A Startup’s Guide to Time Hacking
When we first started our company, we slept in a garage, ate nothing but IKEA meatballs, and worked all of the time. Despite our effort, we did not manage our time very well and really had no idea what we were doing. We worked too long and didn’t accomplish nearly enough.
Over the last few years I’ve been working in this company, I’ve had to revisit and consciously break down many of my misconceptions regarding time and readapt them to fit my life inside of a start-up.
My goal in this post is to discuss my mental model for thinking about time at a startup today. I hope that this post can serve as a useful reference to the early stage startup that is looking to get more out of their working day - to start time hacking.
Time hacking: the big picture approach
Much of the literature you can find on time management involves turning yourself into some sort of robot. If you follow what you read, you’ll find yourself rising early, working through your lunch hour, staying extra hours late in the office, and/or deactivating your Facebook account.
While these are all techniques that can work, they are in my opinion, not low-hanging fruit. By working yourself to the bone every day, you can achieve maybe, a proportional increase in productivity. But that increase in productivity comes at a very real cost - your life. Startup burnout is a very real problem, and it is in my opinion, a very easy way to forfeit your hard-earned efforts toward building a company.
So I do not intend to write about personal productivity. Instead, I want to talk about methods that can achieve superlinear return on organizational productivity. While you do not necessarily need to work every hour of the day to get good results for your company, you must absolutely be able to build systems that can get those results for you.
Are you still interested in time-saving tips and tricks? Stop reading - there are hundreds of articles and self-help books out there and this will not be one of them.
Think things through before you start
The Cardinal Rule of Wasting Time: The worst way to waste time is to do something exceptionally well that needn’t be done at all.
Often, spending extra time initially to properly value the importance of your objective can prevent costly mistakes before they happen. The startup founder’s corollary to this is that picking your problem (and market) well can easily save your future business thousands of hours in potentially wasted execution time.
The notion that you could waste your time doing useless work almost sounds too obvious to be worth talking about. Why would I even bother doing something at all if I didn’t think it was important?
Unfortunately, it can be surprisingly easy to make this mistake. In fact, in a community of doers (like a startup) it can be even easier, because there will often be no one above you to chew you out and reject your idea. In a culture where everyone is moving fast, it is much easier to run with an interesting idea than it is to stop and consider whether or not the idea should be a top priority.
I know this can happen, because when we first started our company, we made this mistake several times:
We built features that were never ultimately used.
We overengineered the features that were used.
We continued broken sales and marketing patterns because we had no criteria for terminating efforts that weren’t working.
We ignored potential opportunities because we had no criteria for identifying efforts that were working.
Most, if not all, of these mistakes could have been mitigated with proper planning and preparation. Engaging in a proper planning and preparation process forces you apply the 80/20 rule to everything that you do. It forces you to estimate deadlines and dry runs the idea through everyone at your company. If there is a problem with the airplane, you’d much rather know while it is still on the ground then after you’ve taken off and are in mid flight.
Today, before we start any project we all make sure to critically consider whether or not it is the most important thing that we should be doing. If so, we define a schedule and execution plan. If not, we forget about it.
Never be blocking on anything
One of the main advantages of a startup is your ability to run faster than those around you. This advantage is entirely destroyed when you have to slow down your pace because you are depending on other organizations to make progress. In the worst case, your company can lose momentum entirely because you are blocking on some external event.
Paul Graham discusses blocking in one of his essays. He says:
“The best way for a startup to engage with slow-moving organizations is to fork off separate processes to deal with them. It’s when they’re on the critical path that they kill you—when you depend on closing a deal to move forward. It’s worth taking extreme measures to avoid that.”
The way that I think about it is that it’s okay to be waiting for things to happen. It’s not okay if you are depending on those things to get anything done. When you order a package online, the fact that it takes several days to ship ranges from insignificant to incredibly important - based on how badly you need the package contents.
A/B testing and dynamic personalization are good examples of background processes. You make some tweaks to your website, and then switch contexts to do something else, while your tests gather data and compute statistical significance. After you’ve finished running your tests and analyzed the results, you make some more tweaks and then return the process into the background again.
Almost all of the YCombinator startups you’ll find begin by working primarily with smaller companies, and I believe that blocking has something to do with it. When you interface with smaller companies, you can increase your organizational clock speed tremendously and create a much tighter feedback loop (one of the key patterns to learning quickly). Because you are not depending on any one customer or lengthy sales cycle, you can very easily unblock yourself by focusing on other customers. Don’t lose momentum.
Create time assets, delete time liabilities
One common misconception about time is the belief that it can only be wasted, and never gained. People naturally assume that there are only 24 hours in a day and that you either use them or you lose them. Time, as the saying goes, is a finite asset.
This is, however, a faulty assumption because time can be stored. If you cook a week’s worth of food during the weekend, you can reap the benefits of this labor by eating that food throughout the rest of the week. Of course, software takes the notion of storing future time and exaggerates it tremendously.
Patrick Mckenzie writes a very good post about this where he differentiates between using time as an asset (investing your time in activities that will save you future time) and time as a liability (committing yourself to having to spend future time). I recommend that you check out his original article - I won’t rehash his work here. However, I would like to revisit the idea of time as an asset vs. liability from a different perspective.
When you first start your company, everything is a time liability.
Startups are formed, generally, without any processes and systems. Everything is, by its very nature, massively inefficient.
As a founder or employee on behalf of a product business, it is your job to create systems and processes to improve the way in which things are done. This includes product development systems (writing excellent documentation and unit tests) as well as marketing systems (content marketing, scalable SEM) that eventually become your time assets. Done properly, these systems will work for you for free, 24/7, and forever.
The key strategy here then, is to create your business in such a way that it can grow superlinearly, based on the cummulative time assets that you’ve created (and not linearly, based your personal time).
By the way, running a high-touch businesses can work, and there are many amazing businesses that involve significant time liabilities but are still stupendously successful. However, the idea that businesses need to have time liabilities should no longer be taken for granted. We are very quickly approaching an age where even B2B businesses can reach epic proportions without hiring a single salesperson.
Buy time whenever possible
In a business, time is almost always more valuable than money. Therefore, if you can solve a problem with money, it is much better than trying to solve the problem yourself with time.
What if I can write the code myself - why should I pay for it?
Contrary to popular belief, when you write code you are not done with it. In fact, every line of code that you write is something of a future time liability, because you might have to maintain it in unpredictable ways for its useful life.
When we first started Predictive Edge, we didn’t understand the fact any code we wrote would create an inevitable future time liability. So we made a lot of decisions to create software in-house to “save money” at a very small cost of time. We self-hosted our version control, implemented our own error notification system, and hosted our own configuration management.
The end result of all of this work was that we saved, maybe, a few hundred dollars a month. But I guarantee you that I spent more than a few hours a month combing the internet for solutions to intermittent configuration bugs. I ultimately ended up going back and buying most of the software that I had tried to program myself out of needing before and haven’t looked back since.
This gets me to another point. Software is cheap. Seriously. I find it astounding that the same person who wouldn’t think twice about spending $10 on their lunch thinks that it is ridiculous to spend that same $10 on a business application that will save themselves time and energy every day.
Today, if there is a tool out there that I am sure will save us any amount of time, I buy it immediately. I have not encountered even a single case where I have had to justify the ROI. The value vs. price bargain that you get software is even more enormous when you consider how expensive engineering talent is these days. Instead of hiring additional team members, our company instead buys useful tools that act like “virtual team members”, without having to draw salary or a health and benefits package.
Although we have not done it at our company, I have seen a lot of entrepreneurs apply the “prefer to buy” principle towards outsourcing effectively.
Be process, not outcome oriented
Whenever possible, I prefer to think it terms of processes rather than in terms of outcomes:
A process is something that repeats.
An outcome never repeats.
Because processes repeat, you can improve them. You can complete them in less time and (through documentation and/or analytics) develop methods for making them yield better outcomes. When something happens over and over again, any incremental improvement is multiplied by each consecutive execution. This can equate to big long-term wins for your organization.
Conversely, the fact that outcomes never repeat makes it very difficult to improve them. When a deal falls through due to a “one-time” mishap (as most deals seem to do), it is pretty hard to learn from, unless you were paying careful attention to your process for closing the deal. Successful deals can be even worse for learning because unless you were paying attention (1) you really have no idea exactly why they succeeded and (2) you really have no idea how to make the success repeatable.
Process-building is time-consuming, deliberate, and not nearly as sexy as landing a string of bad-ass business deals. But I’d much rather plan to be methodical than plan to be lucky.