For every entrepreneur, the biggest challenge when running a company is knowing how and where to spend your time.
I remember when I started my first company, Talent Rover, I focused so much of my time (especially in the early days) hyper-focused on building the product. I wasn’t worried about anything else. And for a while, that seemed like a great path forward—until we got closer to actually launching the thing and needing to turn this product we’d worked so hard to build into a profitable, scalable business. That’s when things got crazy.
This is typically true for most first-time entrepreneurs. There’s a significant amount of focus placed on building a game-changing product, only to end up with no real go-to-market strategy or plan (or knowing how to even create one). As a result, you find yourself living in a sort of whirlwind, working tirelessly to build a business without really knowing whether your 18, 19, 20-hour workdays are truly moving your forward—or if you’re just spinning your wheels.
It took me a long time to figure out where my time was best spent as a founder.
Here are the 5 key areas I would encourage all entrepreneurs to keep close tabs on throughout their startup journey.
1. Learning the industry
Entrepreneurs don’t always start companies in industries they’re familiar with.
For example, when I started Talent Rover, I’d never run a software business before. I had no idea who needed to be in charge of what. As a result, I ended up spending a significant amount of time just learning how software companies usually operate, and what needed to happen in order for us to succeed. I would reach out to friends and other entrepreneurs and ask for advice. I would try to educate myself by reading and researching online. But no matter which way you slice it, if you’ve never done something before, there’s a massive learning curve that comes with delving into uncharted territory.
In some cases, founders will try to shorten this learning curve by hiring other people who already have the expertise they need, however this usually ends up being expensive. This can work if you’re able to raise a bunch of money, but for the everyday founder, this isn’t feasible until much further down the road.
You’re better off just biting the bullet and educating yourself.
2. Building the product
Silicon Valley’s favorite mantra is, “The best product always wins.”
As a result, most entrepreneurs and startups tend to focus all their time and energy on building the product (I certainly did). In some ways, this is correct, because nothing else within the business really matters unless your product is something customers find valuable enough to use and pay for. But in other ways, this myopic thinking can end up being detrimental to the rest of the business.
The reality is, founders don’t have the luxury of being 100% product-focused. They also need to spend time thinking about how to market the product, communicate with customers, address questions and complaints, raise money, improve efficiencies and margins, etc. I know many entrepreneurs who spend too much time thinking about the product, and not enough time thinking about the business as a whole, that they end up with a really great product nobody knows about and not enough cash in the bank to continue forward.
Your job is to figure out how to build the best product you possibly can without forgetting about all the other things that will bring that product to life in the market.
3. Talking to customers
Every entrepreneur should regularly spend time talking to customers.
Customer feedback has the potential to inform nearly every aspect of your business: from product features to customer service requests to pricing. The more customers you can talk to, the more educated you will be on what people actually want and expect from a product like yours—and not what you assume they might want but don’t actually need.
This was something I prioritized at Talent Rover, as well as with my most recent venture, Place. I wanted to expose myself to as many customer perspectives as possible: what they wanted the product to do, what they understood the product to be, etc.
4. Operating the business
This is the area most entrepreneurs (who aren’t natural-born operators) deprioritize the most.
It’s a lot more fun to spend every day being creative, building new products. What’s hard is looking at the way the business is run internally and asking tough questions like:
- “How are we measuring progress? Are there better tools we could use to facilitate more productive action?”
- “Our payroll is pretty high. Could some functions within the business either be reconfigured or removed altogether?”
- “What new hires will we need to make in order to scale the way we want to—without hurting our cash flow too much in the interim?”
- “What questions are customers asking on a regular basis and how can we address those concerns more proactively?”
These are the types of questions that separate emerging startups from solidified companies. Very rarely is it the product, by itself, that makes a company successful. It’s almost always the product, and the team, and the business model, and the company’s partners, and investors, and advisors, and vendors, all orchestrated together, that separate it from any and all competition.
The second component here, in terms of business operations, is finding a balance between “running” the business and “optimizing” the business. For example, one of the biggest time-sucks for me as an entrepreneur with my first venture was spending hours putting together these manual excel spreadsheets with financial projections, or trying to make sense of our accounting reports to make hiring and sales decisions.
There are much better tools today than there were ten years ago for these types of things. The financial projection challenges are what inspired Place, which gives business owners visibility into the finances of their company at any given moment. But still, it becomes a question of how you can reduce the amount of time you spend putting out fires so that you can think more deeply about what you need to change for your business to run more effectively on its own.
5. Engaging the team
The biggest part of your job as an entrepreneur is being engaged with your team, being engaged with customers and vendors, having conversations, building relationships, and forming genuine connections.
This area of focus almost always gets deprioritized. It will always feel more pressing to solve issues within the company than to make the time to chat 1:1 with a new employee or take a Friday afternoon to get the team together for an afternoon of team-building. But I have learned over the years that any and all time you invest in this area of the business will pay you back ten-fold. You’ll retain great people, longer. You’ll form a harder working, more passionate team and company culture. You’ll delight customers. You’ll build longstanding relationships with vendors.
This is what the startup journey is all about—and for most founders, their first company is only the beginning.