Ep. 7: How to Prioritize as an Early-Stage Startup

 
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How to Prioritize as an Early Stage Founder | Idea to Startup Episode 7 | Convert audio-to-text with Sonix

Brian Scordato:
There are a few things you've got to come to grips with if you're going to be an entrepreneur. It took me a while to get this. You're probably not going to be anywhere near as smart, talented, driven, connected or mentally tough as most successful entrepreneurs. I am certainly not. It's not that you aren't all of those things, I'm sure you are. It's just that the entrepreneurship world is the major leagues. These are the smartest people on earth. And while you're not necessarily competing against them it's hard to build something out of nothing. So we've got to figure out how to amplify every minute you work to give yourself a chance. If I work 60 or 70 hours in a week I need those to be ridiculously high value. If you're working part time this becomes even more true.

Brian Scordato:
To do this we need to do two things. First, we need to make sure we're working on really high value differentiated stuff. Second, we've got to create an environment we're working on the right stuff is the easiest path. The first few episodes of this podcast were about idea and customer, they're critical. If you're new welcome. Go check those out first. But today we're moving away from customers so we can nerd out on execution a little bit. Today we're going to build you an operating system. I'm Brian Scordato and this is the Idea to Startup podcast brought to you by the best, and I think only, accelerator for early-stage founders who still have their full time jobs, Tacklebox.

Brian Scordato:
I got to college for my freshman year a few days early. I'd been recruited to play basketball and I was told that we'd have some informal workouts before school's in session. The senior captain met me in my room while my parents and I were unpacking and said to hurry up because pickup started in an hour. Fresh off the emotion of saying goodbye to my parents I've rolled into that first unofficial/official practice. My new coach peering down from his office. I got my ass kicked. Everyone was bigger stronger faster and more physical than me. I'll never forget one of the first plays, running alongside somebody with the ball and a breakaway. Getting ready to try and block their shot like I had hundreds of times in high school, only to look up as he dunked all over my head.

Brian Scordato:
Afterwards I called my uncle. I couldn't bring myself to call my parents. I was too upset. I told him I wasn't good enough and I probably get cut. I had to hold back the tears. I loved basketball so much and it was about to be taken from me. He reassured me it was fine, just to do my best and if I got cut I got cut. I didn't end up getting cut but I quickly realized that what had worked for me in high school was not going to fly in college. I wasn't more naturally talented than everyone like I'd been growing up, mostly poor bigger faster and stronger than me. In high school I'd loved playing so my practice was just playing pickup. I shot around by myself a ton too but it was never structured. That it worked fine until this point. But I wanted to be a great college player so I couldn't keep messing around. I needed to find an advantage. I knew it can be the best at everything but I did think I could find a few specific areas with huge return and become great at them.

Brian Scordato:
Specifically I recognized that in the flow of our offense I'd be open for three different types of three pointers all the time. I wasn't a great shooter yet but I could be and I really only needed to focus on those specific three point shots coming from locations off of screens in a certain way to get enormous value. So I practiced those shots maniacally. This layered on top of all our general practice gave me a real advantage. I could hit three pointers from the wing, coming off a double screen, getting a pass from the top of the key in my sleep. And during my senior year of college I did. I finished third in the country in three point shooting and finished top five in school history and points. I scored over 650 points on three pointers alone nearly all from those three spots.

Brian Scordato:
So is this story relevant to founders or did I just want to list my college stats? Well, it's a little bit of both. When you leave the corporate world and step into the startup world you'll get smacked in the face by this different breed of person. A person with drive and capabilities you simply won't be able to match. That's fine. We do need to focus on ordinary and extraordinary to keep up. You can't expect ordinary inputs to yield you extraordinary results. And you need extraordinary results for your startup to get off the ground. And the way you work now is probably ordinary and just ramping up on the number of ordinary hours you work won't fly . Mixing Sports analogies all over the place here.

Brian Scordato:
So what do you need? An operating system. We need to bring the same type of approach and discipline I brought to practice, to your workflow. If you're working on your idea on the side and it's a passion don't worry. This doesn't make this not fun or more like a regular job. It just makes you a professional. If you really want to give what you're working on a shot you need to do this.

Brian Scordato:
The three big things we'll talk about today are first, prioritization. Second, the myth of willpower. And third, your internal weekly report. If you want all the tools and products I'll list today and a detailed description of how to build all of this, sign up for the podcast newsletter and gettacklebox.com, then click on podcast. I'll also pop a link in the show notes. Also, I've been told that to grow you need reviews. I saw that some podcasts offer $10 Starbucks cards of people submit a positive review. I check those shows and all the reviews just say something like Starbucks in all caps. This seems endlessly lame so I'm not going to do that. But if you like the show feel free to leave a review and almost more interestingly feel free to send me an email. I love learning out on this stuff. Now let's get to it.

Brian Scordato:
You've got an idea and you're excited about it. You block off your entire weekend to work on it. Start giving this thing a shot. You sit down you've got a big cup of coffee and you open your laptop. Then what? What do you do you? Think for a second, a second more, then you open your e-mail. Maybe there's something to respond to. This happens because most corporate jobs are reactive. The way most people works they open up their e-mail in the morning, they see what's most urgent and important in the moment and they do it. Then they're in and out of e-mail the rest of the day. Everything's reactive. This is first order thinking. There's a task you need to do, you'll get credit when you do it and you do it.

Brian Scordato:
The feedback loop is short and satisfying and the work is shallow. It's hard to break this habit of reactive work. It's easy and mindless. Reactive work is crippling for startups. To combat this, you just start categorizing every bit of work you do in terms of stones and sand. I visualize each week as an empty glass tube. We'll fill that tube with work throughout the week. There are two types of work that I'll fill it. Stones and sand. Stones are bigger. They take up a ton of room in the tube because they take big chunks of uninterrupted time to work on. I usually block off three or four hours at a time for this type of uninterrupted work. Stones have positive second order consequences. They're proactive and thoughtful. They push you to find your unique differentiated value and then invest in it.

Brian Scordato:
This stuff often feels painful in the moment. You've got emails to answer but instead you're spending three or four hours thinking about stuff eight months down the road. It always feels like the wrong decision in the moment but it's always the right decision. Success in the startup world is a lagging indicator. Because this work has such a long, uncertain, unsatisfying feedback loops, ordinary people don't do it. It's against our nature. The seemingly urgent stuff always seems to elbow out the deeper work. The rest of the work you've got is sand. It fills the cracks. If you prioritize sand you'll fill up that tube and then you won't have any room for your stones. If you start with the Stones, you'll get the most important stuff done first in the sand fills in the cracks.

Brian Scordato:
I've mentioned a thousand times but I'm an essentialist. Ninety nine percent of what people do doesn't matter because everyone does it. Everyone answers emails, everyone's schedules things, everyone responds to things, everyone checks LinkedIn. There's no delta here. It can't be a top priority. No one ever separated themselves by responding quickly to emails. So what's a week of sand and stones look like. Let's look at my week this week. For me, my stones are writing, recording, producing and sharing this podcast.

Brian Scordato:
My business is based on terrific early stage founders applying to my accelerator program. Podcasts have nothing to do with this. But podcasts can do two things for me long term. First I love telling stories and I'm good at it and I love helping founders. This is differentiated. This is unique. I've learned a ton the past five years running Tacklebox and this is a great forum to get all that specific knowledge about the first 6 months of a startup out. Stones are usually perfect for building on and leveraging specific knowledge.

Brian Scordato:
Second, maybe a year or two from now this podcast becomes popular. Maybe I get more customers and then I get more flexibility around the types of products I can offer. Somewhere down the road I'm going to thank myself for consistently putting out this podcast and prioritizing it over things like answering email. The last cool thing is the podcast allows me to talk to tremendous founders. I've got an excuse to speak with the founder of the Wirecutter or Brooklinen or whoever else I spoke with this week. That's awesome and I'm learning a ton.

Brian Scordato:
The second type of stone work I have this week is proactive outreach. I'm trying to learn how to be a great podcaster, so I'm going through and reaching out to the top one hundred business podcasts in the iTunes store. I'd love to speak with every single person so I'm crafting cold e-mails, I'm writing them, I'm thoughtfully responding. I also want to speak with NPR Gimlet and anyone else producing quality content. Again no immediate value but I'm network building. I'm getting famous to the family. If I ever want to sell this thing to say Gimlet I'm not just going to show up on their doorstep knock on their door and say "hey want it?". It's got to be after 18 months of them watching us move up into the right. Relationships are built on lines not dots and these stones are a great opportunity to start creating the dots that make the line that show how well you're doing.

Brian Scordato:
Stones are best for things that will separate you. It's usually one of four things. Strategic thinking and tests, deep customer interactions, network building or team building. For me the sand is everything else. It's responding to emails from our founders and alumni. It's wrapping up a recent cohort. It's responding to inbound requests. It's organizing meetings and interviews with potential founders. It's reading and responding applications. It's all stuff that's important but isn't really all that predicated on me. It's the 99 percent stuff. Anyone can do it once we've established the playbook. The goal is to start identifying all of the sand task and either automating it or delegating it.

Brian Scordato:
I'm learning that everything comes with a sacrifice. Stones force you to endure this short term pain. There is a chance one of our alumni gets pissed if I take six days to answer an email that took me five minutes to reply to. Sorry Ronan, that happened today. And I get it. But my goal needs to be to create the best possible outcome for a handful of founders today, a thousand next year and ten thousand five years. That's gonna come at a cost.

Brian Scordato:
Transparency is key. I stink at this and it's uncomfortable but it's important for you to make it clear when you'll be answering emails so expectations are set. It's also doubly tricky for entrepreneurs because we always want to promise the world and then we'll figure out on the back end how to make it happen. These Herculean unscalable efforts aren't always great long term. They have their place, but the majority of your work needs to be more durable. The sand can be unscalable but the stones should be building the scaffolding that make the unsaleable stuff eventually take less than less time.

Brian Scordato:
This sand and stone framework isn't exactly a tough thing to get behind. The logic is obvious. But people don't do it even after they know about it. They tell me things like "well I can't afford to take time to be strategic now, I'll do it once..." whatever happens. Then whatever it is happens or doesn't and they keep on doing what they've always done. There's never gonna be all green lights. There's always going to be a sacrifice needed. The key is understanding why human nature is holding you back.

Brian Scordato:
People always overestimate the downside and underestimate the upside. There's a girl you've had a crush on for years but you've never asked her out. The downside she says no. It's sort of awkward for a few minutes. The upside she says yes. You date, you get married your soul mate and you live happily ever after. But you better not risk those few awkward minutes, so we're gonna keep on not talking to her.

Brian Scordato:
An important part of your operating system is understanding that you've got no willpower and you can't do this stuff on your own. You need to design the system. I started the calendar. It's possible that you don't control your calendar and that's fine. We want to do the best we can here. So what I say is, sit down on Sunday evening and check in on the upcoming week. First thing you want to do is figure out where you can schedule in these three to four hour long stone blocks. My goal is to have 60 percent or more of my work to be the stonework. I have 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. blocked off every day except for Wednesday for just that. Also try and squeeze in a few more stones here they're usually in three hour blocks but sometimes those don't happen.

Brian Scordato:
On Sunday I choose what I'll work on. This is the stuff that differentiates you. The unique test that you're running to find the 1 percent of things that really matter to your customers. The crazy stuff you're allowed to explore because it might end up being the secret. The books you need to read to get unique perspectives. Anything longer term focus is fair game. There's one more slot I hold dear. Friday from 3 to 6 p.m. I leave my phone at home, I grab a notebook and I think about things in a coffee shop. This is incredibly productive, even though it always seems like I should be staying home and answering emails or doing something else. I'm always happy I did it at the end.

Brian Scordato:
Now onto the slightly wackier stuff I paused my email every day until noon. I then check it from 12:00 - 12:45 answering the most important stuff and then I have a hard stop. I won't check it again until 3:00, again with a hard stop at 3:30 and then again from 6:00 - 6:30. I use a tool called InboxPause the rest of the time. All of my emails will flow in at noon, 3 and 6. The big question is "What if an urgent e-mail comes in at 11:00?." First, it's very rare that there actually are urgent e-mails and second, Inbox Pause allows you to pick people who can e-mail you during these times. I'll get an alert so when I have a meeting with people that day they'll be on a list and any email that they send me that's related to scheduling I'll see. Also my virtual assistant Anna-Cheri checks my inbox a few times throughout the day to make sure I'm not missing anything urgent. Basically there's never been anything that I've missed.

Brian Scordato:
If you've got a full time job and are trying to validate your idea on the side I'd definitely follow this framework. If you've got 13 hours a week to work on stuff, you need to make sure that 10 of those are for stones. A big disclaimer here, working for three to four hours at a time will be hard at first. Your brain's been turned into a mashed potato by your current work habits. It's OK. It's not you it's everyone. But here's how to handle it. Just start with an hour, see if you can do it.

Brian Scordato:
What I do is whenever I get distracted or have an urge to check email I'll open up the notes app and I'll just write down what time it is and what I wanted to do. If I take a look at my notes app for the time that I was drafting this podcast I've got: 8:22 - I felt like check in the phone. 8:30 - I felt like checking email. 8:52 - I felt like checking email. 10:24 I need to research the best gin for a martini, then I need to buy gin vermouth and olives. I don't know what that was about. Then I have a list of other things I need to do. So I need to email my mom, I need to send an email to people who came to the Tacklebox event and so forth. This note app is a lifesaver for me. It allows me to offload thoughts without needing to check something like email.

Brian Scordato:
There are a few other tricks I have because again, my willpower is awful, For these big blocks of time I really need no distractions. I use a tool called Freedom. It blocks the Internet for as long as you'd like it to and you can schedule in advance. So Freedom blocks the Internet during my stone time. I can't do anything I can't go to LinkedIn or Twitter I can't check email nothing. I don't have the password to Freedom. Anna-Cheri keeps it, so I've really got no way of cheating. The only thing I can do on my laptop is work. The internet then automatically gets turned back on but things like social media are always blocked. These sites bring very little value at enormous cost.

Brian Scordato:
I do schedule 30 minutes here and there throughout the week to check things like Twitter or LinkedIn and see what I missed. I usually make it through about 10 - 15 minutes before I realized I didn't actually miss anything and then I get back to whatever I was doing. I notice that news was crushing me for a while so I got rid of that to. All my news sites are always blocked. I get a physical paper on Sunday and I get the Economist. That's really all I need. I realized some people can't do this and maybe I shouldn't, but I've got specific goals and nothing news related pushes me towards any of them.

Brian Scordato:
One of my favorite techniques is to make one decision that makes thousands of decisions. I block the news so I never need to make the decision of should I check the news. My email is blocked until noon so, "should I check email?" isn't ever a question I ask. This saves an enormous amount of decision fatigue. This is a lot of my current operating system. I'm constantly tweaking it and it creates mountains of time for me. It allows me to run cohorts build a podcast and redo the website all at once. I'm always looking for opportunities to build on it. Anything I do that's fleeting can potentially be systematized or delegated.

Brian Scordato:
Do I follow it perfectly all the time? Of course not. I spent an entire Wednesday two weeks ago frantically trying to catch up on Game of Thrones. Do I break in and check email when I'm not supposed to sometimes? Sure. But this system gets better and easier with practice. Absolute worst case, my system ensures I'm constantly being thoughtful about actions that will have second order positive consequences for my company. This consistent practice cannot be a bad thing. Best case build a system that operates on its own and keeps you on track. This requires less and less cognitive overhead to do the difficult creative differentiated work that will give your idea a chance.

Brian Scordato:
The last piece of your operating system is tracking. I mentioned earlier how strong our need to get rapid reinforcing feedback is. That's the feedback that comes from answering to and firing off emails all day. It's a little endorphin rush. You need to figure out a way to recreate this. So there are some short term winds that are driving you towards those longer term gains the longer feedback loops from your stones. I create a weekly report. On the report, there's the amount of time I spent on durable versus fleeting tasks, the sand versus stone stuff. The weekly report tracks the number of stones I get to each week. And I'm always trying to improve on that number. It also lists out all the projects I'm working on the amount of time I spend on each and KPI for each project.

Brian Scordato:
Email analytics pulls in all my email data. The number of emails sent received and the time spent in Gmail. I'm constantly trying to decrease these numbers. Finally, I pull this into one big score for the week. This is based on the number of things I've done that'll benefit me down the road. I have my big vision for Tacklebox explicitly written at the top of the report and I can see how all the projects I'm working on will contribute to that vision. I'm always trying to improve this score. It's become a little bit of an obsession. I spend a lot of time thinking about and building the scaffolding to continue to get more out of the hours I spend. Accountability here is huge. I always go through it with Anna-Cheri on Mondays. But if you're working alone I would definitely find a partner to go over a weekly report with. It's critical that you're held accountable.

Brian Scordato:
The last part of the system is the end of the system. Everything is time box, so when you're done you're done. Shut the laptop. If you need more time schedule more time, but don't just let emails and things bleed. Don't check your inbox on Saturdays. Don't have Gmail on your phone. Get your stuff done so you can live your life. Life is where everything important happens. The insight, the growth, the difficult work. Your unconscious mind will continue to work on the problems of the week, but if it's partially taken up with one foot in one foot out why you're answering email on a Sunday it won't. Whenever I'm stuck in uncreative that means I'm answering lots of emails and not out roaming experience in the world. Different things come from different experiences and views.

Brian Scordato:
I was going to end this by saying that this is all a bit extreme, but as I think about it, I actually don't think it is. I think it's how people should work. What is extreme is trying to do difficult work with thousands of distractions and competition for your attention. That's crazy. Not this workflow. So how can you get started next week? Stones and sand. Plan out your week on Sunday. Create a three hour block or to pick what you'll work on. Something that'll have a huge second order consequence, something that you think might be incredibly valuable down the road, something risky and then use Freedom to block the Internet while you do it. Build from there.

Brian Scordato:
I spent a lot of time on this. I have a lot more info if you want it. Books, specifically "Deep Work", "Getting Things Done" and "The Myth among others have been very helpful. Again email me at Brian get tackle box AECOM". Or head to gettacklebox.com, click podcast and sign up for the podcast e-mails to get some more of this. The extra juicy good stuff will all be in there. Also, let me know if you build out your own system. It all fascinates me and I'm curious to hear what works and what doesn't. I'll say it again it deserves to be said a thousand times more, ordinary will never equal extraordinary. Building yourself an operating system is a great tool to push you towards extraordinary. Have a great week.

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Episode Description:

Entrepreneurs can do anything, but they can’t do everything. How do you prioritize early on? How do you differentiate? This episode presents a framework that’ll ensure you work on the things that give your startup its best chance at success. 

Show Notes:

Get the full prioritization framework + tools here

Tools mentioned: 

EMAIL

Inbox Pause

Text Expander

Email Analytics

Unroll.me

CALENDAR: 

Toggl

Freedom

Calendly

INTERNET: 

Freedom


You can find this and all future episodes on iTunes and here on gettacklebox.com/idea-to-startup.



Brian Scordato