The journey of the entrepreneur is to figure out what matters. We know that starting a company requires extreme focus and prioritization.
But figuring that out is no easy matter because of the jumble of possibilities and complexities of running a business, on top of the cottage industry of abundant, contradictory, and just plain bad business advice.
These 6 pieces are the thoughtful reflection of industry leaders on what matters, above all else, in building a successful company from scratch.
The only thing that matters - Marc Andreessen
“The #1 company-killer is lack of market.” When there isn’t a market, the quality of the team and product don’t matter; conversely, when your market is booming and customers are banging down your door, it’s really hard to screw things up.
Andreessen articulates this observation (citing Andy Rachleff, formerly of Benchmark Capital) concisely, as the following law to startup success:
When a great team meets a lousy market, market wins.
When a lousy team meets a great market, market wins.
When a great team meets a great market, something special happens.
What that means for the founder — and should be her singular focus —is that the only thing that matters is getting to product/market fit. Product/market fit means that you’re “in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.” You can tell by how that feels: customers are snatching up your product just as fast as you can make it, and the wind’s not in your face anymore — it’s at your back.
Founder/Market Fit - Chris Dixon
Before attaining product/market fit though, there’s the long slog to get there. Whether you have the tenacity to stick it out and the insight to make it there will hinge on founder/market fit.
Founder/market fit requires that you as the founder (1) understand the market with “a deep understanding of the market [you] are entering” to the point that you “personify [your] product, business and ultimately [your] company” and (2) love the market enough that you’ll stick with the journey over many years, even as your product and the market evolve.
Without founder/market fit, there’s little chance that you’ll make it to product/market fit.
Startup = Growth - Paul Graham
Graham takes an abstract concept like product/market fit — that you know when you feel it — and quantifies it as 5-7% week-over-week growth in your key metric, the growth rate that successful startups tend to have.
The twist is that focusing on hitting your target week-over-week growth rate gives you the focus you need to be successful. It turns the “bewilderingly multifarious problem of starting a startup to a single problem” by “turning starting a startup into an optimization problem.”
If they decide to grow at 7% a week and they hit that number, they’re successful for that week. There’s nothing more they need to do. But if they don’t hit it, they’ve failed in the only thing that mattered, and should be correspondingly alarmed.
The only metric that matters - Josh Elman
It’s absolutely vital that you define the right metric for tracking your business’s growth. The key is to identify a metric that demonstrates that people “are using the product in the way you expected and that they use it enough so that you believe they will come back to use it more and more.”
In other words, the only metric that matters answers the question, “How many people are really using your product?”
That has two components (1) people and (2) really using. For example, because pageviews aren’t people-centric, they’re too abstract. Focus on the people taking an action, not the action itself. DAU/MAU can be misleading depending on how “active” is defined and may not indicate deep engagement with and love for the product.
At Twitter, we found that if you visited Twitter at least 7 times in a month, then it was likely you were going to be visiting Twitter in the next month, and the next month, and the next month. And we decided this was enough initially to be “really using it.”
The beauty of this is that you’re forced to reflect on the unique metric and lodestar for your product, not adapt a generic, abstract, and ultimately unhelpful number that’s the product of someone else’s thinking. Then, it’s all about making that number grow.
Pick Your Compass Metric - Tobi Lutke
The power of the compass metric is that it guides and aligns the whole team and gets everyone moving in the same direction, which is the extremely powerful force that’s the engine driving Shopify, a multi-million dollar e-commerce juggernaut.
Once the metric has been defined, getting everyone to be guided by it is a UI problem. “You implicitly tell your team that if someone moves this metric in the right direction they are doing a good job” by making your compass metric the singular topic of recurring reminders.
Our internal goal is to reach 3% weekly growth, a very ambitious number given our size. The user interface is simple. Monday mornings, our system sends an email to the team:
Red ✘ if we fell short, green ✔ if we made it. Everyone gets it.
That’s supplemented by a quick weekly meeting attended by people who have a direct impact on the compass metric in which everyone in attendances shares two things:
What have we learned this week
What we are going to do differently next week
The “the motor of a fast-growing multi-million dollar venture-backed business” is picking the right metric and making its growth rate the subject of focus on a recurring basis (email and meeting) according to the appropriately chosen time frame (1 week).
How Will You Measure Your Life? - Clayton Christensen
The startup lifecycle can go by as quickly as a fruit fly’s. When you’re amidst the thick of things, it’s easy to confuse time and perspective, zooming in too much on the short-term. Don’t get caught up in marginal thinking or on local maxima.
Christensen reminds us to “[t]hink about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.” In that way, both our startup and our lives strive to reach their global maxima.
For Christensen, his metric is “the individual people whose lives [he’s] touched.” Choose your key business metric as a subset of the metric by which you measure your life.
Photo: Jay Ryness
I wasn’t originally sold on the idea of blogging.
Even when I tried to get in the habit of posting, I found it hard to stick with. Blogging took time — time to write essays daily, put in links, clean up spam, and respond to the comments that trickled in, time that was uncompensated. Why, I wondered, would I take time away from paying assignments to put my work out there for free?
Even after my book, 168 Hours, came out in 2010, and I realized I needed to interact with readers, I still thought blogging was a side venture to my real writing. More days than not, I’d take 30-60 minutes to write a post and publish it, but I still viewed it more as a labor of love (or at least PR) than anything else.
Then something funny happened. About a year into daily blogging, I’d carve out time to write a draft of an essay for a newspaper or magazine. I’d give myself until lunch, but by 10:00, I’d be done.
What was going on? I finally figured it out while reading Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better, by Doug Lemov, Katie Yezzi, and Erica Woolway. These three educators have trained thousands of teachers over the years, and they studied patterns in how teachers improved at their craft, and how others do, too. The big breakthroughs, they noted, came from drills — discrete actions that focus on certain skills — in order to automate certain practices you’d like to improve.
Basketball players do shooting drills and passing drills. Piano players do arpeggios and scales. As they carve these actions into their muscle and mental memory, they can summon these skills almost by instinct during performances or games. That gives them the mental space to focus on bigger things — the arc of a piece, the layout of players on the court.
For a writer, blogging turns out to be a daily drill. By writing lots of don’t-need-to-be-perfect blog posts, I learned how to crank out rough drafts fast. By carving out time for daily practice, I made myself more efficient at my work. Each hour spent blogging saved me time later as I stewed less over drafts and had more time for edits.
Put in that light, blogging now seems like the most productive part of my day. Not only am I interacting with readers, I’m getting faster at what I do! Just as I accepted practice as part of studying the piano years ago, I embrace blogging as the “practicing” part of my writing work.
If you’d like to get more efficient at your work, making time every day for practice drills could likewise be one of the most productive decisions you make. To be sure, not everyone has a job where the drills are as obvious as blogging, in retrospect, was for me. But if you think about your job and how you spend your time, you can likely see certain skills you use repeatedly.
Maybe you make presentations. Maybe you deliver feedback to employees. Maybe you field hostile questions from clients. Think about how you can isolate these skills and practice them repeatedly. Ask your team members to launch a rapid-fire barrage of criticism about a proposal at the end of a staff meeting, for instance.
Most people don’t consciously practice their job. If you do, it can be a source of major competitive advantage. Keep track of your practice and how you’re improving individually or as a team by writing it down.
Most importantly, you have to actually make time for your practice drills. When you spend time getting better, you often get better. And that’s a much better place to be.
Do you make time to practice?
You can’t change anything that has happened, but you can change what’s about to happen.
Tina Lin, a 14-year-old high school student, wants to become the first U.S. table tennis Olympics Champion.
Her wise guiding principle? Don’t dwell too much on the past and the points lost. Go after the next ones.
Google has long had a reputation for being a place that’s near impossible to get a job if you aren’t a Stanford or MIT grad. They not only asked you for your college GPA, they even asked you what you made on your SAT as a pimple-faced high schooler.
Recently, that’s all changed.
Google’s known for being one of the most data-driven companies in the world and in the area of HR, they’re no different. They even have a department of “people analytics” whose job it is “to apply the same rigor to the people side as to the engineering side.” Google takes this extremely seriously: “All people decisions at Google are based on data and analytics,” according to Kathryn Dekas, a manager in Google’s “people analytics” team.
Their use of data is so powerful that it was able to refute the bias of the company’s founders towards those with an elite educational background that mirrored theirs — that is, top university grads with high GPAs — and it actually resulted in changed organizational behavior.
For years, candidates were screened according to SAT scores and college grade-point averages, metrics favored by its founders. But numbers and grades alone did not prove to spell success at Google and are no longer used as important hiring criteria, says Prasad Setty, vice president for people analytics.
Rather, based on extensive surveys of its work force and performance data, Google discovered that its most innovative workers “are those who have a strong sense of mission about their work and who also feel that they have much personal autonomy.”
Google’s findings have a strong congruence with bestselling author Dan Pink’s work, that the source of human motivation and our best work comes from the drive towards autonomy, mastery and purpose. This can clash with high-prestige and credentialed individuals who are driven by external recognition and rewards, not curiosity and craft.
What you might end up with is people who can follow the rules, but not necessarily those who are after moonshot innovation with extreme dispatch and verve.
Almost all meetings are just power-plays in disguise.
Years of my life have been wasted in useless meetings. At a large company, meetings are standard. Get a few people together to talk about a problem. Sounds easy, right?
But instead of a quick resolution, you have to book a conference room for two days from now. Then, you invite stakeholders. Someone suggests so-and-so should attend too. More invites.
When you finally meet, what happens? Nothing, because everyone ends up in a power-play.
Let’s take a look at three common useless meetings and ways we can fix them.
Weekly Team/Status Meetings
Usually someone with direct reports runs this type of meeting. Once a week, for an hour or so, there’s a loose agenda. The manager goes over administrative stuff — stuff that’s going on at the company, stuff that’s going on in your department, stuff on product direction. You can even ask questions! Then, you go around the room to talk about what you accomplished that week.
Nothing useful ever happens in these meetings. Have you ever looked forward to this meeting? No. You surf the internet on your laptop while waiting for lunch time to roll around.
Managers are establishing their authority over everyone. They speak. You listen and don’t speak until spoken to. The danger is that this might tempt you to try to establish that you’re an important person too. You fluff up your weekly status and make it seem like you’re super busy all the time.
What’s the fix?
Try alternative forms of keeping everyone updated. Managers, do you really need to get everyone in a room for an hour? Have everyone send an email update to the team instead. It only takes a few minutes to write up updates to share for the week. Try daily updates or other frequencies that are most optimal for your team.
If you’re not the manager, suggest this method to yours. Any good manager will gladly accept feedback on how to improve the way the team operates.
Senior Executives Meeting
Here’s where you and your team have to meet with senior executives to talk about how your product is doing and next steps you’re going to take. This type of meeting takes place maybe once a month.
This, too, is a big power-play by the executives. They look at what you’ve accomplished, and they’re quick to judge what they like or don’t. Even though months of your efforts have gone towards building an awesome feature that your customers have been wanting, it gets axed because an exec didn’t like it.
These meetings usually just set the team and the product back. You now have to include what the exec wants in the product — not because they’re talking to customers every day, not because they have the data to back up their claims. It’s because they need to establish some authority.
What’s the fix?
Executives, keep your ego in check. Learn to trust your team. They probably know more about the customer than you do. You hired them because they are the best at what they do. They have pored over the metrics and have the best sense on what will result in customer happiness.
Use meetings to find out issues that impede execution. Are people short on resources? Are they dependent on someone from another department who’s being difficult? Remove the roadblocks!
For regular employees, defend your position with data. The exec can’t argue with you if the metrics show that a particular feature will increase sales by 10%. Don’t let their position of power waste your time.
Product Planning Meeting
This is my favorite useless meeting because its original purpose is quite constructive. You’re supposed to be planning out the what and when of building for your product, but what usually happens is everyone needs an explanation of features and why they’re necessary. That is always a long conversation.
Then everyone argues about what’s important. It’s the ultimate struggle to feel like you have some power. If your feature makes it into the product, you feel like you have a bigger impact.
Since everyone at the meeting does this, you’ll need to call another meeting to finish the planning. Five meetings later, you finally finish planning.
What’s the fix?
Everyone should come prepared to the meeting already! Road maps, user stories, and numbers should be sent out beforehand. The team can review and internalize the information and even have high level estimates for the level of effort needed.
This way, you’ll set a good tone for the meeting. It will be about what features you can actually fit into a sprint, based on priority and informed argument. If you don’t already use an agile development process, please consider it. It helps set a cadence for the team.
Now that I know about about power-play meetings, how can I gain the upper hand?
That really depends on what your goal at the company is.
Hope no one notices.
If you want to be mediocre and get paid, then just follow the crowd. Some people are fine with showing up and doing exactly what they need to do, especially in certain working situations and environments. There’s nothing wrong with that. You get a nice paycheck and you can continue to support your lifestyle.
Promotions and fat raises.
Learn the intricacies of the power-play. You’ll have to follow the meeting playbook to appease the people above you.
The goal here is to get recognized and impress people. Call your own meetings when you have issues to resolve and be the one to run them. You’ll automatically be known as the person in charge when you become directly involved in decision-making.
Understand that these meetings will take up a lot of time but you still need to execute on deliverables. Let everyone else know how busy you are as a result. The upside is that you can fix the common meeting downfalls mentioned above and be known for running really effective meetings.
Be the change.
This is for people who like where they work and want to change it for the better. Useless meetings is a serious cultural problem that companies face. Run meetings differently to change that culture.
Try not to have any meetings unless absolutely necessary, and if they are, keep them short. When issues arise, talk to the relevant people immediately. You can usually make more decisions in a five-minute direct conversation than you can in a one-hour meeting.
Designate no-meeting days. This will allow your team to have long periods of time to concentrate on hard problems. If you know anything about the maker’s schedule versus the manager’s schedule, then you’ll understand how meetings can ruin your productivity.
This painting on the wall of a Zurich office building is actually an art piece called “How to Work Better” by artist duo Fischli/Weiss (that’s Peter Fischli and David Weiss).
The interesting part? As described in the Guardian’s obit of Weiss:
How to Work Better (1991) is a manifesto comprising 10 persuasive but empty sentences, each with the aim of improving workplace productivity and morale… . Fischli/Weiss plucked these stock phrases from a factory in Thailand and painted them in large stencilled letters to cover the exterior of an office block in Oerlikon, Zurich, visible on the approach into the city centre by train from Zurich Airport.
Think twice about pithy motivational business quotes!