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.

(Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash)

Tactital vs strategic use of data

There is no doubt that data forms a really solid basis for making business critical decisions not only in large organizations but also in startups. That especially holds true when ressources are tight, and the ambitions are grand; you need to really ensure that what you’re spending your time and money on truly works towards keeping the momentum high.

In reality it might not always be so easy to work with data in the most impactful way. Because it’s not only about looking into the numbers and keeping track of incremental improvements. It’s more about knowing where you want to go with your startup, figuring out which metrics make sense in order to report on your progress and then setting yourself up with data sources that enables you to keep track and optimize the operation, so you end up meeting or exceeding whatever goal you might have.

Doing this the right way takes dedication and a fundamental feel for and understanding of the underlying business dynamics, your products or services and – not least – your customers and their needs and expectations. In other words, in order to be able to use data in the most efficient strategic way, there is a lot of prep work you need to do beforehand, which doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with data in itself.

And this is precisely where I often see warning signs when I look at especially early stage startups and the way they try to work with data in order to grow and scale their business. Many of these don’t have as much of a strategic view of how to enable their business to run on data as they have a more tactical view on using data.

So what is a tactical view on looking at data?

An example could be that you’re trying to grow engagement of your app. You want to get users to spend more time in the app and engage more by liking or sharing things. You could pretty easily define a couple of more or less standard metrics, and you could also quickly find a ton of tutorials online that will help you optimize for those more or less generic metrics (let’s just choose Daily Active Users or DAU as an example to make it concrete).

It would indeed be possible to apply well-recognized best practice ‘hacks’ towards optimizing for those metrics, and there would probably also be some improvements to show for it. But the trouble is that not only is this a very mechanical, one-size-fits-all approach towards working with data. It is also short term and has no real bearing on either the quality of the product or service, you’re offering, let alone the needs and aspirations of your customers.

Thus, in essence, by applying this generic tactical approach towards working with data in your startup operations, you end up optimizing for…what exactly?

This is precisely the reason why it’s so important that any effort working with data to improve the prospects of your startup and meet the goals, you have set up, needs to be strategic in nature. So what does that mean?

First of all it means having a general direction of travel, you want to take your startup on.

Second, it’s about validating with customers and market research that the direction is the right one and – if executed in the best way – will actually bring the wanted results to your startups prospects for success.

And third it’s about figuring out what that direction in tandem with the validation from the market and customers means in terms of defining custom metrics that both prove to be valid indicators of success and which are also possible for you keep track on.

Once you have those metrics in place to represent desired strategic outcomes for your startup, you can start doing the setup of your data and analytics to support keeping track of it all. The first time you go through that exercise it will probably feel like a lot of work, but just like plumbing for your home, if will not be something you need to do more than once. Once you have it settled, the systems are in place, and data is flowing like you want to, you’re set.

And then – and only then – are data set to work efficiently for you and your startup.

(Photo by Stephen Dawson on Unsplash)

BMaaS

Have you ever thought about how many different SaaS tools for business there are, who help you get things, you have decided on doing, done, but how few (great) tools there are at helping you reach the right operational decision about what to do?

As a former business manager with a deep passion for getting involved and being operational on this and that I have often wondered. Especially since I have first hand experienced how the decision making process in corporations is inherently flawed.

Many of the decisions being made are not necessarily based on the facts or the access to the best data. They are based on habit, hearsay, politics and whatever else somewhat murky pretext. And the results show;

Poor decisions leading to sub-par initiatives and less than optimal outcomes.

It’s a huge problem for many large organizations but also one it’s hard to talk about and address efficiently, as any kind of fact finding and urge to try and improve the status quo will undoubtedly uncover all the hidden flaws of how decisions are actually being made.

In software development the problem has to a large extend already been fixed by agile development methodologies and processes. Here widely adopted and accepted frameworks already exist, and there is a plethora of software platforms and tools that help facilitate smooth and efficient development processes – examples such as Jira and Asana comes to mind.

Of course it would be possible to take some of these platforms and adopt them for ‘operational business development’ rather than software development, and many already do that. But why the need to settle?

In my mind a very valid question to ask is this: Why shouldn’t operations – the day-to-day job of execution to make a business work with customers, suppliers, employees and other stakeholders – have the benefit of the same kind of lean mean software orchestration, as software development already has?

Of course it should.

We could call it ‘business management software’ and define it almost as a kind of OS for operations or an exoskeleton for operators enabling the organization to get even more out of employees, who are already doing a great job.

Solving the operations efficiency challenge centered around transparent, data backed decision processes based on context could prove to be an unlock of immense value for corporations large and small. And thus also an opportunity worth pursuing for entrepreneurs looking to deliver real tangible value for business users – and operator-savvy investors understanding the inherent opportunity in this space.

(Photo by Adeolu Eletu on Unsplash)

Getting inspired by others

How many times have you met a startup, which has claimed to be ‘Uber for X’, ‘AirBnb for Y’ or another version of something already in existence and hugely popular? Many times. And every time it has been cringeworthy.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is all bad taking your cues from others, who have threaded the path before you and been successful at it. Far from it.

The difference is in how you do it.

You should NEVER do it in public. That’s the first lesson.

If you want to take inspiration and map your journey against someone who have done it before, do it in a war room of sorts; a place – physical or digital – where you can lay their playbook out, study it, plot your initiatives and try to follow their plan forward.

Pick the best, optimize it to your own reality so you get a feel for it and use it in your operations. By all means. If for no other reason because you have validation from those who have gone before you that the approach is effective.

Don’t talk about what you do. Just execute. Most people with even limited insight into the market will quickly spot the resemblance, but since your not being vocal about it, it will just seem like you have been inspired by the way others have done before you.

That’s happening all the time in the world of business, and it’s a perfectly cool way of executing your way to success.

(Photo by “My Life Through A Lens” on Unsplash)

Stay manageable

Yesterday I met with an former colleague who stepped down from a C-level job to essentially become a landlord renting out spare rooms in his house and making a nice flexible living doing so. It was very inspiring – and surprising.

We took a walk, and he ‘walked’ me through his business and how he operates it. How he essentially tests every little twist and turn with his guests in order to figure out what works and what doesn’t. And how he always keeps his eye on the operational aspect of it all making sure that the operation is as automated as it can get and relies as little as possible on him actually being there to take care of things.

The operational aspect was mindblowing; always staying one step ahead thinking about everything making sure that what you do is manageable from an operations point-of-view – not making it too complex in the process. The idea is fascinating and intellectually stimulating, and I think there is a lot of value to be had there for start-ups by thinking along the same lines to make things efficient, reduce burn-rate etc. I will definitely be working more on that.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)