For startup managers, doing less often achieves far more
The Israeli tech scene cultivates a commando squad mentality of rushing ahead at all cost, but it’s better to prioritize and focus on what matters
Based on the headlines of tech news sites in recent months, Israel is in a unicorn arms race. Every day there are reports of massive funding rounds, acquisitions, and IPOs, at a rate we have never witnessed before. Some of the companies making headlines have reached an adequate maturity level, but in some cases, they are very young companies who may have managed to charm investors, but raise concern over disproportionate enthusiasm. One of the outcomes of fluctuating markets is that many companies go into a tailspin trying to leap on to a runaway train. It is extremely difficult to maintain order and procedures amid a gold rush environment, and many managers find themselves racing to complete an endless list of tasks to create value, or the semblance of value, at high speeds and with the risk of losing control.
At the previous company I ran, our legal advisor approached me one day to ask that we hire an additional lawyer to help her cope with the massive influx of contracts being brought in by our zealous salespeople. She said she was receiving dozens of new contracts each week and couldn’t keep up with the workload, resulting in contracts taking a long time to be signed. When I looked into the matter, it turned out that while our industrious salespeople were indeed bringing in a lot of deals, in practice, only a small portion of them was bringing in any real business activity to the company. The solution, in this case, was not to hire another person to our legal department, but instead to guide our sales team to try to be more focused and prioritize deals with greater potential. I feel that this example is applicable to many of the problems faced by startups, particularly when they are in intensive growth mode: we tend to sprint in all directions and creating a pace that is unsustainable, instead of being more calculated. The result is a severe blow to efficiency, piling on needless operational and administrative workloads and most importantly wasting the most precious resource of all — time. In another instance, managers approached me to alert me that we needed to move into a bigger office because there was too much demand for meeting rooms and it was becoming difficult to find an available slot. The solution we ended up with was to cut down on the number of meetings. Had we thought that they were all of vital importance, things would have been different, but when we examined the matter closely, we reached the conclusion that the abundance of meetings attested mainly to a lack of order and an absence of organized processes among some of the teams.
Our usual instinct when we encounter deficiencies is to throw more resources at them. But often it is better to first look inwards and try to better manage the existing resources, only adding them after having exhausted other options.
One of the characteristics of a good manager is the ability to manage their time and as a result the organization’s time. The CEO’s role is packed with so many tasks and challenges that it is nearly impossible to get to everything. CEOs need to prioritize, focus on the most critical assignments and find the golden path among the rest. Naturally, it is not something you can ace, but experienced managers invest in developing methods to make the most of their time. It begins with scheduling shorter meetings— say half an hour instead of an hour— defining an agenda and goals for each meeting, and demanding that all participants come ready for the meeting.
Former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, for example, installed a policy that each meeting begin with a joint reading of the executive summary of background information, organized in a unified memo template, and then holding a discussion based on predetermined talking points, all according to a strict set of rules. Some of his employees swear on the method as being the key to productivity and one of the critical factors in Amazon’s success, while others felt the opposite and even decided to leave the organization because of it. One thing is certain, while the formula may have worked for Bezos and Amazon, it won’t work for every company in the world.
Many managers like to study up on time and task management methodologies. One of them is called Getting Things Done (GTD) and was developed by David Allen, presented in an international bestselling book by the same name. Allen offers a five-stage system to filter, organize, and manage tasks that won over millions of fans who claim it has significantly improved the volume and quality of their output. Successfully managing time is a critical factor in managers’ success and for that reason, they love to exchange tips to help each other out: send yourself reminders, delegate assignments, set up virtual teams, send out questionnaires to all participants in a meeting, hold weekend hackathons to address neglected creative assignments, etc…
The need for proper time management is not limited to CEOs of multinational corporations, it is just as important for a person who is overseeing the early stages of a company. While it may be true that at the get-go there is not that much activity to oversee, but there is also no one to help you. At this stage, just like in later stages, the key is to find ways to do less. If you find yourself crumbling under the burdens of the job, chances are that you’re wasting time on things you can do without, or at least do without right now. At startups, there is always the race to achieve the impossible. At their most basic level, startups are based on the assumption that we, a handful of people with limited funding, can in a few short years create a monster company to take on the industry giants and hopefully get one of them to spend billions of dollars (I would have written hundreds of millions, but I too have been reading the headlines of recent months) in order to acquire the rapidly growing asset. The aspiration is practically insane and as such it never allows us a moment of smooth sailing. The Israeli startup culture cultivates an ethos of a commando unit — the few vs. the many, David vs, Goliath, Waze vs. Google — which sometimes makes us run like madmen for no other purpose than, well, to run like madmen. Sometimes trying to do as much as possible, just results in more commitments, more meetings, more people, more expenses, and more time, without any of it necessarily contributing to efficiency and productivity. The challenge is not how to get more done, but rather how to do less. When you don’t get swept up in an impossible schedule, you can put aside time to breathe, think clearly, prioritize and do only what is defined as important, at a much higher level of effort and quality.
Shaul Olmert. Photo: Orel Cohen
Shaul Olmert is a serial entrepreneur and the co-founder and CEO of mobile app developer Piggy. He formerly founded interactive content company Playbuzz Ltd. You can find his previous columns here