Making the vision operational

You start out with a vision. You fight to develop your product. You ship. And you get so caught up by day-to-day operations and fixing things that you don’t have time to think about the vision or – more importantly – put initiatives in place for the longer term that will ensure you continue driving towards it.

Does it sound familiar? When I look around, I see it happening a lot.

And I can understand why that is. Having a product in market with real customers using it is just completely different from being in R&D mode. And getting the revenue in from customers who are happy users of your product, because you listen and service them well, just feel like the ultimate validation of what you set out to do – even if you’re only just establishing a beachhead.

Getting stuck can be so easy. One day after another passes, where you’re in operations mode trying to fix things, optimize and move a couple of steps forward in the process. But you are essentially stuck. Because you’re potentially neglecting the very initiatives that are going to enable you to push even further, grow to the next level and drive the value of the business up.

I would argue that if you are in this situation, it is more or less a miracle if you end up anywhere near realizing the vision, you set out with. Or more importantly: Capture the value you could have captured, if you had been able to run a tight ship, constantly moving forward and upwards.

Don’t count on miracles to happen. Instead invest the time in ensuring you both have a day-to-day operational side and a longer term strategic side working on the next important projects crucial to the growth of your business. In my opinion that’s the best insurance policy you can take out on your startup becoming truly successful.

Of course the obvious question is what it takes in order to maintain a balanced approach and ensure you succeed on a broad spectrum? Well, I have a few ideas and suggestions.

First of all make a conscious decision to set out a portion of your time as founder to only think about and work on projects that are longer term (+6 months) but crucial to the growth of your business. How much you should set aside varies and is up to you, but I would suggest at least one full day per week. That will get you started.

Next up, drill down on your vision and build your product and business roadmap based on that. Start out with the vision and define a strategy that will provide you with a blueprint for what needs to happen in order for the vision to be able to come true.

When you have the strategy, define which role your product(s) is going to play in order to make the strategy succeed. It will not be the only thing that matters, as execution and GTM plays also play pivotal roles in ensuring success. But the ongoing development of your product(s) and the leaps you can generate through making the right product bets are critical.

What does your product need to be in order to deliver on the strategy and ultimately the vision? What does that imply when it comes to the roadmap? When do you do what? In what order? What are the goals you will setup to monitor, whether your successful with your product or not? How will you remedy mistakes and get on the right patch again? Etc etc.

Make a complete drill-down on what your product strategy and roadmap needs to be in order to deliver on the vision. And make a conscious decision to stick to the plan in the sense that you prioritize ideas, feature requests etc that supports the roadmap, the overall strategy and the vision as much as you can.

When you get to the point where you have those things in place, you can start enjoying the overview that comes from having a plan and working towards executing it. You will find further enjoyment in the fact that even while you may from time to time toil with fixing bugs or some other operational matter, you’re still by and large working in the right overall distraction. Fixing things doesn’t become the end but just one of many means to an end.

And that’s a huge difference. Also to the ultimate success of your business.

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Affecting change hurts

Working at startup takes it toll. Ambitions are running high, ressources are always stretched, a lot of processes are not in place, and getting the right talent to join the mission is super hard. There is absolutely every reason for why days and weeks can feel like an almost eternal struggle. But that’s just the nature of how it is to be building something from nothing.

When you feel the struggle, it’s super important to remember that there is the good kind of struggle and the not so good kind of struggle.

The latter is the internal one, where you struggle because you don’t have 100 % alignment in the team about where you are going with the business, or you have some friction between various functions in the team, because your processes for how to do things are not completely done yet. Yes, it can be super painful, but it is something you work your way through, as you gain experience, figure out what works and what doesn’t and get into a modus operandi of only doing the things you have found out works best and provides the most progress for you.

The former – the external struggle – is the really interesting one. Because while you would think that struggling is inherently a bad thing, you could also argue that in some cases it might actually be an indication that you’re starting to make a dent.

The reason I make this counterintuitive claim is that struggle is an indicator of friction. And friction is an indicator of change taking place. Thus the more you feel the pain, the more you get feedback from the market about your product or service being a different take on the status quo and upsetting people a bit, the more you’re scratching where you need to scratch in order to have an opportunity to affect change and create impact.

Just for clarity, I am not talking about struggling making the product work or getting to product-market fit in the first place as a good thing. Those are still the kinds of struggle, you want to get away from by fixing the underlying causes as soon as possible. But struggle in terms of people noticing what you’re doing, asking critical questions and maybe even giving pushback and fighting you a bit? Absolutely.

Understanding this dynamic is super importent. Because when you do you also understand that there is some friction and pain you need to deal with in a positive way, since it’s something you want in your life as an indicator that you’re moving the needle and creating an impact where it matters.

So with that comes the obvious question: How to you deal with this pain of the struggle in a way that doesn’t end up killing you?

People have been in this position before, and there are plenty of things to learn from them. Some of them have even been in the position, where the pain and risk was much more lethal and where it was truly a matter of life or death in the most concrete terms. Learning from them and how they coped might give some insights into how you can think about this.

One of the most prominent thinkers and examples of how to deal with pain and struggle and not succumb to it comes from the Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher and Jew Viktor Frankl. Frankl spent 3 years in Nazi concentration camps, and while there he had an epiphany that afterwards formed the basis for his groundbreaking work:

People may do whatever they want to you. But even in the most gloomy of times, when all seems lost, you still at your core fundamentally control how you let circumstances impact you. You always have the freedom to decide for yourself that you won’t let even the biggest struggles break you.

That’s a super powerful realization coming from someone who would have had all possible reasons for giving up. And it’s a great opportunity to get inspired on how to be resilient and never give up. Stay strong, stay in the fight and prevail in the end.

So, in dealing with pain for the achievement of a later greater good, there is a lot of things you can do yourself by working with how you think, act and react to externalities. But you’re not alone, and you need that kind of enduring mentality to be present in the wider team as well.

This is where the role of the right recruitment comes in. The advice is pretty basic: Focus on recruiting people who share the vision, you have for your startup. People who have the same visualization of what it’s like when you’re there, and you have reached your ambitious goal. People who can feel how that would be like, and desperately want to get to that place. People who are willing and able to fight and see through the struggle(s) to get there, and understand there will be many roadblocks, challenges and issues before achieving success.

Of course it is also crucial that the people you recruit for the team have the right skillsets, but given a choice I would argue that sharing the same set of beliefs and ambition is the most crucial. Because if you get on the track, you’re hoping to get on, you will be challenged again and again by circumstances, and you need team members around you who will stand, fight and win the fight with you. Period.

You can help them along the way by ensuring that you carve up your success metrics into smaller bites, you can achieve within a limited time frame and celebrate, when its time to do so. Those little starts and stops in terms of putting in the hard work, celebrate success and start over again will do you a world of good in ensuring that you keep energy and stamina high, even as the challenges come at you left, right and center.

Just make it a habit to do the work that’s needed to affect meaningful change. Because the results are worth fighting for. Even when the process hurts, and you just want to quit. No success comes without making a real hard effort.

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Kill your darlings

Imagine if you were as good at killing product features, as you are at coming up with new ones? It’s an interesting concept, don’t you think?

I have often found that one of the major stumbling blocks towards innovation and increased success is parts of what you already have. The more legacy, you build up, the harder it becomes to really push ahead, as there will always be some sort of argument to be had for spending your time and effort on trying to improve legacy features or products rather than come up with new, largely untested ones.

But you should really consider going on an internal product and feature killing spree in order to weed out those elements of your product(s) that may once have been your darling(s) but now are not really adding value anymore.

And I think there are two very compelling arguments for why you should go through this exercise in regular intervals.

First of all, if you don’t do it, be sure that your competitors are going to. Because aside from coming up with their own bright, innovative ideas, they are looking for weaknesses to exploit in your product(s). And those are most likely exactly the same ones as the ones, you should be putting out of their misery yourself.

Second, by eliminating features and products you don’t really need anymore, you get yourself in a much better position to grow your future business. You free up valuable ressources that you would otherwise have needed to spend keeping these outdated features alive, and you also have the opportunity to use the exercise as an inspirational tour towards what you need to build next. Because maybe, just maybe, there is something in the old that will be a powerful guidance towards what should come next.

It is truly a helpful exercise to do every once in a while, and it helps keep your startup at its toes by always being on the edge and attacking (pardon my French) the market in an aggressive form with great products and features rather than trying to protect something, which you deep down know can’t really – and shouldn’t – be defended over the longer term.

I fully realize it can be an awkward feeling to go about killing features rather than giving birth to new ones, but just remember that you’re doing it, because your darlings have served their purpose, and now it’s time to let them provide room for something new and even better.

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Your customer is the bottom line

There are many approaches towards building a healthy startup business that will take off, grow end endure during both good and more challenging times. But honestly I cannot think of a better one than to treat your customer as the bottom line.

The math behind it is simple: Every time you delight a customer by solving her problem and giving her a delightful experience more than worth the money, she’s paying, she will stick around. And not only that. She will also be advocating your product and brand to those she knows or comes in contact with who are experiencing the same sort of challenges as the ones, you helped her solve in the first place.

When I think about it there is actually no real viable long term alternative to this approach. Of course there are numerous other ways you can optimize for growth, gain initial traction and stretch your available funds to last a bit longer, but over the longer term? Don’t think so.

The problem with a lot of more tactical approaches towards building your bottom line is that they are inherently short term. They may put a band on the sore or enable you to play through the pain barrier, but they don’t fundamentally cure or fix anything.

You will always be in the need to come up with new approaches, new tricks, new creative ways of doing things, and chances are that the positive effects of these things will vane over time. And then you’ll really just be playing catch. All. The. Time.

So focus on the customer and delighting her. Make that the primary outcome of everything you do in your startup. If you’re looking at doing something that cannot be directly related towards a positive contribution to this outcome, think hard about whether you need to do it. Be tough on yourself. And eliminate all necessary distractions in order to focus on – you guessed it – delighting the customer.

If you’re looking for proof that the approach works, look no further than to Amazon and its founder Jeff Bezos. He is notorious for always wanting to put the customer and customer satisfaction first. Often to the extreme and – sometimes, I would argue – to the detriment of his own team. That’s more than dedication. That’s obsession. But the results speak for themselves.

Of course your not Jeff Bezos, and your startup isn’t Amazon. But there are still things that you can do in your everyday operation to put the delighted customer left, front and center of everything you do.

You can start by really taking customer success and support seriously. Stop looking at it as a support feature, you need to have but don’t really invest in. Invest heavily in it. Put some of your best people there. Give them the mandate to truly listen to customers and feedback, and allow them time and space to turn that feedback into thoughtful suggestions for things your startup can do on the product side in order to further delight customers.

That’s not to say that you should just go with any whim and whichever customer yells the highest about something they may think they want or need or something they want you to remove. Far from it. But it is about keeping an ear to the ground and maintain a balanced approach to listening in that will help synthesize the most crucial nuggets back into both your product and everything surrounding it.

Your product will most likely be all the better for it. It will delight customers more and help attract new ones. And it will fuel the success of your business and your bottomline in ways that nothing else can.

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Getting your goals right

January is typically the month where a lot of us set new and often ambitious goals for ourselves. And the coming weeks are typically the ones where we once again fail miserably in achieving them.

Maintaining and working hard towards a goal – especially a big hairy one – is really hard and takes an awful amount of discipline.

None of us are super disciplined 100 % of the time, and thus it makes sense to conclude that the more goals, you add to your list, the bigger the chances are that you won’t reach them. Maybe even none of them.

If we take that to be true, how come we seem to always add new goals to our lists at work? How come we have a tendency to add so many goals across one or more teams that sometimes it seems like we spend a lot more time managing and reporting on goals than we do on actually working towards achieving them?

Part of the reason for that is probably that we use the different frameworks for setting and managing goals in ways that are not really productive. We adapt frameworks built for other purposes and apply them across our teams as a ‘one size fits all’-thing that ultimately don’t fit anyone particular well. But causes a lot of frustration in the process.

So of course the good question is what to do about this and apply a way of working with goals that actually works by setting direction but not bogging you down in micro-management, lack of discipline and ultimate loss of motivation?

An initial step could very well be to just realize that goals are in the same way are not meant for everyone. That for instance it doesn’t make sense to apply an OKR approach through the entire organization, if some different way of setting and meeting goals work better in sales than it does in customer support or engineering.

With that in mind allow me to outline a suggested approach. From the bottom and upwards:

On the operational level it makes a ton of sense to look at the different disciplines as essentially part of an organism that has a firm rhythm. Almost like a heartbeat really.

When you look fx at sales there are established simple frameworks for setting goals and managing performance when it comes to everything from time from lead to closing to average deal size and more.

There is absolutely no reason to work with anything but the established standards there and in other areas of your business, where standards apply, as you want to ensure that the people in your team who is on point to deliver work towards types of goals that they know and recognize, and which ultimately frees up as much time as possible for their core tasks: Closing deals, managing support tickets, deploy new features etc.

It would probably be quite easy from a senior management point of view to apply different approaches and then cascade the metrics upwards towards a simple ’rhythm of the business’-scorecard, you can use to keep track of how the operation is ticking along, and which allows you to step in and do an intervention, of you can start to see anomalies in the rhythm. That would actually be quite effective.

Because the operational versus development aspect does play a key role in getting this right; you want to keep operational issues operational, and you want those operational issues that require an effort to optimize and fix going forward to feed into the development cycle and how you look at things for the longer term.

The development cycle is not only related to engineering and new features. It is also related to the overall development of your business. Put bluntly there is no reason you should bother your team members with issues of future strategic importance, if it takes away from their ability to focus on getting the job, they need to do today, done.

Thus the overall strategic objectives of your business should only be of primary concern to the senior management team or the founders. And this is where it makes sense to look at frameworks such as the OKR model.

The OKR model great for stating an objective and identify some key results that you need to achieve in order to meet that objective – like a guideline for reaching the goal with a few built-in sanity checks. But it should be restricted to big picture issues, as it’s terrible for micro-management.

Setting your OKR objectives also takes some skill in ensuring that you set just the right number. You should always have more than one, but you should probably not have more than 3 across the business. Because if you have more, you’re just adding on to your list, you loose track and motivation, and you likely won’t achieve the goals.

You should also not set goals that are too far out in the horizon. One of the big reasons people give up on their goals is because the time to experience success is way too long. You thus need to break up the objectives in smaller bite sizes and work to meet them one at a time.

A simple approach could be to define your objective for the next 12 months and then look at the key results needed to get there. Define those and break them down into smaller short-term objectives that can be the only ones, you put up on a board and work towards in fx a quarter.

That will help make your overall business goals smaller, ambitious but achievable and – crucially – point in the right strategic direction. When you then add the key results to achieve these minor short-term objectives, you should look to set and integrate the standard KPI’s from your various teams in order to ensure that everybody in your teams are working towards the same overall common goal – but without adding work streams, processes and reporting for them to the mix.

This is just a suggestion on how you could do it. The point is that while goals are important to have, it’s more important to have goals and a way or working with them that is actually operationally viable and don’t have a detrimental effect on efficiency, focus and ultimately morale.

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Customer check-in

One thing I find very fascinating is that for a lot of startups there seems to be an almost inverse relationship between the energy put into acquiring and onboarding customers versus the energy put into keeping them as happy customers for the long term.

Of course most startups do customer satisfaction surveys, NPS scores etc, but how often do you actually reach out to some of your customers to engage in a real conversation about how it’s going, how they use your product and what challenges they are experiencing?

Thought so.

The challenge tends to become more complex the more you’re driven by SaaS-metrics like MRR and ARR. Yes, it is vital that you understand these, but what difference will it make, if in essence you have very little understanding of what is going on behind the scenes, in the heads and minds of your customers?

One of many reasons that Amazon has become so extremely successful over the years is that they have always been extremely customer obsessed. They have always been looking towards understanding the customer, the journey and experience better and better in order to develop their many offerings.

And they have been remarkably successful to say the least.

You will most probably not be the next Amazon, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t steal a page our of their playbook and become totally customer obsessed.

Lesson one in that course is to start treating an existing customer and the relationship you have and want to expand with that one over time with the same amount of energy, you put into acquiring new customers.

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Recruit by objective

Too many startups are still looking towards other startups and their org charts, when they recruit to expand their teams.

While there is of course something to be said about having someone on point to fill the various operational roles in the startup and ensure smooth operations, navigating by org chart is typically a pretty poor way of ensuring that you reach your overall objectives.

What you should be looking to do instead is to staff by objective;

Figure out what the key objectives for your startup is and ensure that you have the right people with the right skills and experience in place to make a success out of them. If that entails restructuring your team and who’s in it, maybe that’s a thought worth having.

When you try to recruit, figure out who you need to have in the team, and who would be nice to have. Recruit the must haves to form the core, and supplement these with contractors or freelancers, who can make an important contribution for a while until they are on to other projects.

That way you can get the best from both worlds, and you won’t get stuck being dragged along by an irrelevant org chart.

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Keep winning

When looking at B2B startups, it’s super easy to get impressed by a well-executed growth model that brings new customers in in droves. Of course it is; sales is an art and can be a super tricky one at that, so every time a startup succeeds in closing a deal, it’s reason to celebrate.

But what I personally like to celebrate more is their ability to keep their customers happy by ensuring a high retention and thus a super low churn.

That – to me – is the most powerful indicator of a startup delivering real value to customers by successfully solving a problem, the customer has.

When I meet with startups there are always convincing narratives about how to find and attract new customers and close the deal. But with startups who already have their first product in market, I often find that the story becomes slightly less convincing, when we talk about retention and churn.

Sometimes the story about retention becomes so weird or non-logical that I just assume that the startup in question has a real problem in that department, and they are more than reluctant to share that with me. That – in all honesty – is a huge flag.

Having to work hard on retaining your customers is hard work and honest work. Because even though you may have a great product, lots of other startups or big corporations are out to get your customers with everything from a slightly better product to one that is just a lot cheaper (and perhaps even loss making) than what you have to offer.

You need to have a plan for keeping retention high, and you need to execute on it like your life depended on it. To some extent it does; at least the prospects of your startup ever becoming a viable business.

You need to show that you understand what’s going on, and that you understand what you need to do to keep your customers engaged, happy and finding the best value in your product. And you need to always optimize that approach to ensure that your win didn’t only happen once, when you closed the deal, but that by keeping the customer, you essentially have what it takes to keep on winning.

When you have that, it’s truly worth celebrating.

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