Setting Standards: Speed vs. Excellence, Part 1

“Out of the past come the standards for judging the present.” – George P. Baker

After graduating from high school, two friends and I started a business installing aboveground pools. After a shaky start, the business took off. To finish the nine or 10 jobs that we were selling per day, we each headed up a crew of workers. This created an unavoidable and unspoken competition among us – in two arenas:

1. Who could build more pools?

2. Who could build better pools?

Each of us – Peter, Eric, and I – wanted to win both ribbons every day. But because of our differing personalities, ambitions, and work habits, our crews’ pace and attention to detail produced different results.

By the end of that first summer, our crews had established themselves this way: Peter’s built the best pools. Mine built them fastest. And Eric’s was somewhere in the middle.

In the nearly 40 years that have elapsed since that summer, I have started or helped start dozens of businesses, big and small. At one time or another during the growth of each of those businesses, I’ve had to make decisions about product development and marketing that pitted speed against excellence. And every time I’ve been in that situation, I’ve thought back to that pool business and what I learned from working with Peter and Eric.

When you create something – a business, a book, a wedding, or a craft project – you have to make countless decisions that involve speed and excellence. By opting for speed, you create action – and action gives you the momentum you need to get your goal accomplished. By opting for excellence, you can create something that is better than what everyone else is creating … and, in business, that can put you ahead of your competition.

Longtime readers of ETR will not be surprised to hear that, particularly in business, I favor speed over excellence – at least, in the beginning. Ready. Fire. Aim. That’s my motto. Figure out – quickly – if the idea is worth testing. (Ready.) Test it. (Fire.) If it works but only marginally, kill it or fix it. (Aim.) Then move on to the next thing.

If you don’t get things going quickly and keep them going, you will find that progress on the business you are starting (or the trip you are planning … or the poem you are writing … or the garden you are planting) will slow and eventually stall. But if all you care about is speed, your business will eventually face another terminal danger. If the quality of your product and/or service starts out as “okay” and doesn’t get better, you will have a very hard time “selling” it to the world. They will recognize (even if you don’t) the mediocrity you have created and will look elsewhere for something similar but better.

The pool-building business that Peter, Eric, and I created that year was just as much about excellence as it was about speed. We eventually developed techniques (clever ways of doing routine things) that more than doubled the speed at which we worked – and, thus, our daily profits. We used some of the extra cash and time that we created to buy more equipment and develop more techniques to make our pools better than anyone else’s.

If we hadn’t been willing to favor speed over excellence in the beginning, we could never have kept up with our workload. If we’d gotten too far behind on our schedule, we would have lost our business. And if we hadn’t been dedicated to improving the quality of everything we did – from the way we answered the phone to the way we cleaned up after every job – we wouldn’t have developed the reputation that allowed the business to be successful for so many years.

What I’m saying is that our business eventually operated on two sets of standards – one based on speed and one based on excellence. Although Peter tended to be more hands-on and spent more time checking details, his crew still worked fast – fast enough to keep them “in the contest.” And although I rushed my crew from one job to another, we never failed to follow all the proper protocols to make sure every pool was well built and free of problems.

As I said, you should apply these same standards to just about anything worthwhile that you create, not just a business. In my next article, I’ll explain how I apply speed and excellence to my writing.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]