Leading a startup company is nothing like leading a big, established company. Startups are focused foremost on survival, while big companies direct their efforts toward growth or in the worst case, slowing decline.
It’s natural that many entrepreneurs start companies with a task list that looks a lot like it did at their old job. After all, they’re likely coming from an established career in a big company. Big companies (usually) have the critical infrastructure in place and as inefficient as they may be, workers are free to look much farther down the road.
Startup Founders don’t get the luxury of looking too far down the road. They don’t get to spend inordinate amounts of time on product development or internal policy making. For this reason, a startup Founder’s priority list looks a whole lot different.
Job #1: Get Money in the Door
A Founder’s most important question is “do we have enough money to make it past our next milestone?” If the Founder can’t answer “yes,” then solving customer problems, addressing HR issues, and planning for the long term just won’t matter.
An underfunded company doesn’t have to worry about these issues. That’s because without additional capital, they will soon be out of business altogether! Therefore a startup needs to focus on keeping the lights on before it can even worry about solving day-to-day issues.
It’s not uncommon for a startup to spend far more time selling to investors than it does to customers. While this may feel like a distraction (which it is) it’s a necessary evil that supersedes all other activities.
#2: Sell More Stuff
Aside from raising capital to get started, sales are by far the most important activity any company can spend its time on. A simple way to consider this priority is – if you have sales and a crappy product, you can afford to improve your product. If you have a great product and no sales, you’re dead.
It’s a widely held belief that a great product will sell itself. Sure, great products sell better, but perfection can’t be pursued at the expense of a massive sales effort. Very few products are just so great that they sell themselves and become profitable.
What drives a company forward is its ability to focus its time on actually selling the product in the market, not refining the product in the lab.
#3: Hire Brilliant Staff
Staffing brilliant people sounds like an obvious thing to do, but in practice few people make it a true priority. It consumes more time and energy to hire brilliant people which is why most settle for “good enough.”
A startup’s ability to succeed in the market has everything to do with the key staff members it finds early on. If you’re rushing through your staffing process, pulling the trigger on the first resumes that float through your inbox, you’re doing the company a huge disservice.
Instead, make hiring brilliant staff a priority even if it takes substantial time away from other activities (that don’t involve sales or capital raising!) The time spent finding a better-qualified candidate will be repaid by their more competent execution of important startup tasks.
#4: Everything Else
After raising capital, increasing sales, and hiring brilliant people comes everything else. The trouble is that most entrepreneurs start with everything else and only plan to address the more critical items.
At some point you need to buy post-it notes, answer customer calls, address product problems, and take a shower. But if you put those activities first, you won’t be in business long enough to continue doing them.
The Priority Filter
A good way to help manage your activities is to create a “priority filter”. If you’re like most entrepreneurs, you manage you work through a daily task list that changes all the time. More often than not, you get easily swept into the mundane activities that are calling your attention.
Simply putting your top three tasks – raising capital, driving sales, and finding brilliant people, to the top of the stack can serve as a constant reminder of your priorities.
Unlike simple tasks like “buying office supplies” that have a defined start and end period, your ongoing priorities may seem hard to handle if you just lump them under one big “to do”. The best way to handle this is to create smaller sub-tasks under each, like “call three new customers today” or “create a draft of the pitch deck” that can be accomplished definitively.
When you’re still a startup, every moment you devote to your priorities comes at the cost of getting other stuff done. It’s a zero sum game. Yet the benefit of putting your time and effort into your priorities will provide a much greater return on your time investment than running errands and getting distracted.
You’ve got 80 hours per week to work on stuff – stick to the big items and you’ll be in great shape!