An exec at a company I’m an investor in sent this to me this morning. Does this feel like your life at your company?
I’m an enormous fan of Eric Ries and The Lean Startup. His, and Steve Blank’s, thinking and writing changed how we approach startups. However, the bright shiny object syndrome is alive and well in StartupLand and, when conflated with MVPs and fail fast, often results in misery.
Finishing a product and shipping is extremely challenging. It’s different for hardware, as there is a physical instantiation of a product that you have to put in the proverbial box and send out the door. With software, you can ship a buggy piece of shit and keep updating it daily (or continuously) to improve it. But when the product includes some hardware, once it’s out the door you’ve got to live with it.
But, for both hardware and software, the lack of focus on finishing is toxic. When you read Jeff Bezos’ annual letter and internalize “customer obsession” you realize that if you view the world from the perspective of the customer, everything in your business hinges on getting your product into their hands, and then totally delighting them.
At my first company, we did releases of software for multiple clients each week (we were a custom software company.) In some ways, this process has the same characteristics as a weekly sprint, except for it was the early 1990s, and we often had to ship floppy disks by Fedex to our clients. I knew the exact time I had to walk out the door of my office to walk to South Station (in Boston) to get in a cab to go to the Fedex depot at Logan Airport to make the FedEx cutoff. Whenever I did that, I always had a euphoric feeling when I got back in the cab, sat back, and headed home for the night. We’ve come a long way from that dynamic in the last 25 years, but the awesome feeling of shipping hasn’t changed.
This may sound simple and trite but think about it for a second. If you are a CEO or a founder, are you creating an illusion of shipping, but creating a cycle of bright shiny object syndrome?
And with that, this post is shipped …
Amy and I shipped the final draft of Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur yesterday. “If you are interested in this book, go pre-order it now on Amazon to help our pre-order numbers”, said Brad the Book Salesman.
The backlog of things on my to do list is at an all time high. I’m normally super responsive to everything and have zero backlog. That is not the case right now.
The only thing in front of me for the next seven hours is the Detroit Marathon which I’m going to go suit up for after I finish writing this blog post. I don’t expect this to be a pretty marathon – I haven’t been running very much, or consistently, since my bike accident six weeks ago, but I’m running to support my partner Jason Mendelson who, along with Jill Spruiell and Becky Cooper from Foundry Group, are running their first marathon. Our partner Ryan McIntyre is also running today, along with Andrew Tschesnok of Organic Motion. I think it’s pretty cool that 36% of Foundry Group is running this marathon.
While my backlog is huge, I’ve been focused on making sure I’m responsive to all the top order stuff. In my hierarchy this is Amy, my partners, the CEOs of companies I’m an investor in, anyone else who works for a company we are investors in, and our LPs. That’s it – everything else is in “the next bucket.” I’ve gotten plenty done outside of this, but all my excess available time over the last thirty days has been allocated to shipping this book. If you check with Kelly and ask about my schedule, she’ll suppress a laugh as she tries to fit you in somewhere.
Every time I ship something I have new respect for all the entrepreneurs and people who work for the companies we are investors in. I’ve had a lot of time (almost 30 years) to work on my “prioritization algorithm” and feel like I’ve got it well tuned. I’ve always had a continual overcommit problem – where I take on slightly too much and then have to back off on some optional stuff – and this cycle repeats itself regularly in my life. However, when you commit to shipping something, like a book, you have a deadline and suddenly have to execute against it. The high order priorities come into clearer focus. The separation between them, and everything else, become crisp. When I’m sitting in a hotel room at 11pm after a day that started at 5am, I no longer am thinking that I’m going to get through all of my email. Instead, I’m learning the brilliance of using Google Circles to search my inbox for circle:”foundry ents” label:inbox and make sure I get all of those done before I go to sleep.
While I’ve got a ton of other things I want to get to that are interesting and relevant to me, none of them are either timely or important, at least to me. I realize they are timely and important to the person on the other end so I’ll eventually get to them, but the prioritization filter gets tight and the first constraint to enforce is timeliness. I try not to spend any time on stuff I don’t think is useful. As Amy likes to tell me “I’ll be the judge of that” – and I am the judge of what I want to spend my time on, and I’m sure I get this wrong some of the time. If you aren’t in the “inner circles” (yes – Google really got this right) then you have to wait. I’ll eventually get to it, but it won’t be first.
Everyone I know talks about how busy they are. And I’m sure they are. But if you haven’t shipped a product lately, I encourage you to configure something you are working on to look like a product that you are shipping. If you don’t have an external deadline, give yourself one. When you are working on something that has to ship in two weeks, you realize how much stuff is trying to get your attention that isn’t a priority, or even relevant to your mission on this planet. It’s a good way to remember how to prioritize. And it’s an excellent reminder to me about the pressure the people I invest in are under who continually ship products.