As I’ve posted previously, the entrepreneur’s major asset during the startup phase is themselves.
At a recent mentoring session we got a great question from the founder: How can I best manage my time? Time is one of the major assets of founders, so managing it correctly is a huge contributor to the venture’s success – even attempting to manage your time is beneficial, as recognizing just how valuable every minute of your waking hours is an asset to be managed.
I’m sure there are a zillion apps for time management. Here’s some general advice based on my experience as a founder of half a dozen companies (two of which died in infancy).
Let’s assume that out of a 24 hour day you need about 12 hours for activities that contribute to a healthy and successful life: sleep, exercise, good nutrition, and strong social connections to family and friends, plus those nagging life maintenance tasks, like renewing your driver’s license or preparing your tax return, that can’t be avoided.
Time should be invested, not spent
Most founders are familiar with the concept of ROI – Return on capital invested. But what about ROTI – Return on time invested? When prioritizing your tasks or even deciding if you need to do something or not, look at what your return will be – short term and long term – from that activity. When tasks compete for your attention the one that will generate the biggest return in time saved or money made or saved should win. You the founder are the venture’s key asset you should invest time or money (such as taking an Uber rather than driving yourself to a meeting where parking is virtually non-existent) in making you more productive (doing more with less, more efficient (doing things right) and effective (doing the right thing).
My philosophy as a founder and executive was to always attempt to delegate as much of my task load as possible, leaving only those tasks that I alone could do or do better than anyone else in the firm. Delegation is the key force multiplier for founders. So review your universe of tasks with a goal of delegating as many tasks in your business and personal life as possible. For example, I’ve been using an accounting firm to prepare my taxes every years for decades. They charge a lot but as it’s something that a) I hate doing b) it takes up a lot of time and c) I’m not good at, I’m glad to pay someone else to do. If you have a life partner you need to have a sit down talk with them about how you need them to pull more than their share of life maintenance chores until your venture matures. Without my wife’s undying support I could not have succeeded in building successful companies.
Hiring young, hungry staffers who have an appetite for getting stuff done is a far better strategy than hiring established executives who are used to having everything done for them.
Many founders are very hands-on and may have to learn to delegate. Start with small things and work your way up. Don’t start delegating until you trust those you are delegating to.
Founders are bombarded by demands: recruiting and on-boarding staff and raising capital are the two most important founder jobs, as they both increase labor and capital resources for the venture. The best way to handle both tasks is not to delegate either of them wholly but delegate early stage milestones. For example, in recruiting you should spend your time on organizational design and interviewing finalists. Leave the logistics of scheduling interviews, checking references, etc. to your admin staff. This will both free up your time and give others the opportunity to learn how to interview candidates. You can use MBA interns to build up a target list of qualified investors in your market for your review. Don’t spend any time with investors who aren’t a fit with your firm – have someone else perform the due diligence on firms that fit.
Dealing with interruptions
Founders are subject to a blizzard of interrupts both internally and from external sources such as lawyers, accountants, interested investors, prospective partners and on and on. Text messaging and Slack have made interrupting you far easier than it was in my day. Make sure you can understand the difference between what’s really important and what others may perceive as urgent. Shutting down your phone and/or laptop for a block of time gives you time to think – often a luxury for founders. I used to come into the office about 7 a.m., before most other people ,and before any meetings were scheduled to read my email and organize my day.
Learning to say “No”
Founders need to be rifle shot focused, not shotgun unfocused. That means saying “no” to many more things than you say “yes” to. Since the days of having a secretary screen your calls are long gone, learn to rely on voice mail and caller ID. I tend to let most calls go to voice mail, so I eliminate an interruption and can learn from the voice mail what action I need to take, including none. Of course, if you are in the middle of negotiating valuation with an investor you will want to take their call, as most investors can be very hard to reach. As I’ve written before, founders need to be strategic – active versus being opportunistic – reactive. You can learn from investors who very rarely give founders a hard no. There’s little benefit for doing so. Better a soft “no” such as “the timing isn’t right for us”, “we’d need more resources to work with you”, “it’s not a fit with current business plan.”
Keeping a to do list
There any tons of to do list apps for iOS and Android – I just use Apple’s Reminders App which works well both on my desktop and my iPhone. Make sure that your “to dos” are actionable: “Send executive summary to the VC you met yesterday” versus “follow up with the VC you met yesterday.” To do’s need time frames – when are they due? And priorities – how important are they? I used to use the quiet time of 7 am to 9 am to put together my daily to dos. But don’t let your to do list become a straight jacket – everyone needs some down time or time to just hangout – so don’t schedule yourself too tightly. Hither to unseen big opportunities can pop up. Be fast, focused, and flexible.
Share your schedule with others
Doing so will alert them to when you are available for a meeting or quick chat and when you have blocked off time for zero interruptions. And while we are on the subject of schedules, don’t let your meetings run into overtime! There is no shame in ending a meeting early if there is no further need to meet. And cut down your meeting attendance to those absolutely critical to you – get a written summary of other meetings if you need that information.
Recognize that startups are overwhelming!
There will always be more to do than you can possibly get done in your 12+ hours of your workday. Reflect each night on what you got done and ways you could have saved time. Reflect each morning on what you plan to accomplish that day that will increase the value of the venture and move you closer to achieving important milestones.