patient and consistent. I think we all have a lot to learn from their approach.

Great blog post, Rob.

#8 Scott Miller on 11.04.10 at 3:37 pm

You’re reading my mind! Consistent, level, effort is what has worked for me in the past.

Had a friend of mine comment on my latest venture, “Scott, I think its going to work. It just might take 10 years.”

#9 Quora on 11.04.10 at 4:05 pm

What are the most common mistakes first-time entrepreneurs make?…

1) Obsessing over the competition. Be aware of who they are and stay abreast of what they’re up to, but overly focusing on what they’re doing and building takes your eyes off the prize. Instead, stay focused on being proactive, not reactive - build a…

#10 Rob on 11.04.10 at 4:25 pm

(From @Tom): “Isn’t the meat of an entrepreneur running with the ideas, seeing which pan out, doing the leg work, iterating, pivoting etc?”

Indeed. Holding ideas loosely is critical. But it’s a balance between knowing when to change things up, and having entrepreneurial ADHD to the point where you bounce from one thing to the next thinking that the next idea is better than your last.

#11 Rick Graner on 11.04.10 at 7:57 pm

I unfortunately haven’t saved thousands of dollars on domain names but I’m slowly trimming them back as they come due. I’m down to about 200 or so of them now.

I have finally settled on something and it’s a location based iPhone app for small business. It’s pretty old school as I’m looking to bring on 10-20 new clients a month but I find it pretty meaningful as small business is happy to be able to compete with Starbucks right around the corner and for a pretty competitive investment.

Great article as this is my life and this time I just need to keep believing that it’s the right one and stick with it until it’s not.

#12 A-ron on 11.04.10 at 11:10 pm

Follow through is a bitch. I can attest to that. I like your suggestion of a cooling off period for new ideas.

It’s funny, I was just thinking about forming an accountability group, or at least finding a partner, to meet with once a week or so for staying on target in the gym. Online groups are nice, but for someone like me, who’s either ebbing or flowing, I think it’s better to face the people your accountable to. So much so that I’ve started drafting a manifesto, or “job description,” for the ideal partner.

#13 Off By One # 8 | Off By One on 11.05.10 at 10:02 am

[...] It’s Easy to Be Great…It’s Hard to Be Consistent | Software by Rob – Rob Walling agrees with Steve Martin that consistence is important. [...]

#14 OBO on 11.05.10 at 11:02 pm

If you replaced a few words, this would make a great marriage advice articles.

#15 Steve on 11.09.10 at 2:57 pm

Showering? I don’t remember that being listed on the startup todo list

#16 Vox Pop Design – Wunderkammer for Nov 5th, 2010 on 11.10.10 at 5:27 pm

[...] It’s Easy Being Great, It’s Hard Being Consistent – From Rob Walling comes a needed reminder that it’s not enough to come up with smart sounding ideas. The execution of them is paramount, especially after the sheen of new shiny has worn off. As much as our culture likes to romanticize the overnight success there are few such things in real life. Consider one of my metaphorical aspirations, the Bugatti Veyron: [...]

#17 SylvainTechizzle on 11.18.10 at 1:57 pm

Great article ! I have to admit I kinda recognized myself in the Madness thing (although I do take showers, mandatory in the morning to feel awake).

Definitely discuss new ideas with like-minded (or not) people. I’d say you can have a good idea, but it will probably need some tweaking before it turns out great.

Anyway, thanks for the advice!

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