This morning, I found myself crunching some data on pharmaceutical prices. But the fact that this was on the top of my to-do list would have been absolutely inconceivable a year ago.
That's part of the fun of startups--there's no such thing as routine. But the constantly shifting sands make it hard to plan for what lies ahead. And planning ahead is among an entrepreneur's most essential responsibilities.
Thinking long term is hard not only because the future is so ambiguous, but also because the here-and-now is so emphatic and conspicuous. In the present, everything must get done now. Even when immediate needs have been met, the future remains distant and fuzzy.
Recently, I tried to step back and assess the long-term plan--"long term" meaning two years--for Iodine, my digital health startup. This meant first taking time away from short-term demands. So, basically, I hid in our conference room for two days. It had to be done. I had to know whether we had enough capital to reach some ambitious market targets--but without a long-term plan, I couldn't estimate when those targets might come into view.
Having struggled to make room to plan more than a month in advance, I now struggled to find guidance on how to actually do it. The startup blogosphere and entrepreneur-friendly sites like Quora are full of advice about the importance of planning, but they're thin on details. What I needed was a road map that would help me consider what to plan for, and when and how to plan for it.
Thankfully, I found the Startup Genome Project, an organization that surveyed more than 100,000 companies to assess the common characteristics of successful startups. That project spawned Compass, a service that helps 35,000 businesses benchmark their progress against one another. It's a terrific tool, but it's not right for early-stage companies like Iodine, which lack most standard metrics.
Still, the survey contained a nugget of gold. It identified four discrete stages that most startups pass through: Discovery, Validation, Efficiency, and Scale. I took these and built my own road map, starting with four columns, one for each stage. Then I added rows for the four categories that preoccupy most startup CEOs: People, Product, Market, and Money. This created a grid of boxes. I filled each with four bullet points: Our goal for that category and stage; the challenges we'll face in hitting that goal; the metrics we'll use to track progress; and what resources we'll tap to reach the goal.
A few hours later, I had my road map, making the turbid waters of 2015 and beyond look a little more navigable. Already, this road map is proving essential at Iodine. We are just now moving from the Discovery stage to the Validation stage. That means our central Product challenge will be less about exploration and more about execution.
Another realization has been that we do, in fact, have enough money in the bank to get through the Validation stage. Questions about our business model and revenue will come soon enough, but it's useful to know they should be on the back burner for now.
Last, the road map shows that as chaotic as things seem today, they get a lot more complicated tomorrow. We're still in a honeymoon phase--we've built our first product, and now we get to tell the world how great it is. If the world agrees, well, the hard work will just be beginning. But now we can see more clearly how much of it lies ahead.