We spend a lot of time talking to Techstars founders about focus. We talk a lot about saying ‘no’ to things that don’t matter. We talk a lot about not chasing too many things at once. We try to give founders tools for deciding what’s important. We try to give them a framework for how to get things done.
For me personally it boils down to 3 things – my next daily task, my next milestone, and my big goal. Let’s call them GMT. Here is what they look like right now:
1. My next task is to send semi-weekly update emails to Techstars mentors. This is something that I do every other weekend during the Techstars program to keep the mentors posted on what’s going on in the program at large.
2. My next milestone is to have a great Demo Day on April 17th. Not only are Demo Days the culmination of the Techstars program, but they are also significant milestones for me, as a Managing Director at Techstars. Demo Days are the stepping stones to my bigger goal.
3. My next big goal is to become great at my job, to become a great investor in New York City. My vision is to help founders create great, transformational, lasting businesses in NYC, have fun along the way, and make a lot of money.
Being really clear about your next big goal, next milestone, and next daily task helps you keep your head straight.
If someone asks you what they are for you, and you don’t know, that’s not great. It likely means you don’t have clarity, and may not be working on things that are important.
Pick your goal first, and then work backwards from the goal, while measuring progress along the way.
Work Backwards from the Goal
In my case, the goal is to become a great investor. To do that, I need to keep finding and investing in great startups. The way I do it, is to fund them in batches and run them through Techstars program. To have Demo Days as milestones is natural, because the Demo Days are the culmination of the program, and the start of the fundraising for most companies.
What makes for a great Demo Day? A bunch of things, but first and foremost, great companies (check out Techstars NYC Winter 2015 batch).
Techstars is a mentorship-driven accelerator. We connect each company with a group of great mentors, who work with them during the program to help accelerate the business.
The semi-weekly mentor email is just one small task on my list to make sure mentors and the companies are connected. It is a small, but important task that is a step towards a great Demo Day.
The daily tasks add up to a milestone, and the milestones add up to the goal.
GMT: One Goal, One Milestone, One Task
If you can stick with the system, it works.
First, you set your goal, and figure out the milestones. Then you are down to the tasks, and it actually gets harder, because there are a bunch of tasks you need to do over time to get to a milestone.
On any given day, I try to be very clear about one most important task I need to get done. If it’s not in my head, I don’t think I am focused enough. I then go to my to-do list and look through it to get back into the groove.
If you always have your top task in your head, you know exactly where you are going and why.
It’s okay for some days to be muddy and disorganized, but most days need to be pretty clear.
What works for me is a weekly routine. I know what I need to do on Monday, on Tuesday, and all other days of the week. For example, I know that every other Sunday, I send mentor updates. Having a routine really helps me stay organized, and keep executing.
The routines can change from month to month, but I use the calendar to chunk my times during the week and that helps me set a rhythm. And that, in turn, helps me focus, prioritize, and know what my next task is.
Don’t Do Stuff that Doesn’t Matter
When you have clarity about your goal and milestones, you also have clarity about what doesn’t matter.
Prioritizing and deciding becomes a lot easier. Thats why for me right now, if something doesn’t contribute directly to having a great Demo Day, I won’t prioritize it. For example, a lot people want to meet with me, but I can’t take a ton of these meetings before the Demo Day. I am busy helping the companies. So I explain it to people, and ask them to follow up with me after April 17th.
Also, I have a bunch of tasks and projects related to broader Techstars ecosystem that I will get to after the Demo Day. I simply don’t have the time to do them, and they are not included in my next milestone. This system of Action and Idea lists is helpful for staying organized.
Use KPIs to Measure Progress to the Milestone
I use KPIs and data to measure progress towards the milestone. Using numbers to measure progress is important, because otherwise you can’t tell if you are getting closer to milestone.
One of the ways that investors, myself included, measure progress is by looking at the value of their portfolio. It is difficult to do for early-stage companies, and by no means is this an exact science.
Still, as long as you have some sort of consistent measurement it works. For example, I know that the 2014 batch of Techstars NYC companies have raised over 20MM in funding, and I know that this stacks up pretty well historically against other NYC and Techstars batches. While this does not mean that I am becoming great at being an investor, a lack of financing of the companies would imply that I am not doing well.
I also use other KPIs to help me check that I am heading in the right direction. For example, we ask the founders during the program and afterwards to rate my performance. High ratings mean that founders are happy with our help. When they graduate, this would lead to a positive word of mouth, and they will recommend the program to other founders, and that would help me invest in more great companies.
Apply This to You and Your Startup
How can you apply this to you and your startup? Actually, this system works equally well for individuals and startups.
For a startup, you need to start with your Vision. What does the world look like according to you? What does the world look like when you are a successful business?
The Vision leads to the Milestones. What do you need to achieve the Vision? How do you get there? For most startups, the first few milestones are about traction and funding. Typically, the first milestone is to prove that your product is needed, to prove that there is a demand, and to get early customers.
The second milestone is typically funding. Once you’ve proven that your idea has potential, it is easier to raise funding.
You set KPIs, and drive to the milestone. Build the product customers want. Do things fast, have hypotheses, test stuff, iterate, be organized and chaotic at the same time. But at any moment be clear about your next task – what are you working on and why, what milestone are you trying to hit? What is your big goal?
So let’s try this out.
Do you know what you goal, milestone, and next task are? Please share it with us.
Engineer, Immigrant. Vegan. 3x Founder, Managing Partner @2048vc. Previously ran @techstars in NYC. I write #startuphacks: http://alexiskold.net .