The Art Of Startup Prioritization: Maximizing The Wow-To-Work Ratio

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The Art Of Startup Prioritization: Maximizing The Wow-To-Work Ratio

 

At most startups, one of the hardest things to do is prioritize tasks. If your startup is anything like mine, you’ve got hundreds of things you could work on. There are always more ideas and tasks than there are people to do them. The trick is figuring out what to work on now and what to work on later. I’ve had to deal with this challenge for most of my professional career.

Figuring out how to prioritize is a non-trivial challenge because there are many factors at play. I don’t think it’s possible to come up with the “optimal” prioritized list of things to do (and even if you had the optimal sequence, you wouldn’t know it or be able to prove it).

So, the way I like to think about this problem is to analyze the inputs into the function. Here’s how I think about prioritization within a startup. Note that these points are related to prioritization of tasks related to the product (in my case, software for internet marketing). But, some of the principles would likely work for other types of businesses as well.

The Art Of Startup Prioritization

When reading this list, assume that all other factors are equal (which I recognize that they never are). Also, it’s important to recognize that a lot of my thinking about startup task prioritization is solving for the somewhat amorphous concept of “startup success”. I’m not just looking to build the “best product” or create the highest margins. Also, I don’t think the classic approach of “work on the things that are most important” is a good one. In tends to be sub-optimal because of other factors.

For example: There may be one critically important task that you would think is the “highest priority” right now, but it may need to be deferred based on the fact that it’s so mind-numbingly boring that you’re going to lose your lead developer if you make him work on that task immediately after he just spent a week working on another mind-numbing task. Sure, it's "super-important", but there's a price.  One of the goals of the prioritization process is to make optimal use of resources that you have – and ensure that you still have them.

But, I digress. Here are the things I like to think about when deciding what to do.

1. Proximity To Customer: When choosing between two otherwise equally important tasks, pick the one that will deliver the most direct value to the customer (i.e. it is the closest to the customer’s needs). So, although picking just the right shade of blue for your logo might be important – it doesn’t really help the customer directly. (Note: I recognize this is an extreme example, but since this is the first point, I wanted to make sure I’m clear on the structure of this list).

2. Visible Value: Tasks that create value that can be seen win out over tasks that are under the covers. Customers often lack imagination and appreciation. In the early days, it’s very important to create both the perception of progress and actual progress. On a related note, non-engineers share this trait with the customers. So, your CEO is likely going to be more impressed with a feature she can see than one she can’t.

3. Non-Controversiality: Pick tasks that are non-controversial and don’t require debate, discussion and lots of analysis. Basically, pick the tasks that are “obvious” (i.e. of course we should do this thing and of course we would do it this way). For example, fixing an easily replicable bug that deletes all the user’s data at random times is non-controversial. Everyone agrees it is a bug and there’s likely not a lot of debate about how to fix it.

4. Maximize Wow to Work Ratio: This is possibly the most important item (and my clear favorite). That's why I changed the title of the article. This tip suggests that when in doubt, pick the task that has the highest “wow to work” ratio (that is, the task that creates the most customer delight for the least amount of effort/investment). You’d be surprised to see how easily we engineers get this wrong. We have this mistaken notion that the “Wow!” factor and the level of work needed are somehow correlated. They’re not. Customers are often delighted by the most trivial things sometimes. Find these trivial things and do them.  Once again, for effect:  "Just because it was easy for you to do, doesn't mean that it won't delight your users."

5. Team Productivity and Preservation: Pick tasks that optimize the level of productivity of your current team and minimize the chances that one or more of them are going to go running into the hills. Business-types get this one wrong all the time. Yes, getting you the report that tells you with precision exactly how much money you’re losing on your freemium product is important. And yes, you have to have it by the end of the week so you can update your VC investor spreadsheet. But, forcing this task is going to be sub-optimal if it causes your programmer to quit on you – because then you have two problems. In short, don’t just force-feed the most “important” tasks. Be mindful of the state of the team.

I've got several more items on my list, but these are the most important. What are your thoughts? How do you go about choosing between the hundreds of possible tasks in your startup's list of things to do? Please leave your comments.

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Mon, Jun 25, 2007

COMMENTS

Your last point is so dead on it's frightening. Our start-up is in month nine with five founders who have been working 15 hour days for the past 6 months but the CEO/Original founder is still working his "day job" as an executive at another company. However each week we spend about 30% of our time keeping him updated and filling out all the reports that he wouldn't need if he was there full time. Of course when you are losing 1/3 of your time every week people are going to miss deadlines more often than not and of course his big MBA tells him that it can't possibly be his fault. At the end of the day I have come to appreciate just how valuable the middle manager is to any company and especially in start-up land to build a great company you need great people. Too bad no business type with an MBA is smart enough to realize that the team's productivity takes precedence over doing the top dawg's dirty work. Gotta love corporate America.

posted on Monday, June 25, 2007 at 1:06 PM by


i'm surprised that readings blogs about startups is not on the top the list, if it was I'd be feeling quite productive : ) i would add some measure of proximity to revenue generation - there are many things that can be done and may be excellent features for the future, but are massively trivial when the cash clock is ticking down.

posted on Monday, June 25, 2007 at 2:51 PM by Hasan Luongo


Great post - I am constantly facing an issue with one of my colleagues - he couldnt sort his tasks and his decising about priorities really sucks. This would maybe help.

posted on Tuesday, June 26, 2007 at 5:10 AM by Misha


This article hit closer to home once I realized you're an engineer and you are speaking to engineers. As a red blooded entrepreneur I can't tell you how frustrated I get when technical people putting in a lot of time to do something that will impress engineers, but the customers can care less. It's makes me feel like I'm watching a movie that is perfectly produced and filmed, but has no plot.

posted on Tuesday, June 26, 2007 at 11:45 PM by Mike Sabat


Hi Mike, I think I have something to offer here. I do a lot of wortk with start up entrepreneurs -one focus is upon personality and attitude. many people who develop technicical skills do so because they have the capacity to study independently and keep focused. This is a great strength, but at times this means people like engineers will call upon that independent thinking style when challnged in business. I know this because I studied for years, locked away in a lab and then a bedroom, writing up my Phd. I quite like the potential to work alone and get into techy stuff. I ahve had to learn some tough lessons when it comes to listening to the customer rather than my 'intelligence'.

posted on Wednesday, June 27, 2007 at 2:46 AM by Prof David


The "wow" factor? I was involved in a design project once, in which the managers desperately needed to see visible progress. I didn't have much authority then, but I could see it coming. What they were trying to do was very difficult, technically. The mistake they made was always steering the effort into a place where visible progress could be made. There were several gritty tech hurdles, but none of these would receive attention since work on them did not appear to the managers to produce visible progress. So, I challenge your point #4 - that it must not mean this. I don't know what kind of startup you have, but you must determine early, what the essential hurdles are, then focus everything on those goals. Those are the things that without them, it's like driving fast on the wrong road. To help you understand this, I recomment The Wright Way, by Eppler.

posted on Sunday, July 01, 2007 at 8:51 PM by Steve Sarakas


When facing multiple top priority deadlines, I have benefited from asking myself which of these would cause the most grief if it went entirely undone. It helped on occasion to see things in this way.

I would also caution against thinking it is better to make a little progress on EVERYTHING. This seems to stem from fear of leaving ANYTHING entirely undone.

In actuality, we seldom know with certainty what the outcome will actually be, but I have found comparing the urgency of different tasks to be one of the most difficult.
Test your thinking!

posted on Sunday, July 01, 2007 at 9:00 PM by Steve Sarakas


Good stuff. I'd like to add that if it's a close call on the factors you listed that you get the task done that you are dreading the most. A big part of enjoying my daily job is not having some dark cloud looming over me. So I get the monkey off my back as fast as I can.

posted on Tuesday, July 10, 2007 at 4:37 PM by Dylan Peterson


These are all great comment guys. I believe that you are all right about the issue regarding creating tasks that will keep your team productively engaged. Managing employees and employee satisfaction is equally as important as hitting deadlines. At OnCard Marketing, we make a point to ensure that our tech team has a say in what gets done first given their idea of importance and difficulty level. We let them choose what gets done first second or third depending on our overall goals of execution. It leads to a flatter management structure and a more broad-based communication across various employees.

posted on Sunday, August 05, 2007 at 12:52 AM by jonathan treiber


I really appreciate this post on prioritizing. Entrepreneurs are always looking for better ways to do the same thing. So, I have featured this post on our content site:www.norhtstarthinktank.com in the Research and Planning category.
Thanks again for this useful bit of information!

posted on Wednesday, January 09, 2008 at 12:55 PM by Jeff Chavez


Hi! It is really healpful for me. Thanks and good luck!

posted on Wednesday, February 13, 2008 at 5:06 AM by Svetlana


HOW CANN I START MY IMPORT AND EXPORT BUSSINESS FROM KASHMIR VALLEY.

posted on Thursday, July 03, 2008 at 8:22 AM by mak


I really enjoyed this article on learning how to prioritize more efficiently. I have shared it with my readers on the Northstar Thinktank site:  
 
http://www.northstarthinktank.com/business/business_ 
cycle/research_planning/how_to_prioritize.html 
 
Thanks, and keep up the good work!  

posted on Friday, July 04, 2008 at 12:26 PM by Jeff Chavez



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