3 Steps To Finding The All-Important ’20 Percent’ That Will Skyrocket Your Business’s Success

Jaleh Bisharat, Co-founder of NakedPoppy

It’s an inconvenient truth. There’s a lot of work happening out there that doesn’t drive business-changing results.

Think of everything you did over the past year. How much of it significantly moved the needle?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over my long career as an executive at companies like Amazon, OpenTable, and Upwork, it’s that the 80–20 rule applies to business. In other words, 80 percent of the results come from 20 percent of the initiatives.

So why don’t more people focus maniacally on the 20 percent?

Well, we like to be busy — and even show other people how fast we’re moving.

We’re often wired to do, do, do. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that motion is not the same as progress.

Another reason? Opportunity is everywhere. Good ideas abound, and they are hard to resist! But, the world does not suffer from a shortage of ideas. The shortage is in excellence of execution — and in identifying which ideas matter most.

And, let’s face it — it’s easier to be reactive than proactive. I certainly know the feeling. I see an email, and I want to respond so I can check it off.

Figuring out the 20 percent of the effort that meaningfully moves the business forward is hard. If it were easy, we’d all be doing it.

Here are the three ways that help me focus on the 20 percent:

1. Start every day by asking: “What’s the one thing I can do today to accelerate the business?”

You might be surprised at how that shifts your approach. Out go the emails, some blog posts (depending on your business), certain meetings, and the “very nice to have” projects and features.

In comes the big question: What’s that one thing?

Is it a critical hire, but one that is so hard to find that weeks or months have gone by since you started looking? Are you working as if your business depends on it to find that person?

Is it a key question about your customer? Do you truly understand her DNA? Can you finish her sentences? If not, are you spending today determining how to get there?

Is it a product or service that solves a genuine need in a new way? What are you doing today to get it out the door?

Of course, this practice also applies to longer timeframes (weeks, months, years), but the principle is the same.

2. Ask yourself, ‘How will I know I’m right?’

Once you’ve figured out what your 20 percent is, you have to decide how to measure success, so you can course correct if needed.

Maybe it’s making 10 percent more sales. Or reducing customer churn by a certain amount. Or improving your customer satisfaction score by 5 points.

For some things, you’ll know pretty quickly if what you’re doing is working. Other initiatives will take longer.

Here’s an example. When I was VP of marketing at OpenTable in the early 2000s, well before you’d ever heard of the company, we were building a two-sided marketplace of restaurants (who supply seats) and diners (who reserve seats).

To be successful at something like that, you need to win both sides. Either you dominate the market, or you pretty much fail. So identifying, and then executing, on that 20 percent was critical.

And part of the marketing 20 turned out to actually be 10 — minutes, that is. We conducted research that revealed the average person spends about 10 minutes per day thinking about restaurant reservations. So we diagnosed where people spend those critical 10 minutes (on restaurant websites, dining blogs, or sites like Chowhound, for example) and marketed exclusively there.

No more billboards. No more people handing out flyers at subway stops.

It didn’t take long to learn that we were acquiring diners much more efficiently by catching them in the right frame of mind.

We changed something else, too. Instead of continuing to acquire restaurants across the country, we decided to focus on four cities. Just four. Since dining is inherently local, it made more sense to get the OpenTable system going strong in a limited number of cities at a time. The approach allowed us to get the flywheel effect going, city by city. After we saw success, we expanded to more cities.

Long story short: It worked. Plus, it saved money.

3. Make the 20 percent part of your vocabulary.

Talk about the 20 percent with your team. If you’re a manager, use it as a shorthand to show what you value: “Hey! What’s your 20 percent?” or “Do we really think this is part of our 20 percent?”

When I’m new at a company, and I first ask people what constitutes their 20 percent, they often don’t know. It’s hard! But after a while, I’ll walk through the office and hear people saying, “This is (or isn’t) part of my 20 percent.”

One time, it backfired on me. I very much wanted a team member to develop our team’s act for the company talent show. “It’s not part of my 20 percent,” she said crisply.

Ouch. Well, it had become a part of our vernacular and a polite way of saying “no” that we all understood. :)

So: What’s your 20 percent today?

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +406,714 people.

Subscribe to receive our top stories here.