I have a confession… Sixteen Ventures – the best little SaaS Growth consulting shop in all the land – is just me… and I have a time management problem!
I do everything… from writing blog posts to writing proposals and from interacting on Social Networks to Networking at Industry Events.
One day I’m working with a startup in Poland via GoToMeeting on accelerating early-stage growth, the next day I’m on a plane to Atlanta to help accelerate the growth of a struggling $10M/year SaaS company with major organizational issues.
All of that to say… I’ve been thinking a lot about “time” lately. I suffer from scarcity on several levels, but time scarcity is probably my biggest enemy… probably yours, too.
We all feel like we need to be busy all the time or we aren’t working… we aren’t hustling.
Yes, work and hustle are important, but not to the detriment of everything else… including the progress we claim to be “hustling” for.
As has been said a million times by a thousand experts, busy isn’t bad as long as what you’re busy doing is moving you forward (and even then you should take time to just think… to contemplate… to meditate).
But most of us spend far too much time on things that – while the outcome might move us forward – the doing of the things is actually a big waste of time… which is why outsourcing, Virtual Assistants, Fiverr, etc. are so popular right now.
And so is automation.
In fact, way back in mid-2013, I got an email asking if I’d heard of this cool new service called Buzzfork that helps you increase engagement – as well as followers – on Twitter… while you do other stuff.
I was intrigued since Twitter is where I spend most of my time when it comes to social networks and promoting my content (and business)… but I often feel like I spend too much time doing that… this was the answer!
As soon as I learned about Buzzfork, I also learned about – and met – Chris Bolman, the founder of the company.
Now, Chris and I have talked a lot about Growth Hacking, startups, etc., since then, but the thing that originally connected us was time.
So I asked Chris to put some thoughts together around Being Successful while effectively managing your Time – the only truly finite resource we have – and he was kind enough to do just that.
I’ll add a couple of thoughts in the Afterward, but for now, I’ll turn it over to Chris…
Optimizing Your Startup’s Most Precious Resource
Whenever I write a guest post or article, I start by brainstorming how I can organize a collection of past experiences into a targeted story or message around a topic. I started doing that for this essay too, when a simple thought occurred to me: I have a lot of different experiences to choose from. In fact, I’ve been working at or on early-stage SaaS companies for over five years now.
Wow. It certainly hasn’t felt like five years. Between trips to CES and SXSW (and close to a dozen different countries), hiring — and, sadly, firing — great people, building two successful businesses and struggling through two disappointing failures, five years got archived in a flash, almost 2,000 days.
Could I have made better use of that time professionally? Could I have achieved more goals over that span? On reflection, I think the answer is “yes” – particularly early on. Because entrepreneurship is so centered around urgency, most of us not only find it challenging to maintain healthy work-life balances to begin with, but we often over-focus on the next customer meeting or feature release or conference, and the one right after that, failing to optimize around our most precious resource: time.
Why Time is So Precious for Startups
Startup time is different than normal time. Startups succeed by doing more with less, and they rely on the core advantages of speed, focus and vision to grow and distrupt rapidly despite smaller budgets, fewer people, scarcer resources and less established brands. Somewhere between 75-90% of startups fail and the average Y Combinator startup goes 23 months between its founding and either exit or failure. If you consider Y Combinator class-members to generally be the cream of the crop, that means the average tech startup has an even shorter lifetime. But although startups fold as a result of things like founder incompatibility and lack of product-market fit, ultimately, every startup’s most previous resource — and biggest risk – is time.
Running out of money, not getting product traction, getting beat out by a competitor – all symptoms of not moving fast enough and losing out to time.
Paradoxically, despite the fact that time is the lifeblood of innovation, most entrepreneurs don’t really focus on time management systematically or strategically. Prioritization is done out of necessity, so execution can keep base with business realities (i.e., getting sh*t done).
But science and success suggests there are some better ways, and if you’re willing to commit to five more minutes of reading you can take advantage of them too.
Three Principles for Optimizing Startup Time
Although there’s no one size fits all time management cure-all, here are three practical, data-backed productivity principles I strongly encourage you to test professionally, particularly if you work at a startup:
1. Passively quantify how you spend your time
2. Prioritize for growth impact by focusing on growth importance, not growth urgency
3. Automate as much as [non-]humanly possible
Let’s walk through each one.
#1 Passively Quantify Where You Spend Your Time
At a unit level, time is easy to quantify. The challenge is actually collecting the data. I’ve seen time tracking attempted everywhere from tiny tech startups to Fortune 500 companies and it fails almost every time. Some people are too busy, some people are too lazy, some people have bad self-reporting biases and for virtually everyone involved (except maybe the consultants trying to implement it) it’s a distraction, an unpleasant obligation, an after-thought.
But there’s power in that data when you passively collect it, just like it would be great to have a food log when you go on a diet if it could be automagically generated for you.
Enter RescueTime. Install it, set it, forget it and RescueTime starts tracking how you much time you’re spending using a specific app or browsing a given website. Over time you’ll be able to see how and where you allocate your time, providing you with a base data layer you can analyze to understand your habits, inefficiencies, and go-to resources, then work to optimize around them.
If you want to improve your productivity and you’re not tracking how you spend your time, start now, but make sure you’re not investing more of your precious time in order to do it.
#2 Prioritize For Growth Impact by Focusing on Growth Importance, Not Growth Urgency
“You do not have 20% time. Identify your top three priorities. Throw away numbers two and three” – Brett Martin, co-founder and former CEO of Sonar
As humans, we’re all evolutionarily pre-wired to respond to immediate sensory stimuli like loud noises and flashes of light. Back thousands of years ago when our ancestors were hunting for food with crude tools, this mental acuity kept them alive and safe from threats. Unfortunately, when the only thing we go hunting for is the occasional granola bar, immediately breaking concentration to focus on ephemeral, situational cues like the latest, incoming Snapchat is a huge productivity encumbrance.
The first, basic breakthrough is to focus on task importance, rather than task urgency. You don’t need to respond to the latest push notification on your phone or email that emerged at the top of your inbox: arbitrary chronological ordering of content in a feed does not indicate its priority or importance.
Instead, mute or turn off your phone whenever you can, use OneTab to close lower-priority browser tabs, and focus on what really matters. One simple productivity hack to help you achieve this is the “A-B-C-D-E Method.”
A-B-C-D-E goes like this: write down all your “to-do’s” and then categorize them into bins:
- A: A task that is vitally important that you must complete as soon as possible. There are negative consequences if you put this off
- B: A task that is important, but not as important as your “A” tasks. There might be consequences if you don’t do it, but the impact is not as big.
- C: A task that is “nice to do” but not as important as your A and B tasks and there are no negative consequences for not completing it
- D: A task that you should delegate.
- E: A task that should be eliminated whenever possible.
Go through your list marking the tasks A1, A2, B1, B2, B3, C1, C2, then drop them into an app like Evernote, AnyDo, Asana or Slack and start knocking them out in the order they deserve. At Percolate, we use weekly MITs (“most important tasks” – not the college in Cambridge, MA) as proxies for our “A” priorities, announcing them every Mondays then following up with short status and/or completion updates mid-week and Friday. It works well and it’s really helpful to organize your own priorities and understand your teammates’.
But how should we think about priorities in terms of importance? For startups, the answer is simple: the priority is growth (unless you’re dying, in which case, the priority is life or a clean slate). Like Paul Graham famously says, “if you get growth, everything else tends to fall into place. Which means you can use growth like a compass to make almost every decision you face.”
The ultimate outcome of A1 then should be the most growth-supportive task you can do, A2 the second, and so on. As a framework, this sounds great. In practice, when you’re an over-worked founder juggling hiring, shipping product, developing new features, dealing with customers and *shudder* fundraising, this gets messy fast. Nonetheless, there are some helpful signposts you can use to guide your decision tree:
As long as you’re prioritizing the four essential avenues to startup value creation- (1) acquisition, (2) product, (3) team and (4) retention-your “A” and “B” tasks become fairly clear, while everything that doesn’t support efforts in these four areas washes out the bottom and off your to-do list. Focus is saying no to distractions (even if they’re fundamentally good ideas), experiment fast, fail faster, learn from your mistakes and always prioritize time and resource investments around acquisition, product, team and retention efforts that drive growth.
#3 Automate as much as [non-]humanly possible
Good programmers tend to think this way naturally, but for many this philosophy toward work isn’t very intuitive (and certainly isn’t how most of us are taught in school). Fact is, we live in an incredibly technology-enabled time, where access to great automation tools are well within the grasp of non-programmers.
Generally, if you’re doing something repetitive on a computer, two things are true:
- Some -if not all-of what you’re doing can be automated.
- Someone, somewhere has probably already done it.
From logic-based automation services like IFTTT and Zapier to browser macros, PhantomJS and marketing automation software, you can put everything from cross-posting on social media and scraping websites to syncing database objects comfortably on autopilot.
Good automation is the only way to multi-task without compromising your focus and mental acuity – use it wherever possible. When you can’t automate, delegate to places like Mechanical Turk, Elance or TaskRabbit.
Collectively, by passively tracking your time use, using results-oriented logic to prioritize growth-supportive business initiatives and automating away repetitive, low-level processes, you can take meaningful strides toward optimizing the most precious resource for both you and your startup: time. As entrepreneurs we sacrifice a lot of time and energy to bring industry-changing visions to life, and we certainly owe it to ourselves to make the best use of it.
Chris Bolman is founder of Buzzfork, an entrepreneur, writer, marketer, growth hacker, consultant and non-linear thinker, currently in-charge of Growth at Percolate in New York City. Follow him on Twitter or read his awesome blog.
Afterword by Lincoln
Lincoln here again…
So grateful to Chris for helping us manage our time better… it really is something we only get so much of and we need to spend it wisely.
So, I’ll just second that I use Zapier all the time for service-to-service automation… super-awesome service that, BTW, is also a great distribution method for your SaaS. I’ve heard from several companies that they’re getting high-quality leads and customers simply by being integrated with Zapier and taking advantage of that ecosystem.
Also, I use Buffer extensively for automating posting and interactions across social networks.
Other services I or my clients have had great success with that you might also look into to help you save time:
- https://premier.mobileworks.com/ – high-quality outsourcing/virtual assistants
- https://www.odesk.com/ – another place to find people to do work for you, especially technical stuff
- http://import.io/ – super awesome web-scraping tool that turns any site into an API
- https://colibri.io – a killer Growth Hacking tool (also a new client, BTW… we’re working to optimize the on-boarding process) that finds conversations going on around the web (blogs, Quora, Twitter, etc.) for you so you can inject your message where appropriate
I’ll end with one of my favorite Gandhi stories I heard from James Altucher about time management and making time for reflection:
One time Gandhi said to a group of his backers, “I need to set aside one hour a day to do meditation.”
One of the backers said, “oh no, you can’t do that! You are too busy, Gandhi!”
Gandhi said, “Well, then, I now need to set aside two hours a day to do meditation.”
Don’t forget to live… to have fun… and to be receptive.