Startups are a constant tug between hyperbole and reality. One day you might be wearing many hats and completing a series of tasks that you didn’t know were on your plate that morning. Another day you might be thinking of the Next Big Idea. Which is real?
Both of these things are very real every day. When you work in a startup, the team is the sum (and occasionally, multiplied by) the individual actions the team does every day. The clock is always ticking toward the next big small thing.
One way to deal with the ups and downs of startup life is to treat every day as “one in a row.” Help your team. Move stuff forward. Repeat. It may sound trite and on the days when you’re less sure how to move things forward having a routine helps.
When you get a success story, celebrate! And keep moving things forward to the next big small thing you can affect today.
This might seem strange, but in my experience some of the best products I depend on are invisible. What do I mean by invisible? I mean that I give then access to information and they provide value with no work on my part.
“Set it and forget it” apps or services are the most obvious version of this trend and start with news alerts. It’s super valuable to find out when there’s news about a friend (Newsle) or if there’s a recall on something that I bought (Slice) or news about a company or keyword (Talkwalker).
The next level of complexity for invisible apps is the ability to provide value and time saving even if you are not actively telling them what to do. my favorite example of this is Sanebox – it filters email into likely groups with almost no effort on my part. Among newer apps Google Now looks like a new and powerful predictive service based on this idea (watch what you do, provide relevant actions, learn from actions).
It would really cool to extend this invisible app quality along with the ability to learn to make “recipes” that get smarter over time. The folks at IFTTT have used this approach to combine “channels” (e.g. Instagram) with “actions” (e.g. Upload to Flickr) to create time-saving automatic procedures. So what’s next?
The next version of invisible products will observe, record, and recommend “best practices”. These products will make predictive recommendations based on where and when you are. Invisible products will also provide collaborative filtering for these “best practices” to help you know what recipes people like and what recipes actually improve performance. And these recipes will form a continuous improvement input for people using wearable devices.
Does this sound futuristic? Maybe. Now put on your 2005 hat and ask how many people would check their email, video chat and message for free, and otherwise create an entire industry disconnected from the PC. The next wave will be invisible.
We could talk all day about the tools we use. Agile is Best! Pomodoro is Best! Pen and Paper is Best! Getting everyone in a room is Best! (You get the idea.) Because everything in a startup changes ALL THE TIME, it’s also important to consider the conceptual tools you should be using in your startup.
You might pronounce them as Empathy, Resilience, Learning, and Persistence. Doubtless there are other conceptual tools that people find useful and beneficial, but these are the ones I use most often.
What should you reinforce?
Empathy means understanding what it feels like when you are a customer. It also means literally walking a mile in the customer’s shoes. If you are not shaking your fist at the screen when your code does something stupid that customers experience every day, you are not modeling empathy. To get more empathy, stop being a smarty-pants startup person, and think more like a customer. (And get out of the building.)
Resilience is the ability to rebound when bad stuff happens. Because startups do not act according to Standard Operating Procedure. If you are resilient you’ll be better able to pick new paths, to take care of yourself and your teammates, and to invent new ways of solving problems in the course of doing business. You also won’t really know that you’re being resilient until you look back and see the obstacles you’ve overcome. So trust in yourself, do the right thing for you and for your teammates and the people you care about, and you’ll get more resilient. You can always have more work and money. You cannot have more time with the people you care about and you cannot get your bad decisions back. Embrace sunk costs and don’t let them become an anchor that prevents change.
Learning is the most important tool you can use in a startup and generally in life. Learning ensures that you can test ideas and decide when they are wrong and when they are right. Learning also gives you the ability to adapt to a new environment and add new skills. And learning changes you without you even realizing it. So you should keep on learning everywhere. I keep a stack of books on my bedside table and read one or two books per week.
Persistence is the glue that allows you to respond when you are not feeling empathetic, when you are not very resilient, and when you feel that the learning you should be doing is stalled. Persistence is getting up in the morning and understanding the 20% of the work that you absolutely must do that will deliver 80% of the reward. When you are persistent, you are doing the hard practice that makes many other things possible. And when you can’t be persistent (this happens too) you should embrace the sunk cost and go outside. Meet people. Exercise. And above all, embrace the Cult of Done. Perfect is the enemy of Done.
Why Focus on Portable Tools?
Why are these the tools that I use in a startup? I use these tools because they are portable, I can share them with other people, and they are additive. There are many tools and services that people could be using in their startups, and they are all dependent upon the people in these startups to use them well. Start with the tools that reinforce empathy, resilience, learning, and persistence and your startup will prosper.
You should fix all the broken things in your product. You avoided some decisions in the past or made some decisions you might now choose to change, and now these broken things are still there. Your customers see this accumulated flotsam and jetsam and don’t think “you made the best decision you could have made at the time,” they just think “why is that thing so broken?” Don’t they care enough to fix it?
When your customers ask you to fix things, you can’t always fix them. There might be a very good reason you can’t fix that thing now, or to explain to your customer why it’s complicated. And I’d like to remind you that the longer those things are out there the more chances your customers have to get fed up and stop trying themselves. So here’s a simple set of ideas that can help regain customer goodwill (or make it bigger.)
Fix. All. The. Things.
Here’s one thing you can do today: make a list of the top 10 “cringe items” to fix. You know what they are – your customers tell you about them often. You might have a rubric internally for when they become truly important, and there is another way to measure whether something is truly a “cringe item.” Ask a new customer if they think it’s weird. If they think that part of your product is weird or confusing, it probably is weird or confusing and you should make it better.
True “cringe items” emerge from this list of merely weird or confusing items. These are items that cause significant customer pain. If these items are difficult (technically) to fix, then build different ways to hold the customer’s hand and get them through the problem. You can write a blog post; you can have a call with the customer where you share your screen; and you can configure the product for them. Any solution that gets a customer through a cringe item might save a customer. You know what your cringe items are – and if you don’t know, you should ask all the people in your business who talk to customers – they can tell you.
After you know what the pain points are, make them go away.
Pain points are exactly that: things that customers find difficult. Sometimes, pain points of a product feel so bad for a customer that the customer goes away, especially when another company determines a way to make that pain point 10x easier to deal with and helps you get there. So make the pain go away.
This is an expanded version of “make it easy for the customer” because really what you are doing is making it so no customer ever again will have this problem. Ok, it’s not always easy. But fixing a cringe item offers the most return on your customer investment possible. Fixing a cringe item makes your customers believe again if they have temporarily lost faith. And fixing a cringe item brings hope to customers who’ve been waiting for you to resolve your decision debt and to do better.
Remember Pareto and the 80/20 rule.
Fixing the cringe items to improve the customer experience is a natural outcome of following the Pareto Principle. When you find the small number of cases that cause customer discontent, you should fix them if you want to maximize the investment benefit of fixing that things. Why not start with the things customers hate most? One reason is that customers famously don’t know what they want. But if enough of them are complaining about the same things, that should signal that it’s a great thing to spend more time on, even if you can’t fix it right away. So fix all the broken things. If you can’t fix them, invent a better way to help customers cope with them without getting really upset at you every time they try to do the thing they’d like to do.
You can find 47 other ways to improve the customer experience here.
Delivering a status update is a tricky thing. It’s really easy to overwhelm people with too much information, to leave things unsaid when you need more detail, and to leave out the “I need help” part of your message. So here’s a simple proposal, modeled off of the status updates my former CEO T.A. McCann asked team members to share at Gist.
Sharing Team Information
Having a regular schedule for sharing status updates helps a lot – at Gist, we shared these updates three times a week, right before our “standup” team meetings. T.A. wanted this information because he needed both tactical (what’s going on today) and strategic (what are the larger themes) feedback to know how his team was doing. We wanted these updates so we could know what other team members were doing. The system wasn’t perfect, but it made sure that everyone who came to our Standups was ready to share (at least some of) what was going on.
So how can you write a great status update? You should write the update quickly – spending just a few minutes to summarize and share the high-level information that matters – while also identifying any blockers that you need to discuss.
A “Cookbook” for a Status
In your status report to your team, make sure you answer these three things:
What did you do?
What are you doing?
Where do you need help?
A great update shares enough information for team members so that they can know what you’re doing, but not too much information so that it takes a long time to process the information and respond. If you share status in this way (usually in just a few lines) you can also think about larger, more strategic questions that relate to these everyday tasks.
A Longer-Term Status Update
Because simply writing a status update every two or three days isn’t enough to answer other questions that you ought to consider, you should ask bigger questions too. These might include:
What’s one thing I’m doing that I should keep doing?
What’s one thing I’m doing that I should stop doing?
What’s one thing I’m doing that I should start doing?
When you take a step back and name things you should add or remove from your typical tasks, you get better at valuing your work objectively and are more likely to see it from an outsider’s perspective. Getting into the habit of keeping and delivering a status report to a team is a great way to document what you do and gives you a consistent way to check what you do.