Startups don’t starve, they drown. Here is why, and how to survive.

It was 2010 when I watched the online stream of the Startup Lessons Learned conference, initiated by Eric Ries. I went with the cofounder of my first startup, which we used as our own “industry project” for our masters, and a couple of other students to Birmingham. We gathered in an incubator with fellow founders like Joel Gascoigne, the founder of Buffer who was still working on OnePage at the time, and we were soaking up the knowledge and thinking about how to apply the ideas from all those amazing talks.

At some stage these now famous words came up:

Startups don’t starve, they drown.
— Shawn Carolan

It highlights the fact that a lot of founders would argue that the key thing holding them back is lack of resources, either in terms of funding or humans, but funnily enough, this doesn’t just affect startups. At Atlassian, when the company had over 1,000 people already, many product managers would say exactly the same thing — “if we just had more people, we could…”. Instead, what often causes their demise, is drowning in too many ideas.


The root cause of drowning

First things first: Not having enough resources is not a root cause. Never.

For every unicorn company that took on millions of dollars in funding, there is another company that had very humble beginnings and made it big without investment.

Second: The problem is not having too many ideas. Without risky but potentially groundbreaking ideas, startups wouldn’t exist in the first place. But we seem to believe the old saying that “hard work is more important than talent” to succeed, so if an idea seems promising, we just need to work harder than others to make it come to life.

Now, this article is not some kind of “long hours are unsustainable” or “you should work smarter, not harder” kind of advice – you have to be your own judge on which approach to take. Over the past 10 years of building products and working in startups, I have not seen a founder who isn’t working hard, but hard work and long hours alone do not seem to correlate with either success or failure. And it’s not funding and talent either (see Juicero, the Segway, Iridium, Apple’s Newton, … the list goes on).

I believe, what’s missing in many startups that consistently underachieve or fail, is focus.


Why focus matters more than hard work

Take running as an analogy: No matter how talented you are and how fast you are running, if you are not taking the shortest path to the finish line, someone else with less talent and speed is likely going to get there before you (if you make it at all).

I have seen this pattern over and over again — in my own startup, in product teams I have lead, in startups I have advised, now as Entrepreneur in Residence at a startup accelerator, and as an instructor for General Assembly’s Product Management course:

People have an idea, they want to see it come to life, they get excited about various aspects of it, and soon enough, there is an overwhelming backlog of tasks that are all important and urgent. The common mistake at that point is to put in extra hours for long periods of time, while there is no tangible indicator how much closer each task gets people to their end goal.

At that point, no matter how big your team is and how much money you’ve got in the bank, you are spreading yourself and your team so thinly that everything you touch turns to shit.

The fundamental truth about building products is though:

People don’t buy products or services. They buy getting a job done better, faster or cheaper.

So for early stage startups, there is literally nothing more important than focusing on a job and building something that makes customers want to change their current behaviour towards using the startup’s product. Yet many get distracted by driving growth, often to get semi-impressive vanity metrics in order to increase their chances of getting funding (so they have more resources to survive their lack of focus a little longer).

After achieving product-market-fit, it’s all about building a scalable business and, with a larger team, there are focus areas like recruiting, optimizing the unit economics, growth, possibly fundraising and so forth. There is a very similar path that most scaleups follow, so in theory it should be easy to focus on that path.

The question now is: Why do founders and product teams struggle with a lack of focus?

You could argue that maybe founders don’t know how to prioritise well. In fact, when I ran a survey in the very active Sydney Startup community on which kind of workshops founders would find helpful, learning more about roadmaps and prioritisation was a clear favourite:

startup-workshop-poll.png

However, most founders have heard of at least one or two prioritisation techniques and go through an exercise, at least once a year, to plan their goals. They might even discuss the goals and work out a roadmap with their team, but all too often there is no follow-through and a constant flood of seemingly good ideas, too good to dismiss, become priorities again.


Planning just cures the symptom

Consistent lack of focus doesn’t just lead to a long list of tasks and long hours. Over time, it affects a company in many other areas:

  • Products that are full of bugs or have a terrible user experience;
  • Heated discussions about whether the company has the right strategy;
  • High turnover of staff.

All because there is not enough time and brain space to think stuff through properly and communicate effectively. You can reset and plan your priorities from scratch regularly, but without execution and follow-through, there is no point planning goals in the first place.

Great teams however, strike a balance. There is an ever-present but healthy tension between looking into new ideas and following through on existing ideas that work. A balance between vision and execution. That’s because of the presence of 2 different mind-sets that complement each other:

  1. The Visionary;
  2. The Executor.

The Visionary is the creative force, constantly seeing potential in new ideas of how to make the world (or at least their business) a better place. They are often impulsive and lack patience to see things through, but will always argue to try something for the potential gains.

The Executor is often more grounded, execution focused and prefers avoiding big risks. When it comes to startups, chances are Executors wouldn’t have joined a startup in the first place if it wasn’t for the Visionary who inspired them.

Others have noticed this pattern too: In his talk “Why accountants don’t run startups”, Steve Blank discusses how different personalities might be attracted to different types of businesses. And in his book “Start with Why”, Simon Sinek refers to Why and How personalities, with Why personalities being ones who inspires others with their vision and the reason ‘why’ a cause is worthwhile. How personalities then focus on ‘how’ to bring the vision to life.

So most startups with only one founder have a Visionary / Why personality running the show — someone who can inspire people and even investors to join in the first place, but who will struggle to consistently achieve goals.

The consistent lack of focus then comes from Visionaries that either do not have or do not listen to a strong Executor around them — someone with equal power, so the Visionary does not become too dominant for their own good. Someone who consistently makes sure to “keep the main thing the main thing”, as Stephen Covey put it. 

Looking at big unicorn companies, there are plenty of successful examples: At Apple, it used to be Steve Jobs and Tim Cook. At Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg has Sheryl Sandberg. At Atlassian, it is Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar.

The Executors tend to have a good feeling for how long it will take to reach certain goals and milestones, what order to do things in and which ideas will disrupt progress so much that it’s too risky to tackle them ‘right now’.

The big challenge of course, as a Visionary, is not just finding an Executor, but trusting them enough and letting them hold you accountable for goals and priorities you agreed to. Much like telling someone to “calm down”, telling a Visionary to stop having ideas or getting excited about them is not very effective.

NEVER
In the history of calming down
has anyone ever calmed down
by being told to calm down.

In the case of a startup, this Executor does not have to be a co-founder, but ideally someone the Visionary has multiple touch points per week with and respects enough so that the excitement of a new idea is regularly overcompensated by the motivation to follow the Executor’s directions.


Time-boxing disruption

So the cure to avoid drowning is to not just focus on a specific goal in the first place, but to avoid the seduction of shifting too much focus to new ideas. 

20% time as a regular outlet for Visionaries

For individuals, Google popularised (and iterated on) a mechanism that is now also used by Atlassian and, in variations like regular hackathons, many other companies like Facebook. Often referred to as 20% time, it’s a way to make sure Visionaries have a regular outlet for their desire to test new ideas – within reason. The beauty of this mechanism is that it benefits Visionaries and Executors equally — Visionaries get to play with new ideas, Executors get to finish things off that they feel still have lose ends.

Segmented backlogs for your team

As a Product leader, I often segment the backlog into various parts to make sure my teams do not slip on a particular area. This is not a dogmatic principle, but allocating a certain percentage each towards bugs and papercuts, tech debt, improvements of existing features and new ideas/features ensures a healthy balance between follow-through and potentially disruptive ideas.

The calendar as your boss

For myself, I noticed that I live by my calendar — I mostly obey whatever it tells me to do, whether it is going to a meeting, preparing for a meeting or sending out invoices. I have adapted a system I learned from Sharon Pakir Krygger, an executive coach based in Melbourne: Nowadays I block out time, say one hour, to follow-up on unread emails in my inbox (at the beginning of this year I hit inbox 0 for the first time), send proposals and do admin chores — so nothing falls through the cracks. But equally, I block out time for experimenting with new ideas and up-skilling.

Post it notes on your bathroom mirror

One trick I learned from Julian Ranger, an inspiring entrepreneur and investor in London, is to keep 3 post-it notes on my bathroom mirror or monitor — somewhere I see them at least once a day. They each have a set of 3 goals on them. One note is for things I want to achieve in my life, the others for things I want to achieve in the next 5 years and 1 year respectively. That’s to keep me focused strategically. In fact, since a few friends and my fiancée saw them, they ask me about a couple of goals regularly and add another layer of keeping me accountable. Transparency can be a gift that keeps giving.

The daily standup with yourself

For more tactical things, like changing habits or making sure I work out regularly, I have a sheet on my bedside table where I tick off every day whether I have done or not done something. That helps me see when I drop the ball on something and helps me use my creative juices for new ways in which I can make sure I follow through. This way any struggles become obvious.

As with anything when it comes to products and people, there is no right or wrong way to go about staying focused. As long as you are aware of the root cause of a lack of focus, there are various ways of solving it.

Just remember: You are more likely to drown before you starve.

What are your best practices of staying focused?


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