Startup 101: Don’t Fall for the Frills
Productivity lessons learned from a failed startup.
Why do startups fail? It’s a loaded question for entrepreneurs like me, who have poured their heart, soul, and countless hours into their big ideas. While we may pretend that it’s bad luck, the harsh truth is that we likely misdirected our energy. Perhaps we pitched to the wrong investor, or perhaps we chose the wrong team.
But in my experience, many entrepreneurs, myself included, get stuck on the little details rather living in the forward-thinking mindset all entrepreneurs need. It’s tempting to spend hours of your precious time setting up and using your project management system or color-coding your paperwork. Those seem like easy, necessary tasks and they feel good, but they don’t help your productivity. You’d do better by spending that time to grow your business!
Let me tell you a story about the worst moment with my art business.
We were excited to participate in a major street festival. It cost us to participate, but the exposure seemed worth it. Hundreds of organizations were going to be out there with booths, and I wanted ours to stand out. I ordered extra merchandise, flyers, and a custom vinyl banner and canopy.
The morning of the event, I spent two hours setting up by myself, because the only worker I’d scheduled for the event had a medical emergency. It was very windy, so I secured the tent to the folding tables and weighted it all down. I set up beautiful displays of flyers and merchandise, as well as activity stations for people to make art. And I sat down, ready to greet customers.
Not ten minutes later, a huge gust of wind passed by the neighboring tents, which weren’t even weighted down, and completely overturned my booth. Hundreds of crayons spilled all over the ground as my merchandise scattered and my flyers flew away. Paint bottles smashed against the flipped tables. The canopy tent promptly broke upon slamming against the ground.
It was clearly an act of God.
All I could do was hold back tears as helpful passerby gathered as much debris as they could, and then I packed up and left the event.
This was a perfect symbol of my flawed approach to my business. I spent so much time and energy on the frills — and the festival itself was a frill — that I neglected the core function of my business. How much could I have gotten done had I focused on growing the business rather than participating in some silly festival? Not only that, I spent more money on the custom banner than on proper sandbags. I went for fashion over function. To boot, I booked only one person to help me because I didn’t think about the work that would go into setting up and running the booth.
The booth blowing over is a perfect metaphor for how a project collapses when it isn’t managed properly. Many entrepreneurs excel at the big ideas — that’s why they’re entrepreneurs! Unfortunately, many also experience struggles with productivity. They get distracted by the frills, the little things that seem productive but actually aren’t. How can we bring our ideas to fruition and avoid catastrophe?
First, let’s go over the key elements of productivity that entrepreneurs need to know. Productivity comprises three domains of activity:
Project management. This includes identifying all tasks for a project, assigning and delegating those tasks, and developing the workflow and timeline.
Time management. This includes dedicating chunks of your day to certain tasks, knowing how much time is required for tasks.
Resource management. This includes assembling and organizing files, funds, physical materials, and other resources that are needed to achieve the tasks.
As you can see, the keyword above is “task.” Productivity is all about naming, managing, and most importantly, doing tasks. Ideally, your productivity system provides you with a seamless infrastructure in which to work, no frills attached.
Unfortunately, a lot of people, especially entrepreneurs who are wearing multiple hats, struggle to balance the three domains of productivity, and it doesn’t help when many productivity systems ask us to devote a lot of time and energy to setting them up. The key is to focus on the tasks — the cornerstone of productivity.
Common mistakes in productivity include:
1. Spending time fighting with your project management software.
There are many helpful types of project management systems, including:
- Agile project management: This system involves feedback between your team and your customers. It includes the subsystems Kanban, which organizes tasks by status, and Scrum, which is a methodology for assigning tasks and getting them done.
- Lean project management: This system is based upon the removal of waste, such as unnecessary meetings or resources.
- Waterfall project management: This system is a linear, sequential approach to accomplishing projects and organizes the workflow accordingly.
Different apps can be used with different systems, although some lend themselves more to one in particular. For example, Trello is famous for its Kanban approach. The key is to abandon the use of an app that doesn’t match your project workflow rather than continue to struggle with it. Find one that works well for your team. Your project management program should enable intuitive categorizing of tasks. Sometimes, a simple task-oriented app such as Brief is best because it can be used with whichever project management system you choose.
2. Having tasks be too broad/assigned to multiple people
When you’re assigning tasks to your team, it’s very important to break down the work in a way that lends itself to productivity. For example, if you assign a task called “copywriting” to Amy, Frank, and Jessica. How will they know when to check it off? When the final copy is finished by all three people? What if revisions are needed? What if Amy calls out sick and Frank needs to pick up the slack?
Follow these rules of thumb for task naming and assignment:
- Make the task description actionable and specific, e.g. “Write copy for brochure,” rather than “Copywriting.”
- Create a task for each stage of the process, e.g. “Write copy for brochure” — “Send for approval” — “Revise.”
- Give the task a reasonable deadline. If there are benchmarks you want to hit, e.g. first draft by Monday, final draft by Friday, schedule the tasks accordingly.
If you’re using agile project management, you can simply assign tasks in your daily scrum. If you’re using lean project management, you might eliminate unnecessary tasks (does every member of the team need to review the copy or will one key person suffice?) If you’re using waterfall project management, you’ll need to identify a dependent task upon each prior task.
3. Spending a lot of time organizing files to support your projects
So you spent a lot on your project management system, but you still have to figure out where all the project files are. Do you find yourself having to integrate Dropbox or Google Drive? Making a spreadsheet to list locations of files? What a mess. Ideally, your productivity app allows native file sharing and storage so that you can have all the necessary files right at hand.
4. Spending too much time answering email
Email is as old as the Internet itself, but unlike the Internet, it hasn’t evolved. It requires a lot of time to process and manage your email, and once you start sharing project files through email, it becomes a nightmare to organize. The best productivity apps have chat built right into the system so you don’t even have to leave the program to get the answers you need, share files in a snap, or make sure everyone is on the same page.
If email is still required for your job, look into developing some “canned responses.” Many email apps will even let you automate replies so that you can maintain professional, consistent communication with your customers without requiring you to spend a lot of time typing out the same response again and again. And whenever possible, delegate your email to someone who can answer it more quickly and effectively.
5. Organizing on an arbitrary basis rather than person, topic, or type of work
Many productivity systems make it very tempting to organize your projects by categories that don’t reflect your workflow. For example, you might divide your projects by Print or Digital, or by Magazine or Newsletter. But your workflow will change according to whether or not the project is long-term or short-term, whether or not an external client is involved, and so on. By focusing on a project’s priorities, you avoid the tendency to add a lot of the unnecessary layers of organization.
Streamlining your productivity doesn’t have to require a lot of extra work that keeps you from getting things done, and there’s no need to waste money on a productivity system that overcomplicates things, just like there’s no need to spend time and energy on frills rather than function.
When in doubt, return to the core of productivity: the task. What best empowers you and your team to get your tasks done? Choose a simple system that empowers you to be your most productive while being on the same page. Trust me — you’ll get much more done, and your metaphorical tent is less likely to blow away.