Do Fewer Things, Better

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on November 24, 2015 in strategy 26 Comments

I'm going to tell you a secret.  I have a very simple, 4-word strategic plan (devised it a few years ago).

Here it is...


Do fewer things, better.

This has made my life -- and my work, dramatically better.

Here's how I execute on my strategic plan:

1. Decide on what matters the most.

2. Say no to everything else.

3. When something falls in the gray area, re-read #2.

Of course, that's easier to say than do. I fail at it all the time -- but I'm getting better.  Here are some tips learned from years of practice:

1. When making your list, start with a low-level of abstraction.  Resist the temptation to make your list really "high-level".  As an extreme example, one of the things on your priority list shouldn't be "Be successful".  That's so broad, that you'd be able to rationalize almost every activity under the sun.  Try to be specific enough that the number of things that "fit" is a manageable number.  If you find yourself taking on too much (which you probably do), refine your filters and move to a lower-level of abstraction.  I've written an article on this that you might find useful:  "The Power of Focus and The Peril of Myopia".   

2. Forgive yourself for having to say "no" to things not on your "fewer things" list.  Years ago, I wrote a blog post asking public forgiveness , you can see it here at http://MustSayNo.com.  Of all the articles I've ever written, that one has had the most positive impact on my life. 

3. Remember that every time you say "no" to something you might have said "yes" to, it frees up time to focus on the things that matter.  And the more time you spend on the things that matter, the better you get at them.  Let me give you an example:  Let's say you say "no" to some project/request/idea that would have "only" taken a few hours a month, because it didn't make the "few things that matter" list.  And, let's say that one of the things that matter to you is being able to better communicate your message to the world -- via public speaking.  Those few hours you "saved" can be spent on getting your message out. More speaking gigs, more people influenced.  But wait!  That's not all!  Not only are you able to do some more public speaking, because you're going to spend more time on it, you're going to get better at it.  And, because you get better at it, you're going to get more frequent speaking invites.  With larger audiences.  And have more influence once you're on stage.  You're building leverage by getting better and better at the thing that matters.  And, it's amazing how much better you will get, once you decide on only a few things to get better at.

By the way, the reverse of this is true to:  Everytime you say "yes" to something, you're saying "no" to something else.  Often, you're saying "no" to something more important.

4. Fight the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) emotion.  It's a killer. We all have it to varying degrees.  This fear that if we don't say "yes" to something, we're going to miss out on some big opportunity, small joy or new connection.  Yes, sometimes you will miss out, but that's OK.  Life goes on.  On average, you will be better off skipping some things, instead of trying to do too much.  

More people fail from a gluttony of good activities than from being starved of them. 

5. Be super-careful with recurring commitments.   If you are going to occasionally say "yes" to things that are not on your "things that matter most" list, be super-careful that they're not a recurring commitment.  A one-time commitment of 4 hours is much less dangerous than a monthly hourly committment.  The way I think about this:  When I say "yes" to a recurring committment, I'm effectively saying "yes' multiple times (for as long as I think I'm going to be in that committment).  Which brings me to the next point...

6. As painful as it is, prune your prior committments. If you are like me (and apologies if you are), you've said yes to a few things that you now sort of regret.  Get yourself out of those.  Be respectful, be, understanding and be fair -- but be disciplined and true to yourself.  And just because you committed to something last year with no real "expiration date" doesn't mean you have to keep doing it forever.  Things change.  On a related note:  For things that don't have an expiration date, remember that it's going to be just as painful to prune later as it is now -- why not give yourself the gift of some time back sooner?

7. Try to solve for outcome, not activity.  Figure out what you want to happen (whether it be a commercial interest or a philanthropic one), and figure out how to best create impact.  Usually, optimal outcomes are not achieved by saying "yes" to a bunch of "good" activities (however well-intentioned).

On the point of philanthropy, you might be wondering: "What about doing good, and giving back?"  

Warning: My opinion here may be controversial for some and feel beknighted and self-serving to others. Sorry.  

First off, if you have the ability to give back, you should do so.  No doubt.  But the question is, how do you optimimize for outcome?  

Let me explain with a personal example.  I'm an entrepreneur.  Have been for most of my professional career.  I LOVE STARTUPS. THEY BRING ME GREAT JOY. I'm one of the co-founders of HubSpot (NYSE:HUBS).  I'm also a big fan of Boston and want to see the Boston startup ecosystem grow and thrive.

But a few years ago, I decided to dramatically limit the time I spend directly helping entrepreneurs and the Boston ecosystem.

Why would I do this?  Isn't that selfish?  Yes, I guess it is.

I'm a big, big believer in leverage and scale.  I like to spend my calories in ways that deliver the greatest impact and the best outcomes.  I'm actually quite geeked out on that idea. 

The reason I made this decision was that I felt the best way for me to help the startup ecosystem -- was to use my time to help make HubSpot a super-successful company.  The by-product of that success will be much greater than what I'd get if I were just directly trying to help a handful of startups.  

 So far, HubSpot has had some modest success.  We are a publicly traded now and have 1,000+ people working at the company.  We have many that have "graduated" HubSpot and gone off to start their own companies or join other teams.  We've also made a bunch of people money (several of whom are channeling some of that back into to the ecosystem by way of angel investing). We've improved Boston's "brand" as being a place where big tech companies can still be built (which helps pull in more capital, talent and interest).  All in, I'd say we're a net positive.

But, fact remains that instead of being a mentor/advisor/mensch -- I've sort of been a schmuck when it comes to where I spend my time.  My money is a different matter -- I've made 60+ angel investments.  But, I've been fiercely protecting of my time and I've said "no" to just about everything. And remember, I LOVE STARTUPS.  I love helping them.  I love the thrill, joy and fulfillment.  But, I said "no" anyways.  And, I may be rationalizing here -- but I think I've likely done more for the ecosystem than if I had simply gone to more events, tried to pick a handful of startups to be an advisor/mentor for, etc.  

This section got much longer than I planned for it to be.  I have a whole other article in draft-mode titled "The Surgeon In The Soup Kitchen".  I'll give you the abridged message of that post:

Don't favor what feels the most good.  Favor what does the most good.  

Thankfully, blogging is a high-leverage activity.  And, since I'm using HubSpot to write/promote/track this article, it helps HubSpot too.  So, I can rationalize this into my "fewer things" list.

Cheers, and best wishes with your "fewer things". 



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An Early-Stage Founder’s Quick & Dirty Guide To Growth

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on August 5, 2015 in marketing 19 Comments

The following is a guest post by William Griggs.  William is the Founder of Startup Slingshot, the resource for battle-tested startup strategies. Access the audio interviews of today’s featured growth practitioners, the full 43 page guide, and tons of resources here (free for now).


A startup is a company designed to grow fast.” 


Growth is what founders and investors alike are constantly searching for. Growth enables startups to quickly create tremendous value in the market. Without growth you’re dead in the water. But accordingly to Paul Graham, there’s a silver lining: “...if you get growth, everything else tends to fall into place.”

For a company to grow really big, it must
(a) make something lots of people want, and
(b) reach and serve all those people.”

Unfortunately for most founders, viewing their startup from this altitude isn’t extremely actionable. In this post, we’ll uncover the methodologies and tactics you will need in order to validate your business and systematically reach and serve your target market.


How do you ensure you are making something lots of people want?

Making stuff is the easy part. The key, however, is making something a lot of people want. Market selection and product/market fit are critical here.

This is where a lot of startups end up spinning their wheels. As you build product early on, how do you determine if you’re on the right track or heading towards a dead end? While every business is unique in terms of exactly what it needs to do to achieve product/market fit, the process for quantifying it is consistent.

Assuming you can’t use sales as an indicator of product/market fit, below you will find several ways Brian Balfour, VP Growth at Hubspot suggests quantifying product/market fit for your startup. The further down you go on the list, the more customers are required to receive meaningful insight.

  1. Indicator Surveys -- What do people say about your product?
    1. Created by Sean Ellis, Survey.io is the perfect tool for indicator surveys. To learn how to use Survey.io, read this.
  2. Leading Indicator Data On Engagement -- How are people using your product?
    1. What are you seeing inside the product? How active are your customers?’
  3. Retention Cohort Curve -- Does your retention curve flatten off?
    1. If people consistently use your product over a certain period of time, you’ve reached product/market fit for at least a subset of the market.
    2. Unsure how to get started with cohort analysis? Read this.

Don’t have enough data to do any of these steps? Focus on executing “trickle marketing campaigns.” Sean Ellis, CEO at Qualaroo was right to say that in order to understand what your target market thinks of your solution you have to expose it to them. The trick here is to not spend money and time on a big launch, instead focus on highly targeted marketing campaign that puts your product in the hands of the target market.

Before moving on to the second piece of Paul Graham’s growth equation, it’s important to emphasize that you have to get this right.Without product/market fit you’re wasting time even thinking about growth. As a founder, your startup is like a ticking time bomb says Andy Johns, Director of Growth at Wealthfront. You have a certain amount of time before everything will explode. To extend the time allotted, you need to show growth and the first step is establishing product/market fit.


How do you ensure you reach and serve all those people?

You’ve built something that solves a problem, for at least a part of the market, and now it’s time to get it into their hands.

Three Principles For Driving Quantifiable Growth

Learning how to reach and serve your target marketing isn’t rocket science but it isn’t obvious either. Those that drive quantifiable results do so by following these three principles:

  • Triage: They work on the highest return on investment activities, suggests Ivan Kirigin, CEO of YesGraph.
  • Test: They don’t assume they know what’s going to work. Instead, they focus on generating and testing hypotheses, Ivan adds. If you don’t take the time to get your analytics straight, so you can validate assumptions you’re flying blind.
  • Set Goals: They have a target metric they focus on. Doing so will help you focus your efforts.

Now let’s dig into the specifics.


How To Ensure You Reach Your Target Market

When starting to think about how you are going to really invest in reaching your target market, it’s important to revisit your business model. To start, you will need to formulate your target customer acquisition cost (CAC). Doing so will help guide you in determining which channels to test. To calculate your target CAC, you must estimate the average lifetime value (LTV) of your customer (learn how to calculate LTV) and subtract your profit margin. Hitting this CAC will allow you to profitably acquire customers. While most bootstrapped companies target a CAC that is 30% of their LTV, many VC backed companies that are trying to own their market typically spend to 100% of their LTV.

With this in mind, the next step is selecting what customer acquisition channels to test first. Below, I’ve briefly summarized Brian Balfour’s blog post titled, “5 Steps To Choose Your Customer Acquisition Channel.”


channel matrix 3.jpg

Source: 5 Steps To Choose Your Customer Acquisition Channel by Brian Balfour


In this matrix, you will have a list of potential marketing channels on the left and a set of channel attributes at the top. Keep your business model, competition, and target market in mind, and begin to fill out the matrix by rating each channel using the words “low,” “medium,” and “high.”

Review your current constraints (time, money, target audience, legal, etc.) and select the top one or two channels to test for viability. The viability of a channel is determined by its ability to drive predictable returns on the time/money invested. Once you find a channel or two that works, it’s time to double down and to continue to invest in optimizing the channel.

Not sure where to start with each of these channels? Check out these videos from 500 Startups’ WMD conference.


How To Ensure You Serve Your Target Market

In addition to reaching your target market, you must also focus on optimizing the process with which you use to serve them. In this case, serving them means getting them to your product’s “wow moment.” To get more of your target market to your product’s “wow moment,” Sean Ellis suggests that you focus on increasing desire and decreasing demand.

  • Increasing Desire: To increase desire you are continually working to test and optimize your messaging and positioning. The thought is, “with enough desire, people will overcome a lot of friction” says Sean Ellis. To execute on this and track your progress, you will need a combination of qualitative and quantitative data. Sean emphasizes that it’s paramount to keep the ultimate product experience in mind, so that you don’t increase desire for a product promise that your product is not designed to deliver on.
  • Decrease Friction: This step in the process is all about conversion rate optimization. It’s about seeking out and fixing all that’s preventing people from converting, whether that’s a macroconversion, like signing up for your product, or any of the microconversions that lead up to it. To dig in further on this topic, I suggest you read Qualaroo’s, “The Beginner’s Guide to Conversion Rate Optimization.”



In this post, we’ve covered the essential elements to designing a startup for fast growth. If you’re farther along or you just want to dive deeper into growth for early-stage startups, you can access the audio interviews of today’s featured growth practitioners, the full 43 page guide, and tons of resources here (free for now).

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