Git ‘er done is a great motto (or “get the thing finished” for the non-American readers out there).
As Steve Blank says, “A startup is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.” Getting to that business model takes action. You won’t get there without doing things. But many startups get bogged down and simply fail to do.
There are two broad flavors of failure to execute: Starting Paralysis and Delivery Stalling. Startups fail to start, or they fail to finish.
There are two types of Starting Paralysis.
Type 1: Being Overwhelmed
There is so much to do, you don’t know where to start. You actually talk yourself out of starting because you’re not sure where to start. Big projects are like the massive paper that was due at the end of a semester in college. There is only one answer: just get started. Pick a starting point, doesn’t matter where and get going. Put one foot in front of the other and get it done.
Type 2: Treating an Obstacle Like a Problem
This is a more complex issue to deal with, but once you recognize it, you can conquer it. I suspect it is also the more common type of Starting Paralysis.
Here’s a typical scenario. You’ve identified a viable MVP for your target customer. You’ve taken out everything but the essential guts of your product, but it’s still pretty complex. It’s 3-6 months work for a team and you need money to make it happen. You have to get to the MVP, so you have to get the money. Everything slows to a crawl while you try to find the money. But of course, you don’t have much to show a potential investor, so raising the money is slow. Before you know it, six months have passed and you are no further forward.
But there is a solution.
Last year, I had the good fortune to attend a session with Seth Godin. The audience consisted entirely of entrepreneurs. He had us do a few group exercises, but one in particular stood out. He asked the audience to pair off and ask their new partner for help with whatever the biggest problem was that they were facing. He gave us a few minutes and then asked that we swap roles and the listener got to talk about their biggest problem. He gave us a few more minutes and then asked us to stop. He asked how many of us had found a solution to our problem. Pretty much no-one raised their hands. He then asked if we considered ourselves to be dumb or smart. Of course, we happily claimed to be quite smart.
“So a room full of smart people couldn’t solve your problem. That most likely means it’s not a problem, it’s an obstacle. You don’t power through an obstacle, you go around it.”
This type of Starting Paralysis is a result of treating an obstacle like a problem. You need to quit trying to blindly power through and figure out the best route around the obstacle.
Yes, the MVP for your customer requires a lot of work and that requires money. So change the customer. Build an MVP for a potential investor – just enough to get them excited and onboard.
There’s almost always a way to solve this type of Starting Paralysis, you just need to look in the right place. You also have to get started. You have to move forward. Route around, don’t try to blindly power through.
Overall, I think Delivery Stalling is the most common problem for startups. A typical example looks like this: you have a product, but you haven’t released it. Maybe you’re keeping it in very limited beta. Maybe there are just a few more features you think you need to be exactly what the market needs.
The truth is that you’re fooling yourself. What you really know before something goes into the world is a small subset of what you’ll know afterwards.
The best answer to delivery stalling is summed up in this great quote from Reid Hoffman:
“If You’re Not Embarrassed By The First Version Of Your Product, You’ve Launched Too Late”
And In Conclusion
The best way to eliminate your demons is to recognize and name them. There are plenty of other ways to screw up execution in a startup, but actually starting and actually finishing are pretty easy ones to recognize and fix…