What TwilioHouse’s Jeff Lawson taught me about leveraging follow-through to build a successful business
I recently had the benefit of listening to Twilio’s Jeff Lawson (@jeffiel) speak about the power of follow-through during a fireside chat at Post Seed 2016. During his talk, he gave a piece of advice so powerful I had to share it with all of you.
It’s a simple-but-vital concept too few of us execute on: “Go and tell people what you’re gonna do, then go do it.”
He then gave this beautiful example of how he was declined for investment by Kapor Capital’s Mitch Kapor (@mkapor) because he didn’t have a good go-to-market strategy.
So Jeff asked Mitch who would know this area really well. Mitch recommended 500 Startups’ Dave McClure (@davemcclure), and Jeff asked Mitch if he’d be willing to make an introduction.
Mitch said, “Sure,” but this was the fourth introduction Jeff had been promised; and the first three hadn’t led to anything. Nevertheless, Jeff said, “Why not. Maybe this time it’ll work.”
Sure enough, Jeff sat down with Dave, and Dave was so impressed by what he saw that he funded their company with $200,000; then helped them solve the problem Mitch was concerned about.
Jeff then went back to Mitch and said, “I’ve got Dave McClure. He’s sitting right next to me, and he put $200k in. Are you in?”
This time, Mitch said yes.
The Power of Follow-Through
Although Twilio’s funding is one of those one-in-a-million Silicon Valley success stories, it really illustrates the importance of follow-through.
Think about it: This story could have had a totally different ending had Jeff failed to follow through.
But there’s another reason I wanted to write this article; something a little more personal. And it involves a confession:
I used to struggle to consistently follow through on my ideas and commitments.
This was years ago, before Mindmaven, when I worked with Reid Hoffman (@reidhoffman) on the early version of LinkedIn. Back in those days, I had a lot of ideas but little execution.
One day Reid pulled me aside and said, “Patrick, you’ve got all these great ideas but you rarely follow through on any of them.”
Reid is the type of leader who truly cares about others, so I took his feedback to heart. I knew I had to overcome this tendency in order to reach my full potential, so I poured myself into developing rituals, strategies, and tactics that promoted consistent follow-through.
Eventually, thanks to Reid’s feedback and my dedication, those very strategies became the founding principles of Mindmaven. So you might say I’m a little invested in (and passionate about) the concept of follow-through. It’s my hope that by the end of this article, you’ll feel the same.
Let’s get started.
The Truth about Follow-Through
Simply put, the ability to consistently follow through is a vital component of success.
Few people would disagree with that statement. And yet, in my experience (and that of many of my clients), fewer than 50% of the business commitments made in Silicon Valley are fulfilled.
In fact, failure to follow through has become so common, it’s not just accepted; it’s expected.
So here’s the problem: Most will agree that follow-through is vital to success, but few act upon that knowledge. This discrepancy is a huge problem, but within that problem is a massive opportunity.
With the bar set so low, it doesn’t take much to stand out. With a little effort, you can be one of the few people known for always delivering on their promises.
We’ll get to the impressive benefits of that reputation (and how to create it) shortly but, first, let’s take a look at why people fail to follow through in the first place.
The Hidden “Tax” in Every Commitment
It’s not that people are purposely committing to tasks they know they can’t complete; in most cases, commitments are made with good intentions. The reason they go unfulfilled is because people often underestimate the “tax” of their commitments.
To illustrate this concept, imagine you’re dining out at a nice restaurant. When you look at the price of a meal on the menu, you know you’re going to end up paying a little more than what’s advertised once you factor in tax and tip.
But people seem to forget that commitments also have an unlisted tax, and this tax takes the form of time. When it comes to financial tax, you can always make more money. But time is a finite resource.
So at face-value, a commitment might seem simple, quick, or easy. But once you factor in the tax — the time and energy investment — it often ends up costing more than you expected.
Take introductions, for example. Imagine Contact A asks for an introduction to Contact B. It seems like a simple request, so you agree.
But you can’t just “make an introduction.” First you have to reach out to Contact B and make sure they’re interested in meeting Contact A.
But because Contact B has a busy schedule, they don’t get back to you immediately. You probably forget about the commitment for a few weeks; but then you remember and have to draft a follow-up email to Contact B.
Assuming you finally get a response and assuming they’re interested, now you have to draft and send an introductory email.
If you fail to follow through at any part of this process before making the actual introduction, you’re going to be seen as unreliable and untrustworthy; no matter how much time you actually invested.
Now imagine you gain one of those commitments following each and every meeting; in a week’s time, you’ve suddenly got 10–15 new commitments; and those commitments (along with their associated time tax) add up fast; especially considering you already have a number of other urgent tasks demanding your attention.
The Price of Unfulfilled Commitments
Continuing the tax analogy, you might be tempted to think that by failing to follow through, even unintentionally, you save on expenses.
But the truth is, there’s always a price to pay; and the price of unfulfilled commitments is much higher.
After all, just because you forgot about your commitment doesn’t mean the other party did. And although they might not say anything (after all, unkept promises are the norm), they noticed.
The price you pay becomes much steeper, and it’s at the expense of your reputation. Because every time you fail to follow through, you send a clear message:
- “I’m unreliable.”
- “I don’t care about my relationships.”
- “I can’t be trusted to keep my word.”
Once someone has that perception of you, it takes massive effort to reverse. Gaining trust is hard enough as it is. Regaining it after letting someone down? That’s a whole other story.
So ask yourself: Can you afford that reputation? Can you truly afford not to follow through?
Think of it from this perspective: The most valuable things in life, from personal fulfillment to business opportunity, come from or are directly influenced by our relationships.
But our relationships are only going to be as valuable to us as we are to them. To fully leverage our network, we need people to trust us; and follow-through is the quickest way to establish that trust.
Leveraging Follow-Through to Generate Opportunities
Remember the “opportunity in the problem” I mentioned above? This is it: Because people so often forget or ignore their commitments, the bar for follow-through is set so low that it doesn’t take much to stand out from the crowd.
Just keeping half your commitments will get your network’s attention. But imagine if you kept all of them. What would happen?
In a word, “Trust.” When you consistently follow through, you build trust within your network; and the more people trust you, the more likely they are to refer you.
The more referrals you have coming your way, the more likely you are to have access to high-value opportunities. And the more opportunities you have access to, the more likely you are to reach your full potential.
All this because you kept your word; something you should be doing anyway. Not a bad ROI if you ask me.
Three Strategies to Master Follow-Through
The concept of following through might be simple (see: “Say what you’re gonna do, then go and do it.”), but simple doesn’t always mean easy.
The reason follow-through is such a challenge for so many people is that our lives aren’t structured to support it. Although proactive tasks like follow-through might be important, the urgency of our day-to-day reactive tasks often take priority.
Think about it: How many times have you gone straight from a meeting to your inbox, without even getting the ball rolling on the commitments made during that meeting?
I’d imagine many of you can relate. And as long as reactivity continues to dominate your schedule, consistent follow-through will remain an elusive target.
So how do we resolve this? Broadly speaking, you’ve got two options: Either make fewer commitments, or increase your ability to follow through.
Although cutting back on commitments might be the easier solution, it means making a smaller impact on your network and potentially limiting your access to opportunities.
Instead, let’s talk about three strategies that will allow you to increase the number of commitments you make, while attaining a 100% follow-through rate.
1. Only Promise What You Know You Can Deliver
You’re under no obligation to accept every request that comes your way.
Sure, a quick “yes” might make you look good in the moment, but you’re ultimately doing the other person (and yourself) a disservice if you commit to something you can’t follow through on.
If someone makes a request you can’t fulfill, it’s okay to say “no.” There are several ways to do this, but here are three starter scripts you might find useful.
- To close the door on a request: “I want to help you, but right now my focus needs to be on X, Y, and Z. If I take this on, I won’t be able to deliver the outcome you deserve. [But have you considered …]”
- To buy yourself time: “This isn’t something I can commit to right now, but let me give it some thought.”
- To give yourself an out: “This probably isn’t something I can help you with right now, but I’ll try. If you don’t hear back from me, I wasn’t able to make it happen.”
Need a few more tips on turning down requests? Check out The Art of Saying No and The 4 Best Ways to Say No to Endless Requests for Your Time.
Keep in mind that the rejection or acceptance of requests is about more than just your raw ability to execute. Priority plays a large part in this decision.
For example, most of you probably have no problem following through on commitments made to key prospects or board members.
If a low-potential contact asks for a high-quality commitment, it’s okay to turn them down. Your time is valuable; respect it, because few others will.
2. Track Your Commitments
Remember, most commitments are made with the best of intentions. But amidst the chaos of our day-to-day lives, commitments are often lost in the jumble of emails, tweets, Slack messages, and meetings.
The simple act of moving a commitment from your mind to something more reliable, like a to-do list or checklist, dramatically improves the likelihood we’ll remember our promises. And if we remember our promises, we’re much more likely to complete them.
Because most business commitments are made during meetings, we at Mindmaven developed a simple-but-powerful tool to capture these often-forgotten commitments. We call this tool the Meeting Debrief.
A meeting debrief is a short written or dictated summary of everything that happened over the course of a meeting; especially any commitments received or given.
This information must then be logged into what I call a System of Trust. A system of trust is a place where you track every commitment you make. This system, combined with the right routines and rituals, will allow you to maintain full awareness of your commitments and attain that elusive 100% follow-through rate.
Don’t have a system of trust? I recommend Asana, seen below:
The only way to make sure nothing is overlooked is to ensure the debrief and commitment logs are done immediately following a meeting. For this reason, I highly recommend never scheduling meetings back-to-back.
But if you must, make your 60-minute meetings 50 minutes, and your 30-minute meetings 25; and use the extra time for debriefing.
3. Eliminate the Tax by Increasing your Leverage
Forgetfulness is one of the leading causes of failed follow-through; another is simply a perceived lack of time. There are only so many hours in the day and, even with a to-do list, it can be easy to find yourself constantly putting off important-but-nonurgent commitments.
You can’t increase the number of hours in a day, but you can do something that’ll have almost the same effect: Leverage the power of an assistant.
After seeing otherwise successful entrepreneurs and CEOs struggle with follow through, we at Mindmaven created a specialized role called an Engagement Manager (EM) to meet that need.
An EM is a cross between a first-class executive assistant and a chief of staff, trained specifically to help executives increase their velocity and execute on their commitments.
To illustrate the value of an EM, let’s jump back to the example above where Contact A wanted an introduction to Contact B.
Imagine immediately following that meeting, you completed a meeting debrief. During this debrief, you dictated the following task to your engagement manager: “Please draft an email to Contact B and see if they’d be interested in an introduction to Contact A.”
Your EM would draft the email within the hour and all you’d have to do is review and send it. Afterwards, your EM would keep an eye out for Contact B’s response.
If they didn’t receive one, your EM would draft a follow-up email for your review. And once Contact B agreed to an introduction, your EM would also draft the introductory email.
Without an EM, each step of that process would fall on you, easily requiring at least 15–20 minutes of your time. But with an EM? You could lower your investment to 3–5 minutes, dramatically increasing the velocity of your follow through (and enabling you to take on more commitments.)
With an EM by your side, you can not only be known as the person who always delivers; you can be known as the person who always delivers on the same day.
And that’s just one example of what an engagement manager can accomplish. Click here to learn more about the myriad benefits of working with an EM.
What happens when you can’t follow-through?
Sometimes, even with the perfect system, you’ll commit to something you can’t complete. Take the introduction example above: What happens if Contact B never gets back to you?
Although you can’t complete the commitment to make the introduction, you can still win on follow-through by closing the loop.
Instead of letting Contact A assume you forgot about your commitment, you could send an email saying, “I reached out to and followed up with Contact B, but I haven’t heard back yet. I don’t think an introduction is right for them at the moment.”
Sure, Contact A didn’t get what they wanted; but at least they know you did all you could. And that knowledge can make all the difference in how they perceive you.
Who will you be known as?
In the end, you’re going to be known as one of three things in your network:
- The untrustworthy person who never follows through on anything,
- The forgetful, forgettable person who occasionally keeps their word, or
- The reliable person who follows through on all their commitments.
Which title do you want?
Today, starting right now, you have the opportunity to start becoming the most trustworthy, reliable, consistent person in your network. So, here’s the question:
What are you going to do with that opportunity?
Here’s a parting hint: “Go and tell people what you’re gonna do, then go and do it.”
Create a Customized Follow-Through Game Plan
Want to take your follow-through game to the next level?
Schedule a free 1:1 session with one of our experienced, results-driven coaches. If you qualify, we’ll work with you to create a customized follow-through game plan that’ll have you well on your way to developing the reputation you want.
I’ve seen incredible changes in those clients of mine who’ve adopted these strategies, and I want you to experience those same results. There’s no pressure and no obligation, so let’s get started.
Want more great content for founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and VCs? Head on over to the Mindmaven blog!