Starting a business is a mind game. Like an Olympic athlete, a chess grand master, or a Wimbledon tennis pro, you're competing, performing, and using all your mental powers to achieve success.

You have to think like a startup in order to be a successful startup. And how do you think like a startup? What are the mental markers of success?

To win the game, you must focus on the most important things. Identifying those areas then unleashing your mental powers upon them. What areas, you ask? Through the crucible of experience--both success and failure--I've identified four of them.

1. Focus on building the business, not doing busywork.

We all want to feel productive. Often, in order to feel productive, we just start doing--something, anything, everything.

Okay, stop. Just take a deep breath. Just. Wait.

Are you doing things that only you can do--things that will build the business? To be busy is not to be productive.

74% of business owners admitted that reconciling expenses kept them from doing important business-building activities. Business owners spend 40% of their workday on time-wasting tasks that don't build the company.

The key is to spend time on your business, not in your business. In other words, you want to avoid doing work that does not contribute in some way to making the business grow bigger and better. Instead of just doing perfunctory labor, do strategic mental work.

Wayne Rivers nails it in his Wall Street Journal article, "Four Ways Entrepreneurs Waste Their Time." Here's what he wrote:

If [entrepreneurs] devoted a few more hours per week to business development, long-term business planning, communicating their vision and values with their teams, rigorously evaluating their talent and getting super-competent new hires on board, and improving corporate quality, they'd see dividends and impact immediately.

What does this mean, practically? There are some things to avoid and things to do.

Busywork to avoid:

  • Administrative tasks
  • Some meetings
  • Micromanagement
  • Most paperwork
  • Travel planning
  • Preparing slideshows
  • Interruptions
  • Someone else's project or responsibility
  • Reports
  • Some mail
  • Some phone calls
  • Questions from employees
  • Crisis management
  • Payroll
  • Accounting

Strategic work to engage:

  • Planning
  • Preparation
  • Clarifying Values
  • Researching
  • Visioning
  • Listening to customers
  • Recreation
  • Journaling
  • Building relationships

It's easy to get sucked into the busywork, which completely eclipses all the available time to do the strategic work. Steven Covey explains that all that busywork is urgent but is not important. The strategic work, in contrast, is important, but not urgent.

That's probably why it's so hard to do the truly important stuff. It doesn't feel important. Strategic work certainly seems less important than the other things crying for your attention. It takes incredible mental resolve to shove away the stack of urgencies, and make time for the truly important things--building your actual business. Do what really matters.

2. Focus on selling your product, not raising funding.

Most startups need funding. So most entrepreneurs waste a lot of time chasing money.

This is a huge mistake. Funding doesn't build your business. Selling products and services builds your business.

Dana Sverson has done the funding thing a time or two. He's learned some tricks of the trade, but he's also been burned by chasing money to the detriment of his business. Here's his advice: "Don't let this process consume you. Your business is your customers, not your investors."

The director of Microsoft Ventures echoes Sverson's advice, though he does so from the perspective of an investor. The gist of his advice is, "Bad investors can waste valuable time and derail company visions."

Nearly anyone who has gone through the trials of fundraising can swap war stories of fake investors, empty opportunities, endless plodding, and totally wasting their time.

Alexander Mittal, CEO of FundersClub sees entrepreneurs doing this all the time: "Many first-time entrepreneurs obsess about fundraising, and worse, let it take priority over what actually matters-building product and talking to customers."

There's something more important than raising funding. What is it? Selling your product. As it is, investors are going to want to see someone who's good at selling a product, not selling a business idea. Put the horse first, not the cart.

If you have your seed funding, stress over the business, not the next stage of funding.

3. Focus on doing things that empower you, not discourage you.

Pardon the fortune-cookie aphorism, but I need to say it: Do what empowers you. Avoid what discourages you.

The term "empower" has been hacked to pieces by corporate vision statements, motivational posters, and business cliches. So why do I use the word? Because as the leader of a startup, you need to protect your morale. The way you protect your morale is by engaging in empower activities.

The whole bit about empowerment and attitude may sound a bit rainbowish or pseudo-scientific, so let me prove it from the field of personality psychology.

When you feel empowered, you're more likely to be successful. A study from The Quarterly Journal of Economics explains that "confidence in one's abilities generally enhances motivation." In order to experience that confidence, you have to do stuff that you're good at.

Psychology researchers call it "achievement motivation"--attaining excellence in one's area of expertise (source). In the Journal of Personality, researchers explain that "achievement motivation predicts success in business." Their findings, pulled from decades of study, show that people with high achievement motivation also possess strong executive control. They have a powerful working memory, reasoning ability, problem solving, and task flexibility and execution.

That kind of sums up what an entrepreneur should be, right? So how do you achieve this profile of success? It's not complicated. Do what you do best, do what you love, and do what empowers you.

4. Focus on listening to customers, not just critics.

To grow your business, you need to listen to the right stuff. Most business advisors will tell you to listen to your customers.

But few advisors will tell you to plug your ears against the critics. I've learned that listening to everyone's opinions or advice can be debilitating. The quickest way to do something stupid for your business is to take the advice of someone who doesn't know anything about your business.

There exists a group of people who understand your business in the most important way. They know a side of your business that you will never fully understand.

This group of people is your customers.

Customers are one of your most valued business assets. You've spent money to attract them. They have experienced what you offer. You owe it to them to hear what they have to say. Listen to their stories. Learn their journey. Understand their behavior. Interpret the data.

You need to listen to someone, so choose carefully. Your customers have something to say, something that will grow your business. Listen to them.


There are a million things to do in a startup. But most of those million tasks are a waste of time. The true essentials are few:

  • Focus on building the business, not doing busywork.
  • Focus on selling your product, not raising funding.
  • Focus on doing things that empower you, not discourage you.
  • Focus on listening to customers, not just critics.

This isn't an overwhelming list. That's the whole point--to focus. You'll never win at the mind game of business if you can't focus. It's time to start focusing on the most meaningful activities of all--things that grow and prosper your business.

What are your mental tricks for succeeding at business?