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The difference between good startups and great startups: Planning and Execution
When you are building a startup, it can feel like there are never enough hours in the day to get to everything you feel you have on your plate. This sense of overwhelm means that some things fall through the cracks. For many founders, one common casualty is making time to review their strategies and update their operational plans .
Lots of founders make time to create a business plan or think about their strategies and goals when they are preparing their pitch deck. But many see business plans and pitch decks as something that you create for other people. More than that, they see them as things that you do once as a special project.
The truth is that planning and execution are the lifeblood of startups, and making time to review and update your plan is crucial. Your business plan should not be a static document. It should be something that you share with your organization and use actively to build and execute your vision.
You never hear anyone say that investors invest in founders that can come up with great strategies, or founders that have lofty goals. Instead, you hear that investors bet on founders that can execute. And execution starts with a plan.
It may seem like common sense, but I speak with a lot of founders that don’t have plans they can use to manage the business. They have strategies, like their “go to market” strategy, or their “product development” strategy. And they have goals, like “we’ll increase revenues this year by X%” or “we’ll expand internationally in 2021”. But you can’t execute these strategies or goals without a plan.
So what are the required ingredients of a good plan? Here’s my list:
- Tactics and actions
- Progress metrics
There are lots of YouTube videos that include a lot more things, but I want to keep this simple. If your plan includes these elements, you are already doing better than a lot of founders. I’ll elaborate a little on my 3 requirements.
Tactics and actions
The biggest problem with strategies and goals alone is that they don’t tell you what you need to do day-to-day. To achieve your goals you need the methodical application of tactics and actions. That can include things like:
- Contact 40 customer prospects per week
- Create weekly content targeted to our target market about [insert problem]
- Negotiate volume pricing for …
- Review website analytics and launch new A/B tests monthly
- Develop an email campaign to reactivate inactive customers
- Poll existing customers on service or satisfaction levels
For your business, what are the daily, weekly, and quarterly activities that you, or members of your team, can do to produce the result you want? Do you have a list of those activities? Do you know who owns each of them? Are you tracking that they are being done and do you have a way to track their effectiveness?
Deadlines and schedules are usually the second big gap in startup plans. Annual goals are a lot like the term paper assignment you got at the beginning of the year. There is no urgency to work on it. With startups, you need to create urgency around your strategy. That means mapping out a timeline and due dates for your actions and tactics.
You should break annual goals down into shorter-term milestones, like monthly or weekly. Some of the actions and tactics will be one-offs, and some will have to be routines. What’s important here, especially as your team grows, is that these actions are coordinated, and that can only happen when you schedule them.
I see founders who are lax about due dates and deadlines, but you need to treat meeting deadlines as an organizational discipline. If you are lax at the beginning, that will become part of your culture. As you grow, the organization will be lax as well. And if you make promises to customers and don’t keep your promises as an organization, you won’t be in business long.
Create an organizational culture where deadlines and due dates matter. It’s difficult to change the discipline of a culture once it starts to set. Setting and meeting deadlines also helps your team coordinate their efforts. CEOs that make and keep promises about what they are going to do raise money MUCH easier than those that don’t!
I mentioned that goals don’t inherently have urgency, like that term paper. Setting near-term deadlines and incremental milestones helps you create a sense of urgency and manage workflow. It also gives you an objective way to track and measure your progress, make sure that you are on schedule, and let you see if the tactics that you are using are effective.
The one thing you need to know about plans is “They change”. Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”. Your progress metrics are your way of quickly seeing what actions are working and which are not. If you don’t have progress metrics in place, you risk wasting a ton of time and money on ineffective actions. Progress metrics also gives you the ability to identify problems, adjust your plan, and get back on course.
When something isn’t working, be sure to ask “why”. Is the tactic flawed? Is the execution flawed? Are we hitting the right audience? Whatever the reasons, take the opportunity to learn from your “why” and adopt new tactics. Then rinse and repeat.
When you are creating your company roadmap/plan…
- Start with developing clear and achievable Goals/Objectives
- Make a comprehensive list of the activities that will be needed to meet those goals
- Break the goals down into quarterly and monthly goals and weekly deliverables
- Identify the metrics you’ll need to see to know if things are working as planned
- Make sure all activities and deadlines have someone who is responsible for them
- Track, review, and analyze your results on a regular basis
- Update and adjust your plan as needed
As soon as the organization is more than just you, you will need to have a way to give your team visibility into the tasks, deadlines, and key metrics. You don’t have to use something sophisticated or expensive. Many founders start with Google Sheets or anything cloud-based that multiple users can see and update. If you wanted something a little more sophisticated, you can easily build project tracking sheets in Airtable or Notion. And lots of project management software, like Asana or Clickup, have free versions to help you get started.
Go forth and execute
Hopefully, you are already doing most of the things in this post. If not, here’s your checklist to supercharge your company’s execution:
- Make the time to review and update your plans regularly. Adjust based on what’s working and what’s not. Also consider updates based on: changes in the marketplace; feedback from your customers; and new opportunities that may have popped up.
- Consider your plans to be fluid and adaptable and visible to your entire team
- Create expectations for all of your activities. Track the results early so that you know when to adjust
- Have an individual responsible for critical tactics, and for keeping activities on schedule. Let everyone know how their project fits into the success of the company
- Hold people accountable to deadlines and lead by meeting your personal deadlines
I hope this helps. Go be epic.