Speed As A Competitive Advantage


In 2001, I read It's Not The Big That Eat The Small…It's the Fast That Eat The Slow by Laurence Haughton and Jason Jennings. It's an excellent book, and I read it just after the tech bust when speed was all the rage. Since then, I've had the chance to interact frequently with one of the authors, Laurence Haughton, ever since he guest blogged on the site a couple of years ago.

Laurence recently told me he was doing a free webseminar (sign up is here) on speed as a competitive advantage, so I thought it would be a good time to discuss the book and how things have changed in the last seven years. I sent a list a questions about speed, competitive advantage, and the web. Below are his replies.

The book came out in 2000, when speed was all the rage. After the tech bubble popped, everything seemed to slow down a bit. Does speed matter as much today as it did when the book came out?

Speed just keeps gaining momentum (as a competitive advantage). Why? Because:

1. Slow costs more. Every minute we can take out of manufacturing time, stocking time, get-to-market time, and customer response time saves us money and makes us money.

2. Speed is the ultimate customer turn on. Everyone is short of time. We hate delays, long lines, out-of-stocks. We love finding what we want and getting back to work (or play) fast. And we'll pay for speed.

3. Speed is the one advantage that the big competition can't duplicate easily. Big companies are bureaucratic, dysfunctional, and self-absorbed. They don't listen, they are slow to change, and they kill momentum and initiative. Don't copy them.

You wrote that being fast isn't about speed just for the sake of speed. What does it really mean to be fast?

To be fast means to see trends and big opportunities before they are obvious to everyone (and you can't make any real money); to make decisions on the spot and without delay; to execute quickly at every level; and to anticipate the need for change before the marketplace decides you just don't "get it."

But speed isn't about being frazzled and out of breath. Speed is the natural condition. What frazzles us and wears us out are all the speed bumps that get put in our path. Get rid of the speed bumps (and people who create speed bumps) and any business is instantly faster.

One of the best tips I got from the book was to order lots of magazines. I don't have time to read them all, but I thumb through looking for whatever catches my eye. I can get 15-20 subscriptions for $200 a year, which is more than worth it if I get even one good idea out of the whole batch. Since then, web content has exploded. Has that changed your theory about magazines in any way?

It sure has! Magazines have advantages (including some very good editors and writers). But the Internet is faster and the content is often free. I'd say my subscriptions have gone down by 75%.

In the chapter "Put Every Idea Through the Grinder," you talk briefly about the need to find ideas that have a barrier to entry. How has the web affected barriers to entry?

The Internet has caused many barriers to crumble faster. Geographical barriers are gone. Ideas circle the globe at the speed of light. Smart people can find anything they need to compete with established companies via the Internet.

But the one barrier to entry that still stands is "execution." Everybody can get the same idea and lots of people can raise money but when it comes to implementing and executing lots of competitors are all thumbs. Look at Toyota versus other car companies. Look at Google versus Yahoo or AOL. And remember that's just today. Google could be next.

You have a deep interest in the cognitive biases that cause bad business decision making, and touched on some of those in the book in sections about "proving the math," the "greater fool theory" and "is it déjà vu all over again?" Are businesses getting better at dealing with cognitive biases?

Yes they really are… although it's still too slow for me (I'm incredibly impatient). There's a groundswell of fact based decision making and people recognizing who knows what's going on and who is talking out of the seat of their pants. If you get out there you find a lot of great business thinking. Last week I was in DC, Richmond, VA and Atlanta. The strong trend of good, unbiased business thinking I heard pleased me.

Looking back on the book now, is there anything in it you could like to change, negate, refine?

Of course there are things I'd like to change… lots of things. That's my Achilles heel. I obsess and that makes me slow. But the biggest lesson in speed is "don't get paralysis by analysis." Good enough is good enough.

But since you asked:
We learned a lot by watching companies like AOL and Clear Channel turn from entrepreneurial and fast to slow and bureaucratic. I'd like to refine those lessons.

Also there are lessons that just escaped our observations. I address some of those in my workshop like the fact that the need to surround yourself with fast people starts with the people you hire and promote. We totally missed the idea of hiring fast people.

If a small business owner wanted to start getting faster, what questions could she ask herself to get started down that path?

Sorry but you'd get faster, quicker by allowing someone else to ask you the right questions. You can't do it yourself. Getting faster starts with getting a check up from the neck up. That takes someone to ask good questions and listen to your answers.

That's my specialty. I ask good questions and know how to listen. I get people clear on their heart's desire and help them reexamine preconceived ideas and old ways. Speed in business isn't about physical training (although that helps). It's all about your mindset. Give me 50 minutes Tuesday the 29th and I'll get you a quick start.

I didn't mean to set him up so easy on that last question, but like all good marketers, he made it work.

If you are interested in how to make your business faster, sign up for the seminar next Tuesday (12pm EST, 9am PST).

  • Paul

    Great Q&A. As an athlete I’ve always viewed speed as a nearly sacred (as in one with the universe) attribute. The only thing better than doing something better is doing something better, faster.

  • I believe speed can be viewed almost as a marketing strategy. In my previous business we turned around proposals faster than the competition, and frequently, the competition was excluded from the project before they even submitted a proposal. I also agree that perfectionism can be a hindrance. The client wants response, not perfection. I also believe that speed can be the decisive factor when inducing clients to change suppliers. I have a post about that on my blog: http://tinyurl.com/2hb8yr

  • Exactly. I really do believe that by speed one can have competitive advantage. As the title of the the book goes, it’s not the big who ate the small but it’s the fast who ate the slow. If you are big but move slow you can never catch the small one who moves fast ;)