What should most start-up founders not waste their time doing?, was the question that was asked on Quora. Here is my answer to that question.
- Stop starting businesses without a compelling vision, plan, or strategy. “Where there is no vision the people parish.”
- Stop attempting to be everything to everybody and delivering to every customer possibility. Don’t be a mile wide and an inch deep. You must mine your niches and your ideal customers, at the expense of all others.
- Stop hiring your friends and relatives because you know them and they are easy fast hires, setting up future relationship mine fields.
- Stop waiting to sell your product until its perfect and the best in the industry. The best businesses find customers early and grow with them.
- Stop thinking that only the founders are smart or can be trusted to do the important things. If you cannot trust or delegate to others, you are doomed to be the growth constraint of your business.
- Stop spending without thinking, or running your business without a budget, and without monitoring your key performance indicators.
- Stop holding lengthy meetings wasting your team members time; such meetings are frequently made worse when held without written agendas, prior preparation, intentional meeting purpose, or tracking or reporting progress on actionable objectives.
- Stop being disorganized, undisciplined, wandering, wavering, and being sloppy in your execution of the business. The flavor of the week wander-lust of the founder is like a spiraling rocket gone off course with certainty of explosion upon impact.
- Stop going it alone thinking that you have all the answers, that you are always the smartest in the room, and that somehow your business and your market are different than all others. Ben Franklin wise wrote, ‘experience is a dear teacher…. and fools will learn by no other.’ If you cannot learn from others… you are doomed to a future of being a small business or no business at all.
- Stop spending or investing time, funds, or energy in enterprises that are failed; put a fork in them, and move on.
Now, each of these things founders should stop doing can be turned around into a list of things founders should be doing; here is my top 10 list.
What are 10 things that most startup founders should be doing?
- Create a clear and compelling company vision. Specify a vivid vision for the company that is imaginative, inspiring, and captures the long-term and near-term journey for the enterprise. The vision is important to attract customers and both employees to invest their mindshare in your enterprise. A good chapter on creating a ‘Vivid Vision’ was authored by entrepreneur Cameron Herold in his book Double Double.
- Focus on your ideal customer early. Identify the ideal ‘target customer’ early, and learn, listen, and delight that unique customer profile to the exclusion of all other distracting non-ideal customer candidates. Find early a ‘champion’ or ‘sponsor’ customer that fits your ideal customer profile. Remember, it’s not a business until there is a customer; find yours and delight them.
- Attract great people to join you. Create a ‘talent’ capture strategy that is consistent with your mission and vision of the company. When you are building a proverbial “bridge to the moon” or a “palace on earth” or conquering new challenges, attracting people to join you is easier. Be intentional in your hiring and your process. Do not settle for average talent, nor accidentally good hires. Don’t let the limits of who you know, your friends and family, limit your hiring possibilities frontier. Create a hiring process to consistently attracts, screens, and hires great candidates. If this is your issue, consider this article: Severin Sorensen’s answer to How are good teams made?
- Build your Minimally Viable Product (MVP) swiftly and efficiently; remember to fail cheap, fail fast, and keep re-working your MVP until you are convinced through data (e.g., customer sales, customer attraction, and emerging competitor copycats) that you are truly on to something good and repeatable. Read Eric Ries, Lean Startup for more guidance on developing your MVP.
- Remember what got you here, won’t get you there. Initially the founders seem to do everything as generalists with a small team; as customer traction grows, and work demands increase, you will need to specialize by delegating certain tasks to others. For many entrepreneurs, it’s easier to delegate what they don’t like to do, and than what they they are good at. Don’t let your personal strength become your weakness; find those that can do your work better than you can and let go of ‘being in the middle’ of everything. If this is your issue, I suggest reading the E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber, as he has much of value to say on this topic.
- Know your numbers and track everything that matters. Importantly, not all data matters, and not everything that matters can be easily counted. Develop your own dashboard of vital business health statistics on your enterprise; track productivity in every aspect of the company that matters. Importantly early, figure out ‘what causes sales’ to your ideal customer and monitor those metrics. Understand and use a cashflow statement that is forward- looking and ideally evergreen (developing a consistently used 12 to 24 months rolling cashflow statement). Know your maximum internal rate of growth that you can sustain from sales without requiring outside capital; many businesses have grown themselves out of cash into weakness and business failure; don’t let this be you. If you want help on knowing what to track, consider metrics in the book, CEO Tools, by Kraig Kramer, who left us with a great treasury of KPIs for CEOs. Additionally, other valuable KPIs can be found by industry at SmartKPIs.com.
- Create and intentional cadence, tempo, and a sense of urgency for your business. Create a schedule of meetings needed to keep the enterprise moving without paralyzing the business. Many examples exist of setting the right balance of meeting cadence as recommended in the book by Verne Harnish titled The Rockefeller Habits, and Gino Wickman’s book called Traction; consider the wisdom of these methods; e.g., the stand-up daily huddle (6–10 min), weekly meetings with teams, one-to-one accountability and coaching sessions with your direct reports, monthly, quarterly, and annual planning sessions.
- Be organized, detail oriented, calendared, and use your time wisely. Get organized. Be detailed oriented. Be accountable and drive accountability throughout your business. Leverage your time wherever possible, e.g., focus first on the tasks that guide, direct, and release others to do great work; remember, if you don’t have an assistant… you are one. Be mindful of the cost of your time and the team’s time; don’t spend excessive amounts of dollar cost time on little things. My favorite book on this topic is by David Allen, Getting Things Done.
- Surround yourself with good advisors. Find yourself a business coach and a peer network to regularly challenge and improve your thinking on business issues. Good advisors can guide you through the invisible pot holes in your roadway, can ask great questions and be a sounding board, and can help challenge you to higher heights of performance. In my career, I can identify several executive coaches that were vital to me in my CEO journey. My personal preference for executive coaching and peer groups is Vistage who has assembled executive coaching and peer groups worldwide for this purpose for 60 years; note however, I am conflicted in my recommendation, as I was myself a Vistage (TEC) group member CEO running my own business from 1999–2004, and I am also a Vistage Chair (Coach/Facilitator) since 2010 with three Vistage Groups. Other organizations that provide a positive executive peer group experience for entrepreneur/founders include YPO, EO, etc — however these groups do not provide executive coaching in their models; if you choose one of the peer-group only models, I suggest that you also consider getting an executive coach as coaching is not a part of their program offerings.
- Know when to say when… to invest more, borrow more, to hire, to fire, or pull the plug on the enterprise. Kenny Rodgers sang it best with his famous lyric, ‘you need to know when to hold em, and know when to fold em’ (paraphrased). This is perhaps the most difficult challenge for entrepreneurs and founders; doing the hard things. Let the numbers guide you. Forecast. Predict. Be intentional. And don’t let hope or ‘hopeium’ delude you into thinking that your failed model, a toxic employee, or a product that does not sell will somehow turn around and repay your treasury. I’ve seen more unhappy founders locked in stinking thinking that more investment in their failed idea will repay their investment. Sometimes you have to cut bait, and move on. Not all businesses succeed, and learning to fail fast and fail cheap are attributes of a long-term serial entrepreneur.