I caught up with a friend yesterday who is an up-and-coming architect in the Austin area and it turns out we are facing a lot of the same challenges in launching a new venture. We both are working to optimize processes in order to spend the most time possible on the core aspects of our firms.
During a 2016 shareholders meeting, Elon Musk said “We’ve realized that the true problem, the true difficulty and where the greatest potential is, is building the machine that builds the machine. In other words, building the factory.” Similarly, Homebrew’s Hunter Walk has been quoted as saying “the company is the first product, and you have to be really intentional about how you build it before it’s ready to scale.”
This highlights an important reality of building a great company or product: the processes and frameworks put into place will often decide the level of success achieved and those operational components should be designed with the end-goal in mind. As my partner Jonathan recently wrote, the best of the best almost always “perform the common uncommonly well.”
1) Start Early: The larger a company grows, the more difficult it becomes to put processes in place. This one is straightforward, as a startup begins to scale it becomes exponentially harder to move everyone in the same direction. Getting a group of 10 engineers to agree on a product development methodology is easier than asking 40 to do the same and infinitely easier than asking a team of 100 or more. This isn’t just an engineering or product problem, the same rules apply to marketing, finance, and sales. Bonus: it will make cross-functional execution that much easier.
2) Overly-Simplify: The best early-stage companies have an innate ability to focus when it is most difficult to do so. Early-on, startups are vulnerable to chasing shiny objects as everything feels like a big opportunity. Instead, avoid temptation and focus on executing toward one core product or market. Example tactics to accomplish this include: shorter meetings (i.e. standups), picking 2-3 metrics that are core to success (ex. contribution margin and conversion), and selecting 1-2 strategic priorities per timeframe.
3) Scrutinize: Be honest with yourself. One of the most effective practices I’ve seen teams use is the agile concept of a retrospective. This gives teams the chance to discuss what’s working, what isn’t and ideas for improvement. The most crucial element to this step is accountability, without it, these meetings don’t help move the company forward but instead become chances to be overly critical without inspiring action. Begin each “retro” with a review of how well the team executed on previous takeaways and keep score.
Operations within early-stage companies often get overlooked as there are more exciting challenges to tackle. When processes are in place, no one notices because things are running smoothly and challenges do not begin to surface until later in the game. However, neglecting them is akin to puncturing a boat while it is still in port; it may leave the dock, but it won’t make the entire trip.
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