Month: April 2012

The single biggest enemy of your personal productivity

Think back to a really productive time of your life. For me, the more productive and focused I am, the less I know (or care) what’s going on in the world around me. When I’m in the zone kicking ass on a big project, I stop reading Twitter, my RSS, and all other news.

Right now I have no idea what the stock market is doing, no clue what’s happening with the upcoming elections, nor what team won the NCAA championship last month.

But when you really think about it, who cares? Most of the time, all that’s going on is violence and a bunch of political garbage. Or something else you have absolutly no control over. Current events rarely, if ever, have a direct impact on your startup/ life/ goals.

Instead of wasting countless hours following current events, what if everyone stayed focused and productive and didn’t know what was going on in the world? Maybe the world would become a better place worth knowing about.

Why lists can cause more harm than good

We used to keep lists. Every feature request, new product request, items we wanted to do internally, we tried writing them all down. The problem is, we never used any of the lists. (I apologize to every customer who was told their suggestion was “on the list”. They were! We just didn’t really use the lists.) Occasionally we’d look at one list or another but we would never do anything with them. What ended up happening is the lists would be come so large they would be overwhelming and become useless.

Instead of keeping lists, especially when you’re a small company, focus on your current needs. If something needs to get done, it’ll come up again and again and again. If it doesn’t, then you probably don’t have to do it. The scary part about not keeping lists, is you feel as you might forget something. You wont. If it’s important you’ll know it. Or someone on your team will know it and advocate for it.

Not only are large, long term lists useless, they’re actually harmful to your company. They’re overwhelming, distracting, confusing, purposeless. It’s nearly impossible to rank items in a large general list and even harder to come to a consensus across the entire company as to what to do on the list. Plus, looking at a list 50, 100, 500+ items long is just plain demoralizing.

Project task lists and daily to-do lists are okay. They help each person accomplish their tasks. But, if you don’t plan on doing an item in the immediate future, then forget about it. You have too much to do right now. Focus on the here and now, not the millions of other things you could be doing. It’s more important to be successful today than to know what you have to do 3 months from now. Only work on and think about, the items which fit into your current focus.

Now of course you have to have a vision to ensure all your daily tasks and projects are moving you in the right direction. But once you have your vision, don’t worry about item number 273 on your task list. In fact, don’t even have an item number 273 on any task list. Figure out the top 5 most important tasks to do, do them, then repeat.

Just tell the truth and be done with it!

No one likes to tell be the bearer of bad news. It’s not easy to be negative or to just say no. Why do you think so many relationships drag on and on? It’s hard to let someone down, or be completely honest when you know you’ll cause pain.

So the question is, how often do you lie to your customers? I’m not talking shady business practices or manipulation. I’m talking about the simple truth. For instance.

  • When a customer asks for a feature you know you’re never going to build, what do you say?
  • When a customer outside of your market wants better pricing or has trouble using your service, what do you tell them?
  • When you mess up and ship a bad or buggy product, how do you handle it?

Do you make excuses? Do you tell them the feature is “on the list”? Do you try to talk your way out of a mistake? Or help a customer even though you know you’re not the right fit?

One of the questions we used recently when hiring for customer service was, “When should you fire a customer?” It’s a hard question. We got a lot of “Never!” answers. That’s just plain wrong. Of course you’re going to fire a customer, whether you like it or not.  The point was, we were looking for someone who was willing to be honest. Take the blame, take the heat. Tell the customer, “Hey, we’re just not the right fit for you. Try this other great company instead.” Or, “That feature just isn’t going to happen any time soon, or ever.”

It can be harsh but this attitude and honesty creates such a better relationship than dragging someone along. I recently had a call with one of the companies we use and had a very frank conversation with my account rep. Since last year they had grown at an astounding rate and the market they were going after had changed. Although we could still use their service at the same (heavily discounted) price we really just didn’t fit into where they were headed. He was great about the pricing but very honest about their future. This was hard to hear, and caused some additional work on our part, yet we parted ways on great terms and I’ll continue to support and recommend that company. The alternative could have been much worse.

Be really honest with yourself for a minute. When you interact with your customers how honest are you? Do you tell them the truth or do you sugarcoat it? If they’re not a great fit do you say it and help them move on or do you tweak your sales pitch to compensate? In my opinion, life’s way too short to BS. Tell the truth and move forward. Your business will benefit and we’ll all be happier in the end.

Don’t be Perfect

It’s so easy to add that one additional feature, read that one extra blog post, figure out that one extra optimization. This also makes it really easy to never actually accomplish anything. You’re not perfect. Neither is your team. And you never will be. Once you accept this you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.

When I first started writing these blog posts I had no idea how to do it. No idea what the title should be, how to optimize for SEO or what type of format is best to use. And honestly, I still don’t, at least not very well. So I have three choices. I can really think through how to solve those problems, do some basic learning, or just ignore it and write anyway. You should always ignore  your hurdles to start off with.

Getting stuff out the door is the hardest part of starting a company. It’s very easy to get bogged down because there are so many opportunities and possible improvements. The more you can focus on just doing the basics the better you’ll be. Trust yourself to fix the bugs that come up, or your ability to learn what you need to know, when you need to know it. I’m very confident I’ll figure out how to do SEO or title my posts once it becomes necessary. But for now, it’s just one more excuse not to write them.

It’s easy to fix something that’s broken, very hard to fix something which doesn’t exist.

How the best companies leapfrog their competitors

My co-founder, Casey, wrote a great blog post about why listening to the experts in your industry may not be the best idea. So the next obvious question is, who should you listen to? Listening and learning from someone, anyone, is a great way to jump ahead without having to make every mistake yourself. In fact, it would take a lifetime to learn everything these experts know on your own. The obvious choices would be mentors, friends, fellow employees, etc. Not to mention, listening to an expert in your field isn’t the worst thing ever, every once in a while. But I would suggest there is an alternative which trumps all those a thousand fold.

Listen to experts in every field but your own. And I mean every field. This includes other types of businesses such as a 100+ year old company, or a company which produces a physical product (if you don’t). Or how about that new cutting edge genetics company? Read some medical blogs, marriage counseling blogs (doesn’t matter if you’re married), architect blogs. Read about the arts, space travel, psychology, traveling, a zen lifestyle, etc. The list is really endless. And don’t just find a random medical company or a random traveling blog, find the best blog, the best company. Find the most cutting edge, or the most respected, find the leader in that industry. Then listen, learn and copy them.

Bring what they do best into your company and your industry. Learn how to adapt their practices to your goals. While everybody in your industry is out copying the leader, always one step behind, you’re bringing in something new. You can leapfrog the current trends, build your own path, while still following tried and true methods. You’ll be amazed at how the owner of the leading local coffee shop is already doing all of these supposedly new ways to run a company, preached by your industry. Or how that old geezer running that supposedly outdated company has more insight and understanding of your business than you’ll have for years.

Bottom line, there are a lot of really smart people out there. Don’t constrain yourself to one small industry. You’ll be amazed at what you can learn from the leaders in completely unrelated fields.