Strategy 101

Everytime I meet a startup for the first time, I ask the founders what their ambition for the company is.  Normally I have to clarify that “I’m looking for what the company will do for them at the end, not at some intermediate point”.  What I’m looking for is the end point – the destination.

Frequently I’m talking to idealistic young entrepreneurs that honestly answer that they don’t mind where they end up, they are doing it for the experience – for the journey. Other times co-founders look at each other and it is clear that not only is there no consensus but it hasn’t been seriously discussed before.  Both answers makes having a strategy impossible.

Strategy defines how you get from where you are today to where you want to go. Strategy tells you how you are going to get from Point A to Point B.  If you don’t know where you want to go then you cannot even have a conversation about strategy, let alone actually have one.

Many people get confused between tactics and strategy. Tactics define how you are going to hit some interim goal, strategy defines how the tactics combine together to achieve the ultimate purpose of why you founded the company. That should be in terms of you, afterall you’re setting up the company. What will the company have achieved for the founders when the game is over?

Do you want to exit the company through trade sale? If so, for how much? After how long? Do you want a comfortable lifestyle? What does that comfort look like? Do you want to leave a legacy? What legacy?

Imagine your friend says that they want to go on a journey – but they have no idea where they want to go. How can you decide if you should walk, drive, take a bus, fly or boat. How can they convince anyone else to join them? How much money will they need? This is all impossible until they eventually decide on an actual destination, then everything becomes simpler.

Whatever your destination, it defines the strategy, not the other way round. If your ambition is to trade sale the company for €10M then a strategy to raise €20M to fund growth is not compatible. Similarly if your ambition is to sell the company for €1 Billion then a strategy of bootstrapping the company is incompatible.

Once you know your destination it is normally possible to work backwards from that destination. For example if you are going to trade sale to €100M then who is likely to buy you? Why are they going to buy you?

  • For your IP?
  • For access to your customer?
  • For your revenue?
  • For your Profit?

Once you can answer these questions it becomes clearer what type of company that you need to build to achieve your ambition.

Strategy starts with knowing where you are and where you want to go

Ask Questions that Force People to Think About Their Breakfast

Whenever you are looking for feedback from customers try and avoid asking questions that are easy to answer. Rephrase the question in a way that forces the customer to think before they answer.

It doesn’t matter what stage your company is at: customer discovery, product/market fit, market entry, scaling or exiting. Customers will typically answer questions the way you want them answered or in a way that gets rid of you the quickest. This is not what you are looking for – you are looking for insights and understanding.  These are revealed when your customer is forced to think about the problem and in the process not only answers the question you want answered but also provides a lot more context and detail.

Don’t ask

“Did you have breakfast?”

Ask

“What did you have for breakfast?

Don’t ask

“Is breakfast the most important meal of the day?”

Ask

“If you could only eat one meal tomorrow, which one would it be and why?”

Don’t ask

“Do you like eggs for breakfast?”

Ask

“Can you tell me what you ate for breakfast every day this week?”

Don’t ask

“Do you often have Starbucks for breakfast?”

Ask

“In the last month how many time did you buy breakfast at a coffee shop – how often was this at starbucks?”

Don’t ask

“Do you like maple syrup on your waffles”

Ask

“When was the last time you ate waffles? What did you put on the waffles? Would you have preferred to put anything different on them? Why didn’t you?

Think about the questions you are answering and the insights that you are trying to get. If you don’t spend time thinking about how to phrase the question don’t expect your customer to think about the response.

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.

You don’t just Burn Financial Capital in your Startup

What age are you? How often are you going to be that age? Once, right?

Entrepreneurs burn two forms of capital in a start up – financial capital and human capital.  Since the financial cost of setting up a company has steadily and dramatically declined, the scales have firmly tipped to burning human capital and in particular the human capital of the entrepreneur.  Every day you work at your company you are burning a little bit of your human capital.

It’s not a renewable resource. In fact, it is not just finite, it’s irreplaceable – every second you burn is never going to coming back. Time in your eighties will not compensate you for the time you missed your child’s birthday.

Financial capital is fungible and human capital is not.

You Can’t Spend All The Money you Raise (or at least you shouldn’t)

Everything takes longer and costs more than you think it will. However, everyone should know this already and most companies allow for this to degree (not nearly as much as they should do) and I’ll write an article about this at a later stage. However, this post talks about the fact that you can’t spend all of the money that you raise and therefore you need to raise more money – confused yet?

When you raise funds you do it to invest in your company. As you invest you increase the company’s cost base (salaries increase, you move offices, etc.).  As your cost base increase so does the buffer of cash you need to ensure you can meet those cost without interruption (failing to meet payroll is a very bad thing).

Let’s say you raise €2 million to grow your software company. A few programers here and a sales team there and before you know it you have a payroll of €150K and a total monthly cost base of €200K. Now cast you mind forward to when you’ve scaled the company and your total cost base is €200K a month. Just how low would you be willing to let your cash balance go or are you willing to run it all the way to zero and risk bankruptcy? 1 month? 2 months? 3 months?

If it’s 3 months then you only have €1.4M to invest in your company not the €2M that you actually raised. The remaining €600K is going hopefully sit in your bank account to protect you from the possibility of not making payroll. You can’t spend all the money you raised.

There are loads of reasons why you need to raise more than you think but working capital requirements is one of the easiest to quantify and inexcusable to ignore.

Where’s The Mango Market?

Run through this thought experiment with me.

  • How many mangos are sold in your city? It doesn’t matter how wrong your answer is – a guess will do.
  • How much does a mango sell for?
  • So what the mango market worth? This isn’t a trick question, just multiply the previous two answer together
  • Where is the mango market?

Ok, the last one is a trick question. This is because there is no mango market. There is a fruit and vegetable market.

Mangos sales aren’t significant enough and compete so directly with alternatives that they don’t have their own market. The price and availability of alternative fruit is almost as significant to the volume of mangos sold as the price of the mangos themselves.

Who cares whether there’s a mango market or not? Well, no one reading this. However every entrepreneur should care whether their product or service has its own market or if it is just one small part of a much larger market.  It is a common mistake to assume that just because there is a demand or need for a product that the product automatically creates its own market.

This is important because it is not possible to have a go-to-market strategy without recognising the market that you are in. The market dictates where your customers gather, what websites they visit, what conferences they go to, who they buy from, how they buy, the terminology they use, etc..

As a general rule if your ‘market’ doesn’t have an industry conference or any independent trade publication you should be asking if it exists in its own right or is just a part of another market.

Example: There is no flavoured water market – there is a soft drinks market. If you want to buy a bottle of flavoured water you go to the chiller cabinet in your convenience store. The flavoured water competes with all soft drinks for shelf space. If the flavoured water you want is out of stock or too expensive you will buy some other soft drink.

While there may be a demand for flavoured water there is no market independent of soft drinks. If you were the CEO of a flavoured water brand, realizing that you compete directly against bottled water, juice and sugary drinks in their market faces up to reality and allows you to create a credible go-to-market strategy. Thinking that you’ve got your own market is self-delusional.

If there are lots of alternatives that you haven’t included in your market then the chances are you are fooling yourself. There is no point trying to sell to this market because there are no customers there – they are all at the soft drinks cabinet.

  • There is no firewall market – there’s a digital corporate security market.
  • There is no invoice reconciliation software market – but there is a financial software market.
  • There is no wooden puzzle market – however there is a games and puzzles market.
  • There is no SMS market – there is a messaging market.


Don’t just pay lip service to running experiments

Startups are experiment machines. In the early days you’re testing hypotheses, testing market demand, testing pricing, everything is an experiment. The problem is that most startups don’t approach or think about the experiment they are running with any degree of rigor.

Founders tend to think a failed experiment is one that haven’t given the desired result. This is wrong. Any experiment that gives an accurate result, regardless of whether we like it or not, is a successful experiment. The only failed experiment is one that hasn’t given an accurate result.

Rigor is key to running a successful experiment. Lack of rigor leads to a host of problems, such as running an experiment for too long because we don’t like the answer, silently changing the goal posts or searching for data to fit our idea rather than letting the data shape our idea.

Introducing a Base Level of Rigor

Write down the hypothesis you are trying to prove and the constraints of the experiment (how much time, effort and cash are you willing to spend proving it?).

What results will indicate that your hypothesis was proven and what results will show that it was disproven?

If the experiment produces a result that lies between the two, then it’s a failed experiment that either needs to be extended or abandoned.

Example: Experiment to test market demand using Google Adwords

Hypothesis: There is a market demand for my product that can be reached through Google Adwords

Constraints:  €500 and two weeks

Proven: 20+ sign ups

Disproven: Fewer than 5 sign ups

If the experiment results in between 5 and 20 sign ups then we don’t have a result. We can extend the experiment or decide that it’s no longer worth it.

Startups need to be fluid and it is expected that you will need to change your criteria during or even after an experiment, however if you ensure those criteria have been written down then at least when you change them you will do it knowingly. Not doing so guarantees over/under investing in experiments, sand shifting and unclear communication with stakeholders,  and it opens you up to a whole host of cognitive bias.

Don’t just pay lip service to running experiments – actually run experiments. WRITE IT DOWN!

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.