Advice on how a startup CEO should prioritize their time

dilbertI was talking to a good friend of mine recently, a startup CEO like myself, and he was struggling with the difficulty of deciding what exactly he should be spending his time on. He has a functioning version 1.0 product and two other people in his company.

Should he be spending more time recruiting, finding the talent that will help him move his company forward?

Should he be focusing on building relationships for the long-term, with potential investors, clients and partners?

Should he be spending his time responding to the numerous proposals that are due to potential clients?

Or, oh yeah, on the actual product that his company has created?

It’s a tough call for the CEO of any company to wrestle with how they should be spending their time. And its especially difficult for the CEO of a small company as there aren’t many people to delegate work to (more on the importance of delegation).

When I look back on the various times that I struggled with where to spend my time, an analogy of a house on fire comes to mind. If your house is on fire, I suppose you can spend time thinking about how to fire-proof your house, but you should probably get yourself out of the house first.

The goal of a startup is to survive, after all. I was listening to a Marc Andreessen interview this weekend and he was saying that one of the things his VC firm looks for in startup CEOs is a relentless, I-will-never-fail attitude. And making mistakes is not the same thing as failing, after all.

My advice for the startup CEO that is struggling with where to prioritize their time is to make two lists. First, a list of things in the order of immediate need. For example, in the above example, I would order those four items as such:

1. Respond to the proposals. Those have an immediate timeline and represent cash. (SALES)

2. Build relationships. On the other end of those proposals, there needs to be more proposals. (MARKETING/RELATIONSHIPS)

3. Make the product better. Some may think this should come first, but I’d argue that the greatest product in the world is useless to a company that runs out of cash because they don’t have customers. Plus in this example there is already a solid functioning version 1.0 of the product. (PRODUCT)

4. Find the best talent. Once the clients start coming in, you’ll need a great team around you to take advantage of the growth. (RECRUITING)

The second list should be the order of those items based on where YOU can add the most value. What are you especially skilled at? Are you better at products? People? Sales? Operations? What makes you special? For me personally, the list would look like this:





The final step would be to figure out how you can offload the items at the bottom of your list and focus more of your time on the things you’re really good at (and passionate about). What do you need to put in place – processes, partners, new team members, etc. – to allow you to focus on the top of the list.

PS – coincidentally, the friend that prompted this blog post is also the same one that turned me on to using Trello as a tool to help with prioritization, which I still utilize today.

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