Every successful business creates a new kind of customer. That customer’s story changes because the business exists. There is a before-the-product story and an after-the-product story. The change that’s brought about doesn’t have to be as monumental as the changes that companies like Google create; they can be small shifts in attitude and perception, nearly imperceptible changes in habits that become rituals over time. Enhancing your products or services might signal advancement and feel like progress, but if there is no change in the customer, there is no innovation. What happens because your product exists? Or as author Michael Schrage would say, ‘Who do you want your customer to become?’ Before your product, people did. After your product, people do.
Apparently sprinters reach their highest speed right out of the blocks, and spend the rest of the race slowing down. The winners slow down the least. It's that way with most startups too. The earliest phase is usually the most productive. That's when they have the really big ideas. Imagine what Apple was like when 100% of its employees were either Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak.
The striking thing about this phase is that it's completely different from most people's idea of what business is like. If you looked in people's heads (or stock photo collections) for images representing "business," you'd get images of people dressed up in suits, groups sitting around conference tables looking serious, Powerpoint presentations, people producing thick reports for one another to read. Early stage startups are the exact opposite of this. And yet they're probably the most productive part of the whole economy.
Why the disconnect? I think there's a general principle at work here: the less energy people expend on performance, the more they expend on appearances to compensate. More often than not the energy they expend on seeming impressive makes their actual performance ...