How we spend our days is how we spend our lives

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. These words from American author Annie Dillard have always resonated with me. Of course, it’s an obvious statement, but reflect upon it, it has a deeper meaning than on first reading.

One of the most unchanged elements of our lives today is our working day, and how long we work. Generally, each of us does around eight to ten hours a day, and yet for most of us it is obvious that this has little to do with how efficient or productive that pattern is. At least, that is what I personally find for my own productivity. So what’s the right daily shift?

With stories from successful entrepreneurs working four hours a week (Tim Ferris) to sixteen hours a day (Elon Musk), it’s hard to know if there is an optimum shift. And why do we have eight-hour working days in the first place? The answer is from the Industrial Revolution. In the late C18th, when owners started to maximise the output of their factories, getting to run them 24/7 was key and for workers, ten to sixteen hour days were the norm.

These ridiculously long working days weren’t sustainable and a brave man, Robert Owen, a Welsh textile manufacturer, philanthropic social reformer and a founder of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement, started a campaign to have no more than eight working hours per day. His slogan was Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest. However, it wasn’t until Henry Ford implemented the eight hour work day, that standards really changed.

In 1914 Ford not only cut the standard work day to eight hours, but also doubled worker’s pay in the process. Surprisingly, productivity off these same workers increased significantly and Ford’s profit margins doubled within two years. This encouraged other companies to adopt the shorter working day as standard.

So the reason we work eight hours a day isn’t scientific or much thought out with regard to the well-being of workers, rather it’s a century old norm for running factories efficiently.

However, let’s not forget that as humans, we are distinctly different from machines. Machines move linearly and humans move cyclically, and today’s business and economic models are fundamentally different. On this basis, research by Tony Schwarz suggests managing our energy rather than time, and identified four different types of energies to manage every day:

  • Your physical energy – how well are you?
  • Your emotional energy – how happy are you?
  • Your mental energy – how well can you focus?
  • Your spiritual energy – why are you doing all of this? What is your purpose?

Time, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. There is an unshakable and discomforting sense that in our obsession with time in terms of optimising our routines, and maximising our productivity, we have forgotten how to be truly present in the gladdening mystery of life.

Equally, beware the startup mantra that a working week of relentless twelve-hour days is needed. Anything else, and well, you may as well not bother. Not true.

The secret of success is to be fully awake to everything about you. You also need to instil a set of good daily habits around your energy and time. Not only do the habits we hold dictate the quality of our lives, but they also reflect our potential for success. Bad habits will always hold us back.

Of course, the worst habit is procrastination, wasting time doing nothing. Hesiod, a Greek poet who lived in the C8th B.C., put it best: Do not put off your work until tomorrow and the day after. For the sluggish worker does not fill his barn, nor the one who puts off his work; industry aids work, but the man who puts off work always wrestles with disaster.

As the complexity of our working life grows, we need to renew our commitment to simplicity, paring back and focus, so that we have space to breathe and control our energy, as highlighted by Schwarz. Leo Babauta identifies a number of reflections, which resonate with me:

We create our own struggles The stress, the frustrations and disappointments, all the busyness and rushing – we create most of these ourselves. By letting go, we can relax and live more simply to focus on the things that matter. How much of the tension in your working day is self inflicted?

Become mindful of attachments Recognising that we fill our own heads that leads to clutter and complexity is half the battle, only you can put a stop to the bad habits. What are the things that loom and fill you head, like the box of frogs leaping everywhere in a random manner?  What is important, and what becomes urgent, and why?

Create a prioritisation system Stephen Covey once said: The key is not to prioritise what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities. We often tend to miss the essentials that bring value in the long run or focus on a single thing too much and leave everything else in the backlog. Time management strategies like Getting Things Done design a methodology structured around creativity, focus, and efficient planning.  Learn to prioritise both long-term activities that gain momentum later in time, and short-term goals necessary for incremental results.

Distraction and constant switching are mental habits We don’t need any of these habits, but they build up because they comfort us. We can work more simply by letting go of these mental habits. What would life be like without constant switching and distractions? The addiction to smart devices and social media are primary examples of this.

Single-task by putting your work focus in full-screen mode Imagine that everything you do goes into full-screen mode, so that you don’t do or look at anything else. You just inhabit that task fully, and are fully present as you do it. Things get your full attention, and you do them much better. And you can even savour them.

Create space between things We tend to cram as much as possible into our days and this becomes stressful, because we always underestimate how long things will take. We never feel like we have enough time because we try to do too much. But what would it be like if we took a few minutes’ pause and break between tasks, to savour the accomplishment of the last task, to savour the space between things, and time to think?

Get clear about what you want, and say no to more things. We are rarely clear on what we want to complete in a day, and often the course of a day veers off in a direction we didn’t anticipate. When someone invites us to do something cool, we instantly want to say yes, because our minds love saying yes, to all the shiny new things. Saying no to more things at work would simplify our lives, having discipline means giving more focus and more chance to get stuff done.

Practice doing nothing Allocate unstructured time – this is exactly what it looks like, it is a time allocated for nothing. By ‘nothing’, it’s anything aside from a work agenda. Unstructured time is your ‘me time’. Why? The more time you put into your schedule, the busier you get. And the busier you get, the more you push yourself into physical and mental exhaustion. The point is it’s the time when your brain is free to wander which allows you to be more imaginative and refreshed, thus, having more energy, attention, and focus on work.

Create a long-term roadmap While it’s okay to have individual tasks emerging from your interactions during a working week, creating a long-term plan lets you focus better, and decide whether your new tasks are in line with your goals. Set out your key goals, assign milestones, and take it from there.

By defining the key issues that are crucial for your future success, you can determine the expected outcomes and measure them once or twice a week. You will also get a clearer picture of your weekly availability and stop overusing your buffers by putting too much on your plate.

The problem isn’t that we have too little time – we all get the same amount of time each day and each week – it’s possible that we have too many things to do. Actually, the real problem is that we want to do too much in the time we have. We want more, and what we have is never enough. It’s this lack of being satisfied that is the real problem. If time flies when you’re having fun, it hits the afterburners when you don’t think you’re having enough.

The most productive entrepreneurs think about what their time will be worth in the future, and focus on doing stuff today that is important for tomorrow. Think about it, all that really belongs to us is time in the moment. No use thinking of the past for its gone, don’t think of the future because it has yet to come.

We live in actions, thoughts, breaths and feelings, not in figures on a dial, yet it is the hands on the clock that dictate our attention.  It’s being here now that’s important. Time is a very misleading thing. All there ever is, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know what it will bring.

What might have been is an abstraction, whilst time remaining is a perpetual possibility, but both exist only in a world of speculation. As T S Elliot said, Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened.

So, let’s reflect again on the words of Annie Dillard: How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.

Good entrepreneurial habits from the Lean Startup toolkit

The Lean Startup methodology is recognised as a proven strategic management system that combines entrepreneurial principles, innovation development activities and an iterative learning-based process to enable startup ventures to make better decisions about how to create customer value.

The approach has at its heart the philosophy that a startup is an experiment. It is searching through testing hypotheses to create a sustainable business model, managing risk at each stage of the problem-solution design-customer fit journey. This is based on a focus of customer development and putting customers at the heart of a startup’s business model.

It forces the entrepreneur’s thinking to focus on the problem they’re solving, recognising customers are forever in motion, and demands that a startup constantly explores, learns, iterate and adapts to create a value proposition. Lean strategy aims to be what Ed Catmull, founder of Pixar, calls a balance between clear leadership and chaos.

Many people tend to fall in love with their ideas and start tunnelling, seeing early stage funding as a validation of an idea or business. People prefer to spend an incredible amount of time building the perfect product instead of getting a quick ‘Not that, but this’ and then finding out how to improve it.

However, the Lean Startup recognises that strategy is a bet on the future, a hypothesis about how the customer landscape is going to evolve . Under these conditions of extreme uncertainty, the Lean Startup provides clarity with its framework and principles and that every statement about the future strategy should be seen as a hypothesis to be tested, not accepted based simply on a hunch.

Creating hypotheses allows us to move away from spending time and effort designing a product in isolation before we reveal it to the customer, and encourages the creation of prototypes and experiments to find out if the customer actually values what we are planning to make. Get out of the building is the call to action, find out what the real problem customers have, and what value they place on a solution.

As Ben Yoskovitz’s says, Lean Startup allows entrepreneurs to move from providing the right answers to asking the right questions (preferably early and often). This underlying narrative also captures economist Keynes’ sentiment of it’s better to be roughly right, than precisely wrong in your business thinking.

It’s more important to learn about what customers value, and improve your value proposition by shaping a MVP, than to ship more stuff early and more efficiently, no matter how tempting that is. The focus is on learning, not revenue. We first need to determine what customers value enough to pay for, before we invest our time into building a business that offers products that might end up on the shelf.

The main point of MVP is that you can start to gather feedback and behavioural data, which provides validated learning. At this point, you’re no longer relying on your subjective hunch and belief, and can proceed to develop those bells and whistles based on the real needs of your customers.

This build-measure-learn feedback loop is another core principle of the Lean Startup approach, identifying key themes and using metrics to guide future decision-making based on developing the MVP. Themes are discovered through customer interviews, user experience testing and analytics.

This enables the entrepreneur to focus on their North Star, guided by the one metric that matters. This one metric approach allows everyone to focus on the same thing, creating freedom for experiment whilst ensuring effort is focused.

The MVP is a thoughtful, structured approach for curating development of a startup’s product, making it fast and releasing it, listening to customers and data, data, data – and adjusting accordingly. It enables a startup founder to make a series of bets, make them quickly, and learn from them.

Whilst entrepreneurs have a free-thinking style, the methodology shapes their actions, providing a focus and a discipline that underpins any methodology. It’s a toolkit that provides a process supporting a sense of direction to follow from a product engineering perspective, and aligns thinking and doing.

I see the Lean Startup as a growth hacking tool, supporting entrepreneurs’ high tolerance for ambiguity and shaping an entrepreneur’s habits. For me, this is one of its unrecognised yet key benefits. In guiding their behaviour, thinking and actions via a roadmap of routines and processes, all of this cultivates an entrepreneur’s habits around iterative and incremental learning.

So, what do I see as the key habits that the application of the Lean Startup supports?

Habit 1: Always looking forward Being a startup innovator is all about being bold and forward thinking, to go beyond simply following current market trends. You need to be a pioneer, always keeping your eyes open for new opportunities to create your own market space. This means taking chances, and if anything is a critical part of a good habit set, it’s a willingness to do just that. The Lean Startup provides a framework for evaluating the outcomes of taking chances, supporting innovation and discovery.

Habit 2: Be customer centric Startup success requires an unwavering commitment to the customer. You need to develop an obsessive habit and mind-set of living in your customer’s world. Understanding customers’ wants and needs provides you with a greater opportunity to earn their attention. Focus away from profit as the purpose of your startup, focus on finding, winning and keeping customers. This is the core of the Lean Startup approach.

Habit 3: Make decisions You have to be decisive. From product feature to customer conversations, waffling with indecision won’t work. The ability to make decisions is directly related to your velocity and direction of progress. The Lean Startup provides metrics to help guide you – flagging where you can trust your judgement but combining gut instinct with facts along the way.

Habit 4: Avoid the crowds Conventional wisdom yields conventional results. Joining the crowd – no matter how trendy the crowd or ‘hot’ the opportunity – is a recipe for mediocrity. Remarkably successful people habitually do what other people won’t do. They go where others don’t because there’s less competition based on a hunch. The Lean Startup enables an entrepreneur to turn their instinct of opportunity into hypothesis, and provides a framework to test them.

Habit 5: Always be selling I once asked a number of startup founders to name the one habit they felt contributed the most to their success. Each said the habit and ability to ‘think selling’. Selling isn’t manipulating, pressuring, or cajoling, but convincing other people to talk with you, and then work with you, to build long-term relationships. You don’t need to sell, you just need to communicate. Get out of the building is the Lean Startup call to action, and an essential habit for startup success.

Habit 6: Start at the end The Lean Startup is based on an entrepreneur’s vision, and then supports a disciplined planning approach to lay out every step along the way to make it happen. Never start small where goals are concerned, the habit of thinking big, looking to the horizon and working backwards is vital to growth. Make visioning a habit to be supported by disciplined execution.

Habit 7: Make small bets and pivot There is no guarantee anyone will buy your great idea. Your resources are limited and you don’t want to risk everything on one roll of the dice. Get out in the market fast and let potential customers tell you if you are onto something. Using the habit of pivoting allows a startup to respond to circumstance to change course and act. The habit of pivoting allows us to respond to changes without being paralyzed with fear and uncertainty.

Habit 8: Don’t be afraid or embarrassed by failure James Dyson, creator of the Dyson vacuum, is no stranger to failure. He made 5,127 prototypes of his vacuum before he got it right. There were 5,126 failures – that’s a lot – but he learned from each one – that’s how I came up with the solution he said. If you want to create something new, you’re bound to fail a few times and that’s okay. Validated learning embraces failure as an entrepreneurial experience, from which we can pivot to the next iteration.

Habit 9: Look for 80/20 outcomes There’s a strange phenomenon in life that almost always holds true: if you examine your life, you’ll often see that only 20% of the things you do account for 80% of the results you get. Being productive and being busy are two different things. If you want to quadruple your productivity, focus on the 20% first, and if you can, cut the other 80% that just makes you busy. The Lean Startup has its roots in the Lean philosophy, so make sure lean thinking is a core habit.

Habit 10: Ask ‘Why?’ like a five year-old Entrepreneurs aren’t satisfied with the status quo, they ask ‘Why?’ over and over again, until they get to the bottom of things, rather than accepting the explanation ‘That’s just the way it is’. This relentless inquisitiveness in fact helps entrepreneurs find and fix the 20% wrong that causes 80% of their problems, and the use of hypotheses testing helps them get there. Great entrepreneurs have the habit of curiosity.

Each of the habits detailed above are set in the context of having another good habit – having a passion, a vision and a purpose for your startup endeavours. This ensures your actions are aligned with the intention behind your goal, to avoid being side-tracked along the way. It’s impossible to grow a business when you’re always busy putting out fires, the distractions waste time, money, effort and opportunities to grow.

You need a guiding north star to ensure the critically important decisions don’t get lost by you jumping straight into tactics. Without having a big picture, ‘doing stuff’ is letting the tail wag the dog – you’ll be chasing your startup, not leading it – chasing sales for numbers and not chasing customers for learning, and consequently your business is managing you and not the other way round. This is a bad habit.

We are what we repeatedly do, nothing is stronger than habits. Use the Lean Startup approach to help guide your entrepreneurial flair, and adopt the framework to instil good habits. In doing this, you will live less out of habit and more out of intent.

 

 

Good habits of mindful startup entrepreneurs

Raise your hand if you can start working immediately whenever you want, never get tempted and never get distracted by social media or email or reading the newspaper? No? Me neither. But I’ve learned something that helps a lot. It’s all about our willpower and habits, the part of our mind where we decide on actions to take.

The philosopher Plato first described our internal willpower struggle around 400BC with the allegory of the chariot. In the driver seat, you have the rational mind with a certain amount of willpower, and the chariot is pulled by two horses representing our spirited energy. The charioteer can guide the horses for a while, but if he fights them for too long, or is too weak, the horses will eventually take control of the chariot and go against our demand, and thus lose our focus.

So it is with our minds. Staying productive and managing our impulses is all about strengthening our chariot driver and making sure we can steer our energy in the right direction. To do that, we must build up our willpower and focus on our good habits.

This is especially important for startups, where time is of the essence and building that PoC to test with customers is the most important priority. However, as noted, we all get distracted. What about just adding one more feature here, pitching to another potential investor this week, talking to a marketing agency? All are like the horses if you’re not careful, they’ll end up pulling you in the wrong direction, distractions from your primary focus.

At its core, willpower is your ability to get things done and shape good habits. It determines how easy it is for you start working and resist eating that third cookie and playing a You Tube video.

Think of willpower as a muscle: it’s something that you can flex and relax as you need to, strengthen with training, and lose if you don’t use it enough. This was shown in the radishes and cookies experiment, where scientists brought in participants who had skipped a meal and asked them to do one of three things:

  1. Eat radishes, but avoid eating cookies
  2. Eat cookies, but avoid eating radishes
  3. Just do nothing (i.e. participants weren’t shown either food)

Afterwards, subjects were asked to solve an impossible geometric puzzle. Participants who had eaten the radishes while resisting the cookies gave up much more quickly than those who got to eat cookies or weren’t shown food. Why? Because they used up their willpower resisting the cookies, and couldn’t use it on the puzzle.

If you’re reading this and thinking ‘I’d cave and grab the cookies. I’m just weak-willed,’ don’t worry: science has also shown that willpower is something you can train. So how can you develop a will of steel that that helps you work your way through the toughest tasks? Simple: pay attention to your mental and physical health.

No, I’m not going to go into tree-hugging mode and talk about good diet, exercise, get more sleep, drink a gallon of water a day to become more hydrated, then move onto mediation, yoga or pilates. I’m going to focus on habits, and practicing good habits to build that mental muscle.

There has been much documentation about the habits of successful people, thanks in large part to Stephen Covey’s highly successful book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. While this has been a key piece of reading for the business community since the late 1980s, the traits are different for a startup leader.

Habits form our professional lives. They provide a framework on which we build the success we desire. I often study founders’ routines and how I can emulate them myself. Here are the some interesting habits I have gleaned from entrepreneurs I’ve worked with that can help give you starting points for your own successful daily routine in your startup.

Habit 1: Don’t take no for an answer, always look forward Being an innovator is all about disruptive thinking, to go beyond an existing market, seeing an unfilled gap in the market – or create a new market itself. You need to be a pioneer, keeping your eyes open for new opportunities to create your own market space. This means taking chances, but if anything is a critical part of a good habit set of a startup founder, it’s a willingness to do just that.

Habit 2: Put customers first A startup is an experiment, and progress requires an unwavering commitment to the customer, rather than your product. You need to develop an obsessive habit and mind-set of living in your customer’s world. Understanding customers provides you with a greater opportunity to earn their attention. Spend time on what touches a customer, and don’t do anything to your product that doesn’t generate value for them, and revenue for yourself.

Habit 3: Minimise low impact decision-making You have to be action led. From daily operations to strategic direction choices, waffling with indecision just will not work. The ability to make decisions is directly related to your sense of confidence, so if you find yourself not knowing which choice to make, remind yourself that you have more insight into what you’re doing than anyone else, and trust your instincts.

Habit 4: Avoid the crowds Conventional wisdom yields conventional results. Joining the crowd – no matter how trendy or ‘hot’ the moment, is a recipe for mediocrity or ‘me2’ at best. Successful startup founders by definition habitually do what other people won’t do. They go where others don’t because there’s less competition and a much greater chance for success. Make some bets, make your business about one simple problem, test it, and solve it.

Habit 5: Take one further step than everyone else – always look for the upside Problems are a regular part of startup life, it can often seem like everything is jam side down. To achieve success, look at both sides of the coin – every problem has an opportunity. Keep going when others stop, being opportunity focused makes you more positive about seeing potential in every situation. The habit of a positive mind-set is key.

Habit 6: Be visible – get out of the building The startup founders I’ve worked with consistently name the one habit they felt contributed the most to their success. Each said the habit and ability to ‘think customer’, be visible and get out of the building is key. Having conversations with potential customers is a key habit to building value in your product and building relationships. You don’t need to sell, you just need to be in conversations.

Habit 7: Start at the end Average success is often based on setting average goals. Decide what you really want: to be the best, the fastest, the most innovative, whatever. Aim for the ultimate. Decide where you want to end up. That is your goal. Then you can work backwards and lay out every step along the way. Never start small where goals are concerned. The habit of thinking big, looking to the horizon and working backwards is key to growth.

Habit 8: Be organised and shift gears, out your meetings on a diet Sometimes having a head full of big ideas can lead to thinking being a bit scattered. The difference between an ideas person who remains ineffective in implementation, and someone who achieves success, falls on having an ability and habits to be organised enough to follow through and execute them. Prefer action to thinking, spend time planning but a lot more time doing, but know why and where you’re heading. Jettison protracted meetings and flabby agendas, make stuff happen.

Habit 9: Make small bets and make them quickly There is no guarantee anyone will buy your great idea. Your resources are limited and you don’t want to risk everything on one roll of the dice. Get out in the market fast and let potential customers tell you if you are onto something. Respond to feedback, change course and act. The habit of being flexible allows us to respond to changes without being paralyzed with fear and uncertainty

Habit 10: …and they don’t stop there, play tomorrow’s agenda today Achieving a goal, no matter how huge, isn’t the finish line for most startup founders, rather it just creates a launch pad for achieving another goal. Startup founders are restless, and don’t try to win just one race, they expect to win a number of subsequent races.

Habit 11: Be true to yourself Steve Jobs succeeded by following his own ‘inner voice, heart and intuition’. He said, Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition.

Habit 12: Reflect on critical open questions through different lenses Most disruptive thinking is borne by a long cultivation of an open question, followed by the nurturing of a slow hunch. If you get a mental block, work at the problem each day from different angles, under different lenses – looking at extremes, considering what essential assumptions are and how to test them. Eventually I find some real traction with an idea that seems novel and has a good chance of working.

Habit 13: Plan tomorrow’s agenda today Before the close of business, go over what’s coming up the next day. Review and forecast what tomorrow is going to look like and how you’re going to get through that. It gives you an opportunity to prioritise, and also allows us to go to bed at night with a clear head. Your mind does a lot of work for you while you’re sleeping. You get there the next day and are much more efficient and productive

Similar to this habit, I have my own evening retrospective on the day just ended. Every night before bed, I think about this question: If I live every day the same way I did today, what kind of future would that create? It forces me to constantly evaluate whether or not my actions are lining up with my priorities. The future is shaped one day at a time, and it’s never as far away as we think.

We are stereotyped creatures, imitators and copiers of our past selves. The startup founder who wants to reach the top appreciates the might of the force of habit and understands that practices are what create habits. He is quick to break those habits that can break him, and hasten to adopt those practices that will become the habits that help him achieve the success he desires, as outlined above.

My own thoughts are that if I can get victory over myself, the odds are high I can help fix ideas into stuff that works. If I can’t fix myself, the odds are equally high I will never be able to add value and do good things. As Flaubert said, Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

So many hats, so little time; the habits and rhythms of successful startup founders.

Simple – ship weekly (or ship weakly), test, talk to users. The rest makes you mediocre, like wasting time on Twitter. As Elon said, work like hell.

You’ve probably heard someone say this before, or maybe this statement has even come from you too. Why is it that almost everyone claims to have the next big startup idea but only a small number of people have the courage and audacity to start something new and make it happen?

It’s another thing all together to go out and start something. To make a start exposes us. It is fundamentally this fear that stops us from being bold that stops us from taking action. We fear what others will think and say. We are afraid that our own self image will be tainted in the event of failure.

Its much safer to say things than it is to go out and try things. It’s also much easier to give ourselves the satisfaction of believing that if we went out and took action that we would succeed than it actually is to just give it a try. We don’t know and nether does anyone else. The only true indicator of startup success is reality. The unpredictability of the startup experiment frightens us and keeps us locked in a prism of self-made excuses.

Those who are able to ignore their own fears are the ones that start things. They are bold and give themselves permission to start and thus the opportunity to succeed. Everybody else, just self-sabotages their own success. Fear in the form of resistance is created by our need for certainty, safety and comfort.

How do you make the shift from talking about a startup to acting on your ideas? The struggle is not in the idea it is in the process of overcoming the fear to start, then beating your own resistance to complete it and finally dealing with the fear of failure in order to get it out there.

With so many internal battles it’s no wonder that we find it easier to talk about them than to start take action towards achieve those visions. Breaking this cycle of fear is something we must learn if we wish to produce results.

Start it. Ship it. Repeat. Seth Godin talks in detail about the mindset of people to start things and ship things. His book, Poke the Box, discusses the innovation mindset from a new point of view:

The challenge, it turns out, isn’t in perfecting your ability to know when to start and when to stand by. The challenge is getting into the habit of starting.

You’ll need to learn to identify these key fears…

  • Fear of success: the fear that we are not worthy of success. You must believe in yourself in order to take action.
  • Rationalisation: beware of the excuses you make in your mind of why things happen a certain way.
  • Self medication: beware of when you feel the desire to heal yourself or taking a break. This can often come from a place of fear rather than truth.
  • Victimhood: do not identify with your failures.
  • Self-doubt: beware of self-sabotage, when you unconsciously act in particular ways to reduce your ability to succeed.

In Steven Pressfield’s book, The War of Art, he discusses the resistance we all face when launching something new, specifically though he lists a number of ways to make the shift from self-doubting mindset to work to having a more determined mindset:

  • Show up everyday, show up no matter what
  • Stay on the job all day
  • Commit over the long haul
  • The stakes are high and real: this means that we must have sense of urgency with our work.
  • We are focused on results
  • We do not over identify with our work: we must be willing to change our work based on feedback of relevant sources
  • We master the technique of our work
  • We have a sense of humour about our work
  • We receive praise or blame in the real world: we expose ourselves to external feedback.

As Elon Musk says, When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favour.

As I learn more about startups and the community, the more intrigued I have become with startup founders. I have supported a number of founders from tech startups, and I am constantly inspired by how they execute at speed within such uncertain circumstances. I’ve observed a pattern amongst many of these folk, regardless of their product, service or industry, these founders all had the following characteristics in common:

Vision and Purpose What are you trying to achieve? There will be highs and lows throughout the entrepreneurial journey of building a business. Remembering why you started in the first place and being able to see the end goal gives you the conviction to move forward through the toughest obstacles.

Persevere with an ability to get stuff done The founders I’ve worked with all carry a positive attitude and possess a winning mentality. They have fallen, but always return with a sense of resilience. They see the positive in the negative. They understand that to grow, they must raise the bar, as there is always the next stage, a higher challenge to meet.

They are guided by unwavering passion for what they do Passion (their why?) brings the sunshine on a rainy day. They started their business out of passion over profit, motivated by their interest in good impact. You want to make sure what you’re doing is what you love, because you will ultimately feel less of a slave to your business if you’re following your heart and not the money.

They run experiments like crazy The market opportunity is constantly changing and with that, there will always be new gaps, trends and demands. Good founders are like scientists and adventurers, they are always testing and experimenting. They recognise in order to stay relevant, market validation is a constant process.

Simplicity Whenever I look at a successful startup, it’s easy to admire how the moving parts, features and services, work in harmony, and do so with simplicity as the unifying theme. So when designed the V1 of anything there are four things we should remember:

1. It should be a solution to a singular problem, not a related multitude.
2. It should be easy to build & test against that problem.
3. It should be easy to explain.
4. It should be easy to adopt and use.

So, if these are the core features, attributes and outcomes arising from the study of successful startups, what are the individual habits of startup founders to make it happen? Here are my twelve thoughts:

Habit 1: Always look forward Being an innovator is all about being a disruptive thinking, to go beyond an existing market, seeing an unfilled gap in the market – or create a new market itself. You need to be a pioneer, keeping your eyes open for new opportunities to create your own market space. This means taking chances, but if anything is a critical part of a good habit set of a startup founder it’s a willingness to do just that.

Habit 2: Be customer centric A startup is an experiment, and progress requires an unwavering commitment to the customer, rather than your product. You need to develop an obsessive habit and mind-set of living in your customer’s world. Understanding customers provides you with a greater opportunity to earn their attention. Spend time on what touches a customer, and don’t do anything to yoru product that doesn’t generate revenue. Focus on making valuable things. Everything else is noise.

Habit 3: Make decisions You have to be action led. From daily operations to strategic direction choices, waffling with indecision just will not work. The ability to make decisions is directly related to your sense of confidence, so if you find yourself not knowing which choice to make, remind yourself that you have more insight into what you’re doing than anyone else, and trust your instincts. Don’t create obstacles. When others create obstacles, move on and keep building.

Habit 4: Avoid the crowds Conventional wisdom yields conventional results. Joining the crowd – no matter how trendy or ‘hot’ the moment, is a recipe for mediocrity or ‘me2’ at best. Remarkably successful startup founders by definition habitually do what other people won’t do. They go where others don’t because there’s less competition and a much greater chance for success. Make your business about one simple problem, and solve it.

Habit 5: Always look for the upside Problems are a regular part of startup life, it can often seem like everything is jam side down. To achieve success, look at both sides of the coin – every problem has an opportunity. Being opportunity focused makes you more positive about seeing potential in every situation. The habit of a positive mind-set is key. It’s easy to be critical. Especially in private. Don’t be.

Habit 6: Get out of the building The startup founders we’ve worked with consistently name the one habit they felt contributed the most to their success. Each said the habit and ability to ‘think customer’ and get out of the building is key. Having conversations with potential customers is a key habit to building value in your product and building relationships. You don’t need to sell, you just need to be in conversations.

Habit 7: Start at the end Average success is often based on setting average goals. Decide what you really want: to be the best, the fastest, the most innovative, whatever. Aim for the ultimate. Decide where you want to end up. That is your goal. Then you can work backwards and lay out every step along the way. Never start small where goals are concerned. The habit of thinking big, looking to the horizon and working backwards is vital to growth.

Habit 8: Be organised Sometimes having a head full of big ideas can lead to thinking being a bit scattered. The difference between an ideas person who remains ineffective in implementation, and someone who achieves success, falls on having an ability and habits to be organised enough to follow through with them. Prefer action to thinking, spend time planning and a lot more time doing, but know why and where you’re heading.

Habit 9: Make small bets and make them quickly There is no guarantee anyone will buy your great idea. Your resources are limited and you don’t want to risk everything on one roll of the dice. Get out in the market fast and let potential customers tell you if you are onto something. Respond to feedback, change course and act. The habit of being flexible allows us to respond to changes without being paralyzed with fear and uncertainty

Habit 10: …and they don’t stop there Achieving a goal, no matter how huge, isn’t the finish line for most startup founders, rather it just creates a launch pad for achieving another goal. Startup founders are restless, and don’t try to win just one race, they expect to win a number of subsequent races.

Habit 11: Don’t be afraid or embarrassed by failure James Dyson, creator of the famous Dyson vacuum, is no stranger to failure. In fact, he embraces it. He made 5,127 prototypes of his vacuum before he got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution he says. Dyson’s point is that if you want to discover something new, you’re bound to fail a few times and that’s okay. The habit of being resilient and not taking no for an answer stood him in good stead

Habit 12: Be true to yourself Steve Jobs succeeded by following his own ‘inner voice, heart and intuition’. He said, Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition. If you must, put your name to it and articulate your analysis objectively. Say it to their face.

How many of these habits do you recognise in yourself? What else do you do that adds to the list? Let me know!