The startup founder imperative is to decisively act on what’s most important and most immediate each week. What’s important and what’s immediate are two very different things. These two decision-drivers also change dramatically at each stage of the venture’s life cycle.
For example, what’s most important and most immediate in the conception stage (finding Product-Market Fit while avoiding confirmation bias), is very different than what is most important and most immediate in the MVP stage (getting to market quickly and getting honest customer feedback while avoiding feature creep, so the next best iteration can emerge).
A whole new level of trade-off decision-drivers then come into play in the funding and early-growth stage; then another whole set in the scale-up stage; and yet another completely different set in the profitability stage.
Few startup founders meet the imperative at each stage because they aren’t taught how to appropriately categorize the Important versus the Immediate.
“You will have two kinds of problems: The Urgent and the Important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”~ President Dwight D. Eisenhower
SIDENOTE: Full credit to Dwight Eisenhower for drawing the distinction between the important and the urgent. I substitute the word “urgent” for “immediate” because I believe there is a practical distinction in emphasis. Urgent implies crisis-mode. When your job entails making life-and-death decisions and your actions have global consequences, then those problems are certainly urgent. When you are the founder of a startup, your problems are less severe, and your decisions and actions are unlikely to have dire consequences. A good founder is not always in crisis-mode, or he or she will certainly fail. Thus, the distinction between urgent and immediate for most startup founders.
So, with that basic definition, what’s the framework for balancing the Important with the Immediate?
As you can see from the illustration below, these two decision-drivers are about PRIORITY and SPEED. It comes down to knowing what problems, issues, and challenges are important — and how fast you should address them. Again, it will depend upon what stage your venture is in, but there are common attributes to consider regardless of stage.
Not Important and Not Immediate
The lower-left quadrant contains all the things that will be put on the founder’s plate, but their attention or resolution will have little impact on the venture’s success. This is not to say these things shouldn’t be addressed, but that they should be outsourced or pushed out for later.
For example, in the conception stage, a founder shouldn’t be writing a business plan or socializing the idea with investors while it is still unbaked. They shouldn’t be writing code or building product. But too many founders can’t resist doing so and end up working on things that are not important and not immediate at this stage. They are seduced into working on things that simply don’t matter or do so because it’s what they like doing versus what they should be doing.
Attributes of things that are Not Important and Not Immediate:
- Routine things, administrative details
- Busy work, fine-tuning and tweaking the unimportant
- Things that can be canceled, automated, or pushed out
- Things that can be outsourced because they are not mission-critical
These things are low priority and low speed. Let’s face it, there are a thousand little details involved in building product, operating a legal entity, and working with team members, but many don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Don’t waste time, money and energy on these things.
Not Important But Immediate
The lower-right quadrant contains all the things that require immediate attention or resolution, but don’t advance the mission or goals of the venture. They must get done, for one reason or another. They can’t be ignored, but most can be dispensed with haste.
For example, in the funding and early-growth stage, a founder will have to deal with all kinds of advice and demands from investors – even after they get the money. Investors will want reports. They will want the founder’s opinion on other companies they are thinking about investing in. The company will need to file certain forms on deadline with regulatory and taxing authorities. It’s sh*t that has to get done right away or may create headaches. It’s easy for founders to be distracted by these things and confuse them as being important. They are not important, but they are necessary. Get them off your plate as quickly as possible.
Attributes of things that are Not Important But Immediate:
- Things that must be dealt with; often personal (health, family) or important to others (board, investors, employees)
- The consequences of not dealing with them are Immediate
- Often created by other people’s drama, crisis or goals
- Can often be delegated to trusted advisors or management team
These things are low priority but high speed. They should be dealt with quickly; not waste a lot of your time. They require decisive action. They may be important to others, but not to you or the venture. These things should be few or will derail “Your” Important. If you let these things consume you each week, the venture will get off track.
Important but Not Immediate
The upper-left quadrant contains the things you are working for. These are things that advance the mission, achieve goals, implement strategies, and bring you closer to realizing the grand vision and promise of the venture. These are the things too many founders forget. They take their eyes off the prize. Ironically, because they are not immediate and take years to achieve, they are less and less prioritized. The things in the lower quadrants begin to subsume the things in this quadrant.
For example, in the scale-up stage, a good founder should give up more control, empower others with decision-making authority, and ensure the institution of good systems and processes. This transition will impact the culture and bring pressures to hire more people and spend wisely on infrastructure. The consequences of taking or not taking thoughtful, decisive action, on these important issues will not be immediately apparent but will indeed have a significant long-term effect on the venture’s success.
Attributes of things that are Important but Not Immediate
- Long term goals and aspirations; cannot be outsourced
- Things that should remain top of mind; never lose sight of
- Things that should always have high priority and focus; must make progress on each week
- The achievement of these things brings leap-frog advancement toward the vision
These things are high priority but low speed. They take years to be fully realized. If you lose sight of them or fail to make steady progress on them, investors will lose interest, employees will become disillusioned, and competitors will seize what high ground you have captured. Remember, be driven by what’s important and guided by your values, even though gratification will not be immediate.
Important and Immediate
The upper-right quadrant contains the things a good founder and his or her top lieutenants should be focused on each week. They should be in alignment with the things in the upper-left quadrant but prioritized for quicker decision and implementation. These are the things that matter most and not addressing them quickly will have immediate consequences.
For example, in the profitability stage, meeting the expectations of all stakeholders instills confidence and strengthens the venture’s long-term position in the market. The company may have to lay-off non-essential employees with little notice, or make a quick decision to acquire another company before a competitor does. The stakes are much higher, and the decisions and actions of the leadership reverberate instantly.
Attributes of things that are Important and Immediate
- Time consuming because the stakes are big
- Demand immediate attention or the result is paralysis or setback
- If not addressed with knowledge and diligence could derail the venture
- Have big impact on stakeholder trust and confidence
These things are high priority and high speed because the venture itself may not survive them if not addressed successfully. These are mission-critical problems and issues. They are gating issues and bottlenecks that the failure to resolve will prevent just about everything else from moving forward properly. In some ventures, they are the defining moments for the founder at each stage: go or no-go; raise or sell; step-up or step aside; hire or fire, etc.
In summary, no matter what stage a venture is in, the founder’s imperative is to know the most important and most immediate things to work on each week. These things require decisive action, not hope or wishful thinking. They can’t be delegated. Know the four differences between the important and the immediate, prioritize them accordingly, then decide and act. Don’t be derailed by the Not Important, especially the things that require immediate attention. Prioritize and focus on the truly important.