Friday Essay: Focused Founder
I have been working on a digital media and information service startup with an ambition to enable people to make a difference in their personal and professional lives in Dhaka for almost 4 years now. The formal age, my full-time engagement in the venture, is now over 2 years. I have made all the mistakes imaginable for a first time early-stage founder.
I plan to chronicle some of those in the future, but in today’s post, I want to share an idea I have been practicing over the past few months that has helped me to significantly streamline my personal growth as well as the growth of my business. In fact, in some instances, it has helped me grow our metrics as much as 4 times over the last few months.
The cost of distraction
We live in a hyper-connected world. Every minute, we are bombarded with text messages, notifications, emails and what not. According to some statistics, an adult checks his smartphone for over a staggering 251 times a day. Then there are Facebook, WhatsApp, events, and other social channels that eat up our days.
The cost of distraction is high. It is more so when you are building a startup from scratch. It is not only our time, when we are distracted and doing multiple things at once, we are also wasting our energy and our ability to pay attention to more important aspects of our life and business.
More of than not, we feel that being an early stage founder it is important to be present in all the social channels and attend all the events and that our growth depends on it. We even coined some interesting names for this as well.
Networking seems incredibly important a chore for the growth of your startup. Hence, no matter what attending events is a must. But in reality, networking only helps so much. Often it hurts early-stage founders who prioritize socialization over building a solid business.
As Adam Grant – Professor at Wharton Business School and author of several best seller books – puts in this wonderful NY Times article titled networking is overrated: “it’s true that networking can help you accomplish great things. But this obscures the opposite truth: Accomplishing great things helps you develop a network.” The real difference you make is through your work.
From my experience, I have come to realize that it is impossible to overstate the importance of focus while building a company. I have made mistakes around this and paid dearly for it. I’m an introvert. Despite my discomfort in a social setting, I spent many days and months attending events and meetings trying to network and make new connections while putting off important work that would have moved my business forward. While it has helped me in some other way, but the result was simply disappointing. I would never recommend an early stage founder to network mindlessly. Rather spend time in sales and doing real work.
Contrary to that, I have stopped attending events, in many instances seemingly important ones, over the last few months, and opposed to conventional wisdom, it has helped me to grow personally and grow my business in real terms. I have applied focus and seen the result. Cut the crap out of your life, you will see the result.
I believe that this one skill, to genuinely focus in your personal and professional life, can help you significantly improve your life as a founder as well as help grow your company, faster.
Here is the idea in details (I’ve put together a couple of separate points but the key point remains same and simple: apply deep focus in every aspect of your life).
Do one thing well
Most early stage companies make the same mistake of trying too many things at once. One reason is of course that more is often seems better. But when you are building a startup, more is suicidal. It is distracting and does not help you with achieving your goal.
Moreover, startups are resource constrained organizations and when you try too many things at once, you end up doing almost nothing. Focus on one product, one industry, one vertical. Go deeper than going wide. Do one thing well.
Build your business and be aware of fake metrics
Build your company and put everything else on the back burner. Prioritize working on your product, sales, team building, and other relevant works over everything else. By everything else, I mean irrelevant competition, talk, event and anything else that seems important from a social perspective but does not contribute to your growth in a meaningful way.
We have developed a culture where attending events, giving talks, building social media follower base and other similar trifles have become important metrics of success and growth. But when you are building a business, you would not be able to game the system for long. The only metric that matters is your user number and your revenue growth. If your business is not growing, your social media followers will never be able to save your business. Stop running behind these fake metrics and focus on the real ones.
When you build a successful business, you will have more sustained invitation to events and all. The satisfaction that comes from building something meaningful is way higher than that comes from a few facebook likes.
Practice deep focus in everything you do
According to the popular narrative, an ideal founder looks something like this: he works 24/7, he is always available and hustling all the time. While it looks like a great idea, I have found this highly counterproductive and an outright bad one.
This idea is what Cal Newport calls ‘Hard to do” approach. It means if you maintain this approach – work all the time – you would end up tired and burnt out in no time. And you don’t build a great business burnt our rather you build a great business when you are in your best state of mind and health.
The most effective way of working that I have found is maintaining a focused stretch of work time. It means you work, in a strictly focused manner, on your core areas that would move your company forward for a certain period of time every day.
This period has to be distraction free. You should avoid email, phone calls and all kind major and minor distractions during this period of time and solely do your work. And then you have to maintain an off time, which is after a certain time you have to rest and spend time doing things other than building your business. Because when you keep working all the time, your performance suffers and you fail to deliver at your best. And most importantly, it is not sustainable in the long run.
I’m telling this from personal experience. I did this myself – a long hour of work and getting nothing meaningful done. The reason is that we are always multitasking and run from one thing to another the entire day ending up doing nothing meaningful. We are busy all the time but we are not getting enough done because we are not focusing.
At FS, we’re working extra hours but we would still miss client works and that’s when I started to look hard at what’s going wrong. I have realized that I was busy all the time but I was not doing important work all the time.
Being busy does not mean that you are busy productively. As well as being in front of your computer or device all the time does not mean that you are doing meaningful work.
Over the last couple of months, I have been working on my lifestyle – how I operate as an early stage founder – and it has changed my outlook towards a lot of things that we approach as early-stage founders. I now break down my days into different blocks for important focused work and other communication work.
During the focused hours, I only focus on doing the important works. For me, this is around editing, growth and crafting ideas. And during communication hours, I send emails, reply and meet people. I have found this to be extremely effective. I have also found that it has improved productivity of my entire team and company.
I’m still in the middle of this experimentation, I expect to find out more ways of doing focus work. I plan to share my experience as I go as discover more ideas around focused work.