Every January, I try to remind my team about a few basics-- half a dozen simple rules of the road that have served me well over the last 50 years. I do this not so much because they need instruction--we all definitely "know" what we're supposed to be doing. I do it because each and every one of us needs regular reminders since it's just too easy in the heat of battle and the stress of the day-to-day to forget, skip over, or just plain ignore some of the business fundamentals that will ultimately separate the winners from the also-rans. So, here's my short list.
1. Pay Attention and Write It Down
Focused attention facilitates learning and retention. Take good, detailed notes in every meeting. The dullest pencil beats the sharpest memory. Don't sit there pretending that you can simply take it all in. You can't. There's absolutely no substitute in life for paying attention and making it a habit to capture the essential information during each meeting is the best way to keep your head in the game and your eye on the ball. If you're gonna be present, make sure that you're all there.
And, as an aside, lawyers who advise you to keep only brief minutes of critical meetings are morons who are just trying to make their jobs or lives easier. The goal is always the same: try to be at least a little smarter by the end of the meeting. If you can't honestly convince yourself of that, then maybe going to the meeting was a waste of time.
2. Use A Calendar and Start Your Planning Yesterday
Start right now and scope out the whole year to the extent that you can and keep doing this all year long, at least monthly. There's a lot going on all the time and it's hard to keep up. If you do this right, it's a lot like having your own crystal ball. There's no magic and there's no mystery-- this is all about good preparation and research. In fact, it's like owning a slo-mo machine in our sped-up world. You get an edge on the competition because you've already been there.
This simple process enables far better planning and preparation; avoids embarrassing conflicts that might bury you; assures fewer surprises and last-minute emergencies; and makes for many less missed opportunities. Doing your homework ahead of time avoids headaches and heartaches all year long.
And, especially for a startup, it's a great way to save time and marketing dollars. Parades are very expensive-- go find an event or someone else's parade (who's headed in the right direction for your purposes) and run right alongside of them or even race to the head of their conga line. A lot of the big guys have plenty of money to stage great parties, but they're slow as molasses. Trying to lay your own track or even trying to bust through the noise and clutter that's out there is crazy when you can just hitch a ride on someone's else railroad and ride for free on their dime. Hop on board before the other guys even know what's happening. But understand that you can't do it if you don't make it your business to know what's going on and what the world around you is doing.
3. Do More Reading and Less Tweeting
Let your fingers do the walking, but not the talking. Give your phone and your peeps a break and shut up for a while on social. The smartest people I know read something relevant to their business every day-- as often as not (even these days) it's in print. I'm not talking about the shit on social, but real substantive material. Some of it may be internal business reporting; some of it may be competitive intelligence; some may be customer inquiries and feedback, and some may be blue-sky, but it all adds value and improves outcomes when coupled with intelligent action. You can't win a race with your mouth or your social media meanderings.
And keep in mind that you're not being paid to waste your time and your company's money churning for hours though irrelevant newsfeeds and random tweets. Here's a flash: if you aren't being paid to post, you're not the producer or the driver of the engagement or even in control of the show; you're the product whose eyeballs and alleged mindshare are being sold to the highest bidder-- just like the patsy in the poker game. If you don't know who the sucker is, you're the sucker.
4. Ask Questions Until You Understand the Answers
Someone once said: "better to remain quiet and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt." They were dead wrong. Virtually all innovation these days comes from asking the right questions and that's absolutely an iterative process. If you're afraid to be embarrassed or to admit that you don't know it all, join the club and then get over yourself. We're all just bumbling through this stuff and no one has the secret formula or has figured everything out. As long as you've done your homework, there really aren't any dumb questions and anyone who's ever run a tech startup will tell you that: (a) the most important thing is to know all the questions rather than to have all the answers because (b) no one ever knows either all the questions or all the answers, but that shouldn't stop us from asking. And the most critical question to ask is the one that you need to ask yourself every day: How badly do I want it?
5. Remember to Regularly Review Your Reverse Roadmap
I'm frankly depressed to see how many young entrepreneurs are basically working for next to nothing and just don't know it yet. Of course, if you don't care where you end up, then any road will take you there. But if you do, and especially if you're also looking out for the members of your team who are also working their butts off, then it makes sense to take the time to figure out where you actually stand and where you're likely to end up in terms of dollars and cents.
I realize that it's supposed to be all about the journey and the joy of building something, but that doesn't mean you can't be a little mindful of the math that ultimately matters. This stuff isn't easy, but understanding it is essential. Take the time to get smart about it or be smart enough to ask someone who knows to give you a helping hand.
6. Raises Aren't Revenues
Too many folks are focused today on the fundraising process rather than on building sustainable businesses. The media celebrates every new round because keeping score is easier than digging into the merits and the mechanics of the actual businesses. But, all the cash any business raises don't mean squat without satisfied customers and serious sales. Paid invoices are a much more reliable indicator of whether your business is going to worth than additional investments.
And then there's that little thing called profits, which turns out to be the most important thing of all. Spending money is easy; making money is hard. Just because you killed a cow doesn't mean you're gonna eat steak for dinner.