Getting Focused: Advice for Managing Headcount, Running Successful Meetings, and Ditching the Email To-Do List

Spero Ventures
Oct 10, 2017 · 5 min read

Insights from Tim Chen, Founder and CEO of NerdWallet

Starting a company can be like throwing yourself over a cliff and assembling an airplane as you fall toward the ground. . .at least that’s how previous Founder’s Corner podcast guest Reid Hoffman once described it. Today, Tim Chen, the founder and CEO of NerdWallet, has a few years’ experience building that plane alongside cofounder Jake Gibson and their now 450 person strong team. Since 2009, NerdWallet has been squarely focused on helping people evaluate credit cards, insurance, and other financial products and aims to one day be consumers’ everyday GPS for money matters. However, as Tim explains in the latest episode and season finale of our Founder’s Corner podcast, that kind of determination and focus doesn’t come without learning some tough lessons along the way.

Listen Now: https://soundcloud.com/founderscorner/timchen

Cut off your email to-do list

When you’re running an organization, especially one in startup mode, distractions come hurtling past you with high frequency. Tim has a somewhat extreme method of quelling these pop-up attention grabbers: turn it all off. The first step is realizing when you’re in the wrong zone. Tim posits that when people are “stressed out and they don’t quite know how to be productive or what to do next, they go into their autopilot,” explaining that in his own case, autopilot “may have meant hanging out in Excel, analyzing stuff that doesn’t need to be analyzed, when the thing that really mattered at that time may have been picking up the phone and making sales calls.”

“Try to be very planful at the beginning of every week and think through what the most important things to accomplish that week are, then set blocks of time accordingly.”

Autopilot is the place you want to avoid to stay productive. The cure: mindfulness and planning. Tim explains that the best strategy for entrepreneurs is to “try to be very planful at the beginning of every week and think through what the most important things to accomplish that week are, then set blocks of time accordingly.”

Of course, the difficulty is sticking with the plan. An overflowing inbox can easily flip the switch to autopilot mode. Tim summarizes the challenge email presents, noting, “A friend once told me that email is evil because it’s basically a to-do list for you that’s created by other people. And that to-do list is completely arbitrary and doesn’t really help you do what you’re trying to do. That’s why Tim turns it off. He says, “I’ve really come to not check my email or my text messages or answer my phone calls very often.” That kind of shut down can get you in the focus zone for those most productive chunks of time. Tim is well aware of the difficulties this entails, explaining that “it can often lead to people being a little irritated, including his wife and a lot of other people.” However, Tim argues, “If you want to stay focused, I think it’s hugely important. Block it out.”

Plan for meeting success

It should come as no surprise that Tim prefers in-person meetings to email communication. And knowing the kind of meeting you plan to have helps you format those sessions to suit specific situations and communication requirements. Tim shares, “The best communication is in meetings where you get all the people in the room to represent their viewpoints. One of the biggest operational challenges of a growing company is breaking and forming meetings at the appropriate time so that people have the right meetings but not too many meetings or meetings that are old and useless.”

“In any decision making meeting, you have to facilitate share of voice, and it’s very hard to have share of voice if you have more than seven people.”

Tim then outlines the various types of meetings you need to have within an organization, based on the desired outcome: “One of them I call megaphone meetings. . . .The idea is to get a message distributed out to the company through what we internally call the management team leads. That meeting could be 40–50 people, so it has to be well thought out and well planned. Another type is the decision making meeting. A two-person team or even seven people is probably a lot more effective in terms of having a conversation. “In any decision making meeting, you have to facilitate share of voice, and it’s very hard to have share of voice if you have more than seven people.” As Tim notes, thinking through the purpose and goals of your meeting, whether communication or decision making, can help you make the most of your precious time with colleagues and stakeholders.

Hiring and avoiding politics

Hiring — when to hire, how to hire, who to hire, and where to allocate resources — is nearly always top of mind for early-stage startups and entrepreneurs. But with the wrong motivators, hiring can lead to disastrous results including office politics. Here’s how Tim thinks about staying on track with hiring.

“When it becomes arbitrary who gets more resourcing, then the company really starts to suboptimize. . .”

When it comes to company growth, land grabs and power plays in management and leadership may come into play. But in order to stay on target, politics have to take a backseat to organizational needs. Tim shares, “When you think about how you allocate incremental headcount effectively, what you need is executive team communication around the prioritized goals of the company that everyone is brought into, not just team A or Team B or Team C having their own agenda. Doing that poorly is what I would define as politics. When it becomes arbitrary who gets more resourcing, then the company really starts to suboptimize and it leads to a lot of really terrible incentives from the executives to obfuscate information in order to get more resourcing for whatever it is they’re trying to do.”

Gaining alignment company-wide early in your organization’s development and throughout its growth cycles will lead to not only better products, business practices, and culture but better hiring and resource allocation as well. This in turn will continue to feed a positive cycle of growth. That way, once you’ve thrown yourself off the startup cliff, everyone in the organization is working together to assemble that airplane as you fall toward the earth.

Thanks to Tim Chen for sharing his insights with us on the Founder’s Corner podcast. To learn more about NerdWallet, visit NerdWallet.com and follow along on Twitter at @NerdWallet. For more of our conversation with Tim, check out his episode of the Founder’s Corner podcast, and be sure to subscribe to the show on iTunes, SoundCloud, or Overcast to hear more impactful lessons for entrepreneurs from leaders who have lived and learned through the startup journey and built amazing companies.

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