In a startup, everything's a priority.
If everything's a priority then nothing's a priority.
Sometimes it can feel like there's an infinitely long list of Things To Do. It can feel like starting on that list is pointless because it'll never be done. You end up in a cycle of inaction. Or, you have so much to do you panic, you try to do everything. You get others on the team working on things for the wrong reasons, not because they'll have an impact.
How do you cut through the chaos and prioritise?
It starts deep. It starts with having a reason to exist. I'm trying to avoid sounding too "Silicon Valley"ish, but you need a North Star to hang everything off. And you need to believe in that North Star very strongly. When you know what yours is, then a lot of thinking and a lot of decisions become a lot easier.
What's your North Star?
If you don't have one, spend as long as you need to find it. Once you've found it, ask yourself: How can you get closer to it over the course of the year? How can you get closer to it over the course of the next week? The next day?
A few things to consider:
- Who are you fighting for?
- What is the technology or incumbent you are trying to replace? What do they stand for?
- What makes you different?
- Why are you the right people to tackle this?
- Why now?
Taking time out to have a plan
If you're a small team, it's easy to spend 100% of your time on the day-to-day. There's always a customer to respond to. Or a bug that needs to be squashed. Or a feature that needs to be shipped.
"Planning" is almost considered a swear word in startup land.
But when was the last time you spent a solid day planning your future? Do you have a plan? Do you know who your next 3 hires will be? Do you know when you'll make them? Do you have an expectation for revenue growth over the next 3 months? Do you know what will impact it? Do you have a well prioritised backlog of things to work on beyond the next 2 weeks?
Sometimes you need to take time out to plan. Don't spend weeks. You probably don't even need days. But you do need a plan.
Objectives and Key Results are a great way to align the team around a few important things over the course of a quarter. The framework seems to work pretty well for Google, who have been using the concept for many years, along with a thousands of other companies all around the world.
If you're looking to try out OKRs in your startup, here's a few things to help:
- Make them visible to everyone. On a big screen, emailed out at the start of every week, stuck on a post-it note on your screen, whatever works for you.
- Maintain self discipline – they'll only work if you keep using them throughout the quarter, and throughout the year.
- Distractions will always come up. Be extremely critical of short-term wins against long-term progress.
At GoSquared, we took a few days out at the start of this quarter. Gasp, we weren't working on code for a few days.
Everyone on the team took 30 minutes to present what they wanted to see the company achieve over the rest of the year. It was one of the best mornings I can remember in our company history – no one could shoot down ideas, and everyone got a fair chance to share what they deeply believed.
The outcome of our two days of not coding was simple: one word. One word on the white board that is our core focus for the next 3 months. One word that we can run every feature, every decision, every question by and evaluate whether what we're working on is right or wrong.
Taking a few days out to plan has helped us clarify our thoughts and focus. We now know our number one priority, and that's critical as we grow the team.