Prioritizing is Difficult but Vital

Prioritizing is difficult for startups because there are so many uncertainties and not a lot of solid information to base the prioritizing on.  Most of the time it is a judgement call which is uncomfortable because it is easy to be wrong and, as humans, we don’t like to be wrong.

Frequently this difficulty means that startups don’t aggressively prioritize and even if they do they work on multiple priorities at the same time. This is staggeringly inefficient and is indicative of a weak management team that is afraid of committing to a course of action. if you don’t decide you can never be wrong, but you will also never succeed. Human beings are naturally more afraid of loss then they are excited by gain – you have to fight this instinct.

You should only work on your top priority, unless you can no longer efficiently devote more resources or time to it. For example your top priority might be selling to a particular customer – if you’ve done all you can with the customer and you are waiting for them to hold an internal meeting and you can no longer do anything to increase your chances of winning the customer, then you should feel free to work on priority number two.

Imagine that you have two priorities: A & B. Each priority will take you one week to complete and each priority has a 50% chance of revealing something important about your market. There are two approaches

  1. Work on both priorities simultaneously (in parallel).  Since each priority takes a week you will have both priorities completed after 14 days and no results before then.
  2. Alternatively you can work on the top priority first and only when you have completed it do you work on the second priority (in series). After 7 days you have completed the first priority and after 14 days you have completed both. The bonus is you will frequently discover something important about your market from the first priority
Many thanks to Adam Hodgson for the Diagram

It should be clear that working through your priorities in series rather than in parallel is dramatically more efficient. Have you taken the time to prioritize and do you re-examine your priority order everytime you learn something significant?

Frequently startups pay lip service with prioritization and cheat by pretending to themselves that they are prioritizing.  This is easily done by working on projects that are actually multiple different priorities.

Ideally you should prioritize using solid data to back up your prioritization, however given how little information many of you have scientific prioritization is going to be impossible.  THIS DOES NOT MEAN YOU CAN’T PRIORITIZE. Even a blind guess at prioritization is better than no prioritising at all. Startups must be good at working with ambiguity and have tremendously limited resources – make sure you applying those resources efficiently.  

Your Job is to Make Tough Decisions

As CEO of a startup, it is your job to make tough decisions and if you aren’t making them you aren’t doing your job.

Tough decisions are decisions where you don’t have enough data to be fully informed but you need to make one anyway. Tough decisions are where you decide to fire a staff member who is trying their best but isn’t up to the job. It’s going back to a long term customer and telling them that they aren’t going to be your customer anymore because you have decided to pivot the business. It’s telling your co-founder they aren’t performing.

Easy decisions are obvious and by their very definition anyone competent would make the same decision. It’s the difficult decisions that define you and your business.  If you aren’t making these sorts of decisions then the company could have any CEO – you are letting circumstances control your business. It is through difficult decisions that you shape the future of your company.

We all face difficult decisions every week. How we address these decisions decides the fate of the business. Never let difficult decisions slide, they rarely become easier. Bear in mind that consciously deciding not to make a decision until you have better data is a decision and can often be the best course of action. However, do not use this an excuse not to make the tough decision when you need to. You do not have the luxury of time and resources that these unnecessary delays will require.

At the end of each week ask yourself what difficult decisions you made. If those painful decision aren’t front and center in your mind then you’re probably not addressing the real problems in your business.  We all want to ‘kick the can down the road’ but we all know that is a losing strategy. Be a winner, be brave, make the tough decisions.

Stop looking at your analytics all the time

Whatever gives you that dopamine hit first thing in the morning: Google Analytics, Adwords, Mixpanel, bank balance, overnight orders, Stripe, stock price, Salesforce ….  it’s time to stop. You know you’re exhibiting compulsive behaviour, you know there’s no business reason you need to check your key metrics 20 times a day and certainly you don’t need to hit refresh to see if things changed in the last 30 seconds.

All you are doing is searching for that next high. Like a self-destructive addict, if the first metric is good you go onto the next, knowing if you keep going you will eventually find the inevitable – a metric that’s going the wrong way. If you are tracking 15 metrics it is statistically improbable that they can all be positive.

Once the negative metric has been spotted, it’s impossible not to keep looking. Logically you know that it’s not statistically significant and you can’t judge your site or product’s performance hour to hour, but you do it anyway, living the emotional rollercoaster of highs and lows dictated by the shape of the graph.

I was this soldier. I’d check 20-30 metrics across 5 different systems within 60 seconds of my eyes opening in the morning, 7 days a week. Occasionally I’d wake in the middle of the night to get my fix. Some days I’d check hundreds of times.

It wasn’t like it was even my job to stay on top of them. I had good people looking after all aspects of the business. But I felt like it was my job. I felt like I had to be on top of every aspect of the business and I boneheadedly took pride in being more up to date than anyone.

Self-realization dawned early on a Tuesday morning. I’d woken at about 5am and, as was my habit, checked revenue, site availability & traffic. Something was very clearly wrong. Even though the site was normally quiet at this time of the day, revenue was way out of line. I got out of bed. I was worried and stressed and I picked up my phone to call my CTO. It was then I realized that the best course of action was to do nothing and wait till the office opened and fresh, well rested engineers looked into the problem. My revelation was that information is valueless unless you are prepared to act on it.

I created a new rule for myself – only look at metrics when I was prepared to act on them. For example unless looking at the bank transfers that had arrived overnight would lead me to make a different decision then I wouldn’t look.

So I created a schedule for myself. Firstly, no looking at analytics in the AM unless they were needed for a specific purpose such as a meeting.  This allowed me to me to be proactive in the morning without having the day blown off course.

Schedule

  • Everyday 1.30pm: Bank Balance
  • Every Friday: 1.30pm Analytics, Revenue and Sales Pipeline  (Alright I’ll admit it became daily on the last week of the month. I didn’t say I was totally cured).
  • First day of the month. Adwords, Engineering tickets, site performance and everything else

Did I stick to it? Mostly. Every now and then I’d still crack but I easily cut out 95% of my habit.  I was happier and able to focus on the longer term and didn’t waste time stressing over irrelevant data.  This resulted in more thoughtful business decisions, better time with my family, and better time with me.

Next time you reach for your crutch of choice, ask yourself what decision you are going to make differently. If you are not sure and the answer is that you ‘just need to know’ then stop. You are not making anything better by looking and you are making life a lot worse for you and everyone around you.


If you are going to sell then commit 100% – don’t waste your time “cleaning your apartment”

Adding the job of sales to the CEO or founder’s role is common for startups that are exiting the gates of customer discovery. Now they’ll sell the product for 50% of their time and continue with their other responsibilities for the remainder of the time.  

This almost never works. If you are going sell, then sell with 100% of your time and effort and find someone else to deal with your other responsibilities. Anything less than this requires a mythical level of willpower and dooms most people to failure.

It’s like that time you were meant to be studying for exams and you found yourself cleaning your bedroom, then doing the dishes. Studying was hard and uncomfortable and you’d search for any reason to avoid starting. You’d search for any activity that you could define as ‘productive’.  You wouldn’t play video games, or go to the pub. You’d clean your bedroom because you could fool yourself into thinking you were still being productive and therefore feel like less of a waster.

It’s the same thing with sales. Sales is uncomfortable and full of rejection. If the “salesperson” can do anything else and still feel like they are being productive then they will do that instead of selling. This is particularly the case with non commissioned salespeople such as founders.

Almost no one wants to pick up the phone and start to navigate a large organization, dealing with rejection every step of the way.  Good sales people do it because there is no other way to achieve their goals. As soon as you give them multiple goals then you’ve given them a way out.

Remove all other activities and responsibilities from your salesperson – even if that’s you.  Give them exactly one way in which they can feel good about themselves. Selling, not cleaning their bedroom.

Sales – it’s about Getting to No

Trying to sell something?

Well the answer’s no. Get used to it.

Stop looking for ‘yes’. It’s never yes. It’s always no.  If it  was yes then they’d already be your customer.

Your goal should be discover why it is no. Once you know why, you can work to overcome the objection. Maybe it’s price (it’s never price), credibility, risk, timing, authority, budget. You are dead in the water if you don’t know why.

If you go in looking for yes, then the best case is you find out that it’s not a ‘yes’. The worst case is you don’t even get that and the prospect stays in your pipeline like a ship becalmed. Your job is to force the issue, to question, to probe and to discover why they won’t do business with you NOW

Feedback Easily Given is Nearly Worthless

Ever received a cold call? Ever said the first thing that came into your mind to get rid of the person? Now imagine that salesperson meticulously compiling that feedback into a report. 42% of people are too busy, 30% already have a solution, 15% are driving and about to go into a tunnel and 13% of people are rude. Further imagine a company actually making business decisions on this data, confident in the knowledge that they are doing so on the basis of real market knowledge.

Ridiculous isn’t it? Yet we all do this.

No one likes to give difficult feedback. That’s why employee reviews are hard. It’s the same for customers. They don’t want to tell you that your baby is ugly – so they make something up – just so you go away.

You should always view feedback through the lens of how difficult it was to give.  If the feedback was easy to give you should regard it warily and probe for more. Conversely if the feedback was difficult you should really value it. Someone just went through an emotionally difficult time to give it to you. It has real value – do something with it.

When a prospect decides not to proceed with you, they will typically respond to your request for feedback. However, for the most part they just want to get rid of you and will tell you whatever is easy and end the conversation, not the real reason.

Be suspicious of:

  • You were too expensive
  • We decided not proceed with any vendor
  • Our budget got pulled
  • Corporate rules only allow us to do business with companies in business for over 5 years

Your job is to delve deeper and force feedback that’s difficult to give – that’s where the value is.  

Feedback Gold

  • We don’t think you can do the job
  • Your product sucks
  • Your lack of sales process worried us
  • We think you are going to go bust
  • Our engineering team hates your engineering team