8 Steps to Startup Productivity

In addition to managing engineering efforts at a startup, I have also worked with a number of different startups helping them to go from idea to launch, faster.

The biggest constraint on startups with small teams (sometimes soloists) is not cash, but rather time. In a cruel sort of paradox these startups also need more time than the average team because they are not only building a product, but also establishing a market, doing sales, forging partnerships, fundraising, to name just a few things.

Therefore it is extra critical that entrepreneurs budget and spend their time wisely. In this vein, here are 8 things that can be done to make your time more productive. While it is impossible to create more time, we can do our best to squeeze every bit of value out of the time we have.

1. Remain Focused

You are starting something new. Likely this means you are passionate about new ideas and dreaming about what-ifs. In most ways this is a positive, but for the few that are not, it can be a real time-killer.

It can be tempting to chase threads of ideas. After all it may feed a new pivot or expand your idea into something more marketable. But these would be untestable guesses if pursued willy-nilly.

This is a good reason to use a business model canvas. It really helps to clarify exactly what you are building. It can serve as a good beacon when the storms of busyness roll in. It would be ideal to review your current activities on a weekly basis through the lens of your canvas.

2. Protect Maker Time

Maker Time, as defined by Paul Graham is absolutely vital to the success of any new creative venture. Without efficient Maker Time the venture will most certainly fail.

After all, you are building something from nothing and your are building something with technology, writing software. You need uninterrupted blocks of time to allow concentration and creativity to unfurl.

At Eldarion, we typically schedule things in blocks of three hours. That seems to be an optimum time period to ramp up, be productive, and deliver something, while at the same time allowing enough flexibility to schedule other things before or afterwards. We will work one to three containers on any given day.

These blocks of time are sacrosanct. No one is allowed to interrupt other people's Maker Time.

3. Establish Manager Time

You will need as much Maker Time as possible but you can't starve Manager Time either. Bunching tasks that are more Manager Time can make this time more efficient. For example, say you have three phone calls you need to make, five emails to respond to, and one meeting scheduled; reply to all emails before the meeting, have the meeting, and as soon as its over make the phone calls. Instead of interleaving these tasks with Maker Time, grouping them together makes the most of this time allowing you to capture more solid chunks of Maker Time.

4. Rock the Essential

You must get a clear grasp for what is essential about your startup. Drucker would call these core competencies. But since you haven't built anything yet it's more about what is core to the idea that you are planning on building, rather than anything with regards to your capabilities--you don't have any capabilities... yet.

Using the business model canvas, focus in on what the Key Activities are. For most folks doing a tech startup, "development", "engineering", and the like will be the Key Activities. However, we need to dive a level deeper here. We need to be focused on only building the bare minimum necessary to win and retain customers.

Anything beyond this essential core, are extras at this point. This leads to the next point.

5. Kill the Extras

Extras are important. Many extras will help you with customer retention, increased customer segmentation, value add up sells, etc. But all of that is for later. First we have to get customers and prove a business model. At this stage the extras just suck up time.

So kill the extras for now by logging them to a backlog somewhere. You can revisit this list at a later date.

6. Outsource the Rest

Anything that is not Essential or an Extra, you should outsource. Most of this is Infrastructure, some is Platform. For example, there is no reason most startups should be setting up servers and managing machines these days. There is plenty of good PaaS offerings in the platform of your choice.

You might also consider even outsourcing some of or all of the Maker Time depending on your team configuration. You will certainly need to own development at some point but early on if no one on your team is a Maker it can be beat to outsource to initial prototyping to version 1.0. This alleviates the team to focus on getting customers and finding channel partners. It can also help you delay a very risky decision--your first developer hire. Eldarion has helped plenty of zero-dev startups get going and put them in a position to hire a dev team having already established market momentum.

7. Deliver Every Day

Part of productivity is purely psychological. If you feel like you are being productive then you generally will be. The opposite is true as well. So with this in mind we can trick ourselves into greater productivity.

One thing I like to do, is break down tasks into small enough units that can be done in less than a day, preferably less. Then, no matter how crazy or uncontrolled the day gets, I make sure to deliver something at least every single day. This at least keeps forward progress moving.

Another spin on this is after delivering your final task start something else. By having a task started but unfinished you'll naturally be thinking about it in the shower, at breakfast, etc. Then you can dive right into things when you first sit down. This allows these otherwise unproductive times of your day to become thinking time applied toward solving the next task.

8. Timebox Everything

By timeboxing, we apply constraints that help to force us to make decisions to achieve progress. Without the timebox we have the tendency to over-engineer and/or procrastinate.

Timeboxing is how you budget your time. It creates a laser focus and has the affect of generating an intensity that is critical to achieving optimum efficiency.