Category Archives: Productivity

Backwards, Thinking

When you get to where you are going, are you sure it will be where you needed to be?

Many first time founders set their company treasure-map-153425_640goals based on what they can do. They focus on product improvements they can make, how many customers/users they can acquire and which employees they can hire. All of this thinking is extrapolating from where they are right now to where they think they can get to in the foreseeable future. This kind of thinking makes you feel like you are in control.

Unfortunately, it’s an illusion.

The reality is that where you can go is completely meaningless. What really matters is where you need to be. If you want to raise funding, become profitable, etc. there are clear goals you have to reach. It is rare that you can reach them just by slowly moving forward.

What you need to do is think backwards.

Instead of thinking about what you can do, start with where you need to be. In 12 to 18 months:

  • How many customers/users do you need to have?
  • What does your growth rate need to be?
  • Who do you need to have on your team?

Once you have those goals, work backwards to set your quarterly, monthly and weekly goals. Make decisions that will increase the likelihood you can get to those goals. Those goals should be your lighthouse in the fog of war. If something does not get you closer to those goals, even if you can do it easily, skip it.

For example, I spoke with one founder of a social mobile application which was doing pretty well as a side project. His plan for growth was a series of blog posts and content marketing strategies because that is what he knew well and could get done in a few weeks. However, those blogs only reached a few hundred people. When he learned he needed to get to hundreds of thousands of users (instead of just hundreds of users) to make his business viable this strategy seemed silly. Yes, he could write the blog posts but even if it went well it would never get him to where he needed to be. Instead, it was better to focus his efforts on channels that had the potential to get him there.

If you have read about the “Series A Crunch“, this is one of the major factors. Raising a seed round is a great milestone, but if you don’t work backwards from what you need to be able to raise your Series A you can burn through all of that seed money and not be in a position to raise any more.

Think about where you need to be and work backwards to figure out what you need to do. You’ll be much happier knowing that you are pursuing a worthwhile goal.


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Image belongs to the Public Domain

The Renaissance Founder


When I show people prototypes of projects I am working on these days, the most common response is: “You built this? You still code?” I used to wish they would focus on the prototype rather than my coding skills, but as of late I have found the question flattering. It means that I have succeed in my goal of staying well rounded.

As a founder, especially at the beginning, you need to do everything for your company. You need to build a product, market the product, sell customers, recruit more employees, maybe raise funding and then repeat. It is tough to find time for all those things with the limited number of hours in the day (See The Founder’s Schedule) but it is even more difficult to do them well. It is impossible to master every possible discipline required of you in those early days since it would take multiple lifetimes.

Many founders are experts in one particular area of their new company, such as an engineer building a prototype, a salesperson lining up potential customers or a marketer designing a great new brand. In these cases, you often need to outsource the functions you cannot do yourself. Engineers find sales people, Sales people find engineers and everyone tries to find marketers. Sometimes you get lucky and your founding team has all the skills you need.

But since that rarely happens, you can easily see how it is a critical advantage for the founders to be able to cover as many functions as possible. You may not be a master at everything, but being able to do many things well allows you to run faster and learn more in those early days. I refer to such people as Renaissance Founders – people who are good (but not great) at many things.

Becoming a Renaissance Founder

So, how do you become a Renaissance Founder? You practice skills you lack before you even become a founder.

  • Can’t build a prototype? Learn how. There are a wealth of both online and offline courses and learning materials that you can use to learn what you need. In a matter of months you can learn the basics of software development (Codecademy), hardware (TechShop), electronics (Arduino) or design (HackDesign). You don’t need to become a professional engineer, just proficient enough to demonstrate your idea.
  • Never marketed anything? Start now. Marketing is the art of knowing what your customers want, who your customers are and reaching them with your message. You can practice marketing right now by starting a crowdfunding project on Teespring, Kickstarter or Inkshares and trying to make it a success. You’ll learn quickly how hard it is to reach customers and quickly build some valuable skills. Experiment with Social Media (Twitter, Facebook), Advertising (Google Adwords, Facebook Ads) and other channels.
  • Never sold anything? Sell something. Selling is the act of convincing another person to give you money for a product or service. In comparison to marketing, sales is typically done in person or on the phone and requires you to be persuasive. If you have never sold anything, you can get started immediately by not throwing away your old table, couch or trading in your old car. Instead, post it on Craigslist and start negotiating with people who are interested in buying it. Try to get the highest price possible.

You will, eventually, hire experts in each discipline to work for your company and do these tasks extremely well. But your ability to do them at first will get you far enough that you will be in a position to hire them.

The Superman Trap

As a Renaissance Founder, your ability to do many things can tempt you to do everything. This is a very dangerous trap, since even a well rounded person cannot do everything. Stay very focused on only the most important things that need to get done and ignore everything else (See The Only Thing that Matters). When you do hire experts onto your team, trust them to complete the tasks you give them and do not look over their shoulder as they do.

The good news, is that you should be able to identify the best experts to add to your team since you are, at least somewhat, familiar with what they do. It is tough to hire an engineer if you’ve never done engineering, or to hire a sales person if you have never done sales. If you have done those things, you should have a good sense for the right person who will be much better at the job than you are.

Remember, you cannot be great at everything, but being good at a variety of skills can be a critical advantage when you are getting started. Besides, it’s fun to learn new things!

Image is a reproduction of a public domain painting (“Dirck Hals – Banquet Scene in a Renaissance Hall”) made available by Wikipedia. “Renaissance Founder” is a play on “Renaissance Man”, a phrase used to refer to Polymaths who are people skills in a wide variety of areas of knowledge.

The Founder’s Schedule

There has been a lot written about how to effectively manage your time as a leader when building a new company. Paul Graham has a famous essay where he divides the needs of the engineer from the needs of the manager through the Maker’s Schedule and Manager’s Schedule. More recently, Danielle Morrill of Mattermark wrote about the transition from the Maker’s Schedule to the Manager’s Schedule as her company grows.

I have found significantly less written about how to effectively manage your time in the very early days of founding a company. In those early days, you cannot have a Maker’s Schedule since you cannot be sure exactly what you should make. However, you cannot have a Manager’s Schedule since you have to work on making something or else you will never get started. Then, what is the ideal Founder’s Schedule?

For me, the ideal Founder’s Schedule makes time for both making and meeting, since one without the other means you are not effectively narrowing in on your business. At the same time, it needs to make sure that you don’t constantly switch from one to another as you would then run the risk of context switching cost slashing all of your productivity.

Now that I’m a founder again myself, I have settled on the following schedule which I think is a great template for a Founder’s Schedule:

While it seems like all of your time is blocked off, in reality it leaves a lot of flexibility on how you spend your time. All of your time is divided up by purpose:

  • Make: This is time when you are making. This does not mean always coding or building, it might mean writing, brainstorming or designing.
  • Meet: This is time when you meet with people who might help you. That includes potential customers, investors, advisors and friends.
  • Plan: This is when you plan what you’ll do tomorrow. Productivity studies show that you are more productive if you decide what you are going to do the night before, so we set that time aside at night. Likewise, we leave an hour or two on Friday to decide on the tasks for the following week.
  • Research: This is time when you work on crazy ideas. While it might seem like a waste of time, it is important to think outside of the box and make sure you don’t get into ruts of ideas. The easiest way to break out of that is working on something that sounds crazy.
  • Off: This is time when you aren’t working. You NEED this time to avoid burnout and keep the creative juices going. I guarantee you that you will be more productive all week if you take weekends to enjoy yourself. Bonus points if you exercise.

These purposes are then divided throughout the day to make the most of them.

  • Make in the morning. Studies have shown that your most productive hours are in the morning (usually from 10am-noon), and so these are the hours when you should focus on the hardest mental tasks of making. Ideally, you would not even check your email until this time is over, lest you find yourself wasting this precious time on communications. (See Going the Distance).
  • Meet in the afternoon. Lunch is an inherently social experience in our culture and you should take advantage of it, and the time after it, to meet and gather feedback. This will help you overcome the afternoon lull that would hit you sitting (or standing) at your desk trying to make.
  • Make in the evening. Everyone gets a second wind, and it’s a great time to get more things done. Hopefully, you were inspired by some of your meetings or were able to figure out a problem from the morning by stepping away and now you can make the most of that creative boost.

I know there will be many people who decry this as a bad schedule, since it does not fit the typical model of how founders should spend their time. When you imagine a founder building a new company, you likely envision them in a dark room all day working in front of a computer screen, or spending every waking hour on the road interviewing customers. Doing both at once seems, at first, like it is the worst of both worlds.

However, I can tell you from experience that it has made me more productive. I no longer spend time making things that customers do not want since I have reality checks everyday. At the same time, I never spend time waiting to work on a idea since that time is reserved everyday.

If you are a new founder working to get your company get started, I hope you give this a try. If you do, let me know how it goes. But only in the afternoon, in the morning I’ll be making.