The world of the entrepreneur is nothing if not moving too fast. Especially nowadays, with technology enabling work to travel at a speed that is simply too quick for comfort. It is really that simple: in today’s business environment, tasks are coming at us at a rate we can’t manage.
If I had to point a finger at why this is, I’d direct it quite confidently towards the wireless revolution, which has turned us into not only slaves to our devices, but given us too many comms channels at once. Your colleagues and clients can now reach you via WhatsApp, SMS, email, Skype and so on – at all times of the day. And, well, they do.
Now it’s not just the sheer volume of messages that is the only problem. There is also the fact that many of those messages contain to do’s. How many times have you received a few emails back-to-back in the space of a few minutes, each one containing a request for you to complete some sort of task for someone? No one can keep up with that sort of pace.
And for the startup entrepreneur, who is already doing more than one job, this can at times be one heck of an overwhelming situation. As a result, you’re almost entirely reactive as you try not to drown under an unrealistic workload. And in the process you often forget about the planning and the proactive stuff that is essential for steering your ship in the right direction and ensuring you have the most solid foundation possible at any given time.
The startup entrepreneur is often entirely reactive as he or she tries not to drown under an unrealistic workload.
Maintaining a checklist or workflow process of sorts to help keep you focused on the essential major strategic tasks is therefore an absolute essential for the startup business owner and the established business owner alike. I’m not talking about a 1.000-point checklist that delves into every minute task and detail. We are talking about the forest here – the big strategic pillar-type tasks of which you won’t in fact have too many to work through at any given time.
In this article I take a look at four of these in the form of very simple questions that you need to ask yourself at fixed intervals. At least once a quarter you should put forth these questions with the right people from your team, gather all necessary intelligence to ensure you have the right info at your fingertips to take the best decisions, and then do whatever is necessary to stay on top of these core fundamentals.
1. Am I investing in the right areas?
One surefire way to join the ranks of the majority of startups that never make it past the first five years is to focus on the wrong areas, or take on too much at once and spread yourself too thin. That’s why it is vital you take the time to regularly assess and evaluate exactly where you are focusing your product or service offering development.
For example, if your product is a cloud-based project management platform, just think about the many different features you could potentially build at any given time – all of which require significant resources and financial investment. If you focus on the wrong features, well then no one is going to be using your product in the first place. And if you try and build too much at once, then the quality of your overall product suffers and that too will end up turning off users.
Study the competition, get user feedback, and do whatever is necessary to ensure you are developing your product or offering in the right areas and to the right quality at all times.
2. Am I taking advantage of opportunities to grow?
Perhaps just as important as keeping tabs on where you are investing your time and money in product or offering development is ensuring that you are not missing out on any potential growth opportunities. Be sure to take stock every few months to get a clear picture of the current market landscape, all with an eye on where the money is coming from now versus where it could potentially be coming from in the future.
Change is constant, and by again getting that user feedback or studying the competition you’ll be putting yourself in a better position to be part of that change – which is key for growth. Also keep up on the industry through news and research reports, attend your industry events and even events of complementary industries, write about your industry (a tremendous amount of applicable strategic insight is gained through becoming a thought leader in your field), and take your key clients for lunch regularly (and don’t talk, simply listen).
Just keep in mind that there will be many “potential” areas for growth available at any given time, and you certainly can’t take them all on. Choose the ones most relevant to you and be extremely selective. The 2011 Startup Genome Report surveyed over 3,200 high-growth tech and internet startups and found that 74% of those that failed did so due to premature scaling – essentially, growing too fast, too soon. What this tells us is that maintaining the right focus and the right pace are two absolute essentials for your success, but doing so is clearly a huge challenge.
Maintaining the right focus and the right pace are two absolute essentials for your business success.
3. Are there dark clouds on the horizon?
Sometimes in business – despite your best efforts – things just go wrong. Whether it is the loss of a client, missing out on a big pitch, or an economic downturn that is entirely out of your hands, there are several scenarios that have the potential to throw a spanner in the works. The best way to prepare for these kind of eventualities is to try and anticipate them.
So in your quarterly review on this one, take a step back and see if you can spot any warning signs that things could be about to take a turn. Is a once keen client gradually reducing your workload? Are there any legal changes coming up in the market that may affect business? Is there a potential slowdown in any of the industries from which you have a large number of clients (example, the oil industry)?
Face challenges and dangers bravely, which starts by keeping your eyes wide open for them.
Of course you don’t want to get too doomsday-ish with your predictions, but there’s no advantage to be had by being unrealistic either. If you notice things starting to change for the worse, burying your head in the sand (which believe me, many people do) is all but going to guarantee very rough times ahead. Face challenges and dangers bravely, which starts by keeping your eyes wide open for them.
4. What hires do I need to make in the coming period?
It is no secret that if you want to grow your business you need to hire. But sustained and successful growth does not simply come from getting more bodies in the room every time the workload gets too much to cope with (a very reactive and random approach). It rather comes through anticipating in advance when you might need to make what hires to continue to steer your business in the direction that is very much in line with your overall strategy and goals (proactive HR).
Now of course you shouldn’t set about interviewing potential hires that you “might need” too far in advance. However, it certainly pays to spend some time every few months (or more frequently depending on the size of your company) to identify the next potential round of hires.
There are really two layers to this planning: The first is to identify potential new hires based on upcoming changes. This could be, for example, due to the launching of your company’s new product in a few months for which you will need additional sales people to help sell the pants off of it. Secondly, you need to clearly lay out what you wish for this new hire to achieve. Sticking to the sales role example, what are their targets going to be?
Ultimately, for any upcoming hire you want to make, you need to be clear on how the position will be contributing to your growth and overall strategic direction. Having this mapped out as far as possible in advance will make it much easier to find a suitable hire when needed. Recruiting at your busiest is never a good idea. Again, proactive not reactive.
Review, review, and review again
While many entrepreneurs are often great at developing plans during the initial startup stages and demonstrating a commitment to keeping all of the fundamentals healthy at all times, once the business gets up and running and things get busy and the routine established, the core pillars often start to weaken because the maintenance is simply not there anymore. Many lose touch with what it takes to keep a business healthy and growing.
In reality, most everything in business is about constantly improving, and the above four tasks are all about that. To quote former American tennis number one Arthur Ashe (and many other greats who have said the same thing in slightly different ways), “Success is a journey, not a destination”. And that’s a fact, not a motivational quote. Because if your focus at any given time is on how to best navigate the landscape you’ll be moving through, you’ll be successful (in varying degrees) on a daily basis.