What follows results from an analysis of my own failings in an earlier startup that ‘started’ but, well, never really got ‘up.’ Founding is hard work. But I’ve learned that it can be made easier but working effectively and efficiently.
Remember: there is ‘work,’ and then there’s getting stuff done. (Also reread this earlier Found|READ post on the subject of “Outcomes vs. Activity”:http://gigaom.com/2007/06/06/outcomes-vs-activity/.)
Anyway, some of my rules are of the cautionary ilk, sort of ‘Here Be Dragons!’ warnings that demand heeding. Others are affirmative habits which I urge you to incorporate in your startup life. Together I hope these can be a road map for others partaking in this founders’ quest.
*1) Confirm your customer constituency before you start.*
An idea is worth nothing on its own. (Unless you are the founder of Hotmail who did get $10M just for his idea.) An idea with a business plan is still worth nothing. (Make that less than nothing, because you’ve just spent 3 weeks slaving away at it in a library while your friends were in the beer garden.) Developing your idea for an imaginary group of people will never work. Make sure you have a customer base. Confirm that your idea solves a problem of one of your close personal friends, or someone you know, before you even start.
*2) Assume competition is already out there*
Since ideas are cheap and easy to come by, assume there are at least five competitors already working on yours. And assume they have a 6 month start on you. Depressing eh? Sure, but preparing yourself this way will help you.
*3) Flawless execution comes from consistency*
How to be flawless? Be consistent. Work for at least 10 hours a day, every day. There is a hell of a lot of work to be done if you are to gain the first-mover advantage. If you have reservations about working this much, you probably have reservations about your idea. And start early every morning. Each hour you delay is an hour lost – forever. If you are working with a partner or team, you all start at that time. And “starting” means working on the business idea, answering emails, not chitter-chatter. When in doubt, begin the day with something easy like talking about what you want to get out of the day.
*4) Divide and conquer the workload*
Teams are great. Being part of one gives you a chance to bond and bounce ideas around. But what do we remember about ideas? They’re cheap and a lot of work needs to be done to turn your idea into something you can show investors. So separate your duties – sure you are a new company and there are commonalities to be discussed — but give each person a unique responsibility. Don’t duplicate work for the benefit of team building.
*5) Start producing from day one.*
Evolution provides us with a great example of how small, incremental improvements results in a more successful system. Don’t be a creationist: make sure everything you do takes you further up the value chain, and away from types who just wave their ideas around. If you were an angel investor, would you rather invest in a team with really good power point on their idea, or a team with a working demo?
*6) Mimic people you admire.*
Sometimes you won’t know how to best use your time; what task to prioritize over all the others at a given time. Here’s a trick I use when I’m struggling: Think of someone in your industry whose work you admire – how would they be using their time? Mimic them.
*7) Schedule breaks for yourself*
Your friends will miss you. Tell yourself, that you will work for the next 2 weeks straight and then take a Saturday off, or a long weekend away somewhere. Founding is lonely. Get out. But not just for yourself, *do it for the business, too.* Beer is free at most industry events. Go, drink the free beer and network. Tell people about your idea. Chances are they will say “Oh like company xyz is doing.” Adjust your focus and go back to work with a clear head.
*8) Avoid part-timers and those who hesitate*
How do you choose you team? Take whoever starts contributing to the project soonest, and promise them stock. Avoid anyone who says, “I’d love to be involved but…” These are the same people who float ideas but never do anything. Having some working full time and others part time means mixed commitment levels, which don’t work. All quit your soul-destroying day jobs! There’s nothing like knowing that “this is it” to focus the mind.
Ensure that your team knows what’s expected of them. Consistent 9AM starts, and clearly-stated deliverables should be first on the list. But we all need repetition. It’s only by hammering away at a message that people will get it – why do you think brand managers create more than one billboard for an ad campaign?
*10) Skip the b-plan in lieu of a profit & loss model*
Your strategy will probably change many times before you finish a business plan. Save time by modelling everything on a spreadsheet. Make the bottom-line justify your business rather than the other way around. If you’ve really thought through your spreadsheet, writing the business plan will be a doddle. *Caveat*: if you must write a b-plan remember that a good business plan doesn’t make a good business. Say what needs to be said and get on with turning the idea into something of value.
That’s it. Incorporate these rules and habits and you’ll be on your way to executing better (if not flawlessly), in your startup — and you might not need so much good luck to be successful.