“Take the attitude of a student, never be too big to ask questions, never know too much to learn something new.” – Og Mandino
In a startup you are constantly balancing various levels of thinking/work. Buster Benson outlined what he believes the breakdown of these to be in a blog post here. I haven’t decided yet whether I completely agree with his categories, but I definitely agree with the idea of different types of thought you need to engage in to be effective.
One of the pitfalls which you can fall into as a startup founder is to get lost in the day to day work. There will always be support tickets to answer, feature requests to build, bugs to fix, social media to respond to; basically you don’t need to worry about there being sufficient work to keep you busy. It can be very easy to come into work each day and ‘work’, and feel like you’re doing your job. If you were an employee you’d probably be right, but as a founder you need to make sure that you are continuing to view the big picture and steer the boat.
I have a set of questions (I’m continuing to develop) that I find useful to push myself into different modes of thinking about a business. I’m going to quickly go through the questions I currently use and why I find them helpful:
If I worked at this company, what are the things I would think management is being dumb for doing/not doing?
At every company I’ve worked for there have been things it was obvious management was being idiotic about. It could be obvious opportunities they are ignoring (e.g. xerox), apparent ADHD in terms of the direction of the company, moral destroying initiatives justified by cost savings, the list goes on. If these have been so obvious for me at every company I’ve worked at, chances are similar things are occurring in my own company. I find this is a useful question for getting me to step back from all the rationalizing and justifying of decision making and regaining perspective on the impact of the decisions in the big picture.
If I was outside of the company, what would I think about it?
We have opinions about other companies, particularly those that are either competitors in our space, or other startups in our community. Our opinions of these companies are based on limited signals; some that are deliberately exposed (PR releases, website copy, newsletters), and others that are less deliberate (tone and body language in conversations, silence itself, rumours, etc.). While it’s more important to focus on running your business than “what other people think”, what other people think can effect your ability to run your business.
The external appearance of your company in the community will affect your ability to hire employees, find investors, partner with other companies, etc. This is also something that you can have some control over if you try. If you provide others with a message, it can be surprisingly effective at controlling the conversation. If you don’t supply one you quickly lose all control and hand it over to the rumour mill.
If I was given control of the business as it stands today (without historical context), what would I do?
Your business has a history. You started with a certain idea, that idea’s changed. People have come, had an impact, maybe left. The market’s shifted. These things happen, and they’re always going to happen. Unfortunately when we view our business we tend to see all these things. We understand why we’re doing something because it makes sense given where we can from. This can be a dangerous thought pattern as it can lead us to continue to do things that don’t actually still make sense.
Does that feature that we’ve been building for a month still make sense? Is that customer we’ve been servicing for the past 3 months still worth supporting giving our new pricing structure? Does the business still need 3 times as many engineers as sales people? These can be painful questions to ask, and they can be easy to ignore because we already answered them (before). Just because a decision was made, doesn’t mean it will always be the right decision.
Who killed my company?
This one I’ve borrowed (e.g. stole) from Ivory Madison’s Lean Conf 2012 talk. The idea is to pretend you’re X months in the future (I think the number of months depends on the stage of your business), looking back and asking the question of who killed your business and how. Ivory hinted that it’s usually either you or someone who works at your company. This is just another great question for getting yourself out of the day to day thinking, and into strategic thinking.
Asking these questions needs to be balanced against the anxiety that can come from constantly second guessing your decisions. I don’t recommend continuously asking them, but rather doing it on a periodic basis. Make it a Sunday evening habit to go through them and see what answers you come back with. I’m not claiming that these are the questions to ask, but I think the idea of asking questions like these on a regular basis has value. If you come up with other questions that you find valuable let me know!