Don’t be too flexible: How I manage the Startup fire hose

By Phillip Bogdanovich


Moderating work has never been a strong suit for me. Becoming a founder made that worse.

For years, I ran and spent time in the gym in an attempt to offset my compulsion to take on an endless stream of tasks and bury myself in meetings. Predictably, I developed overuse injuries, and then made them worse by spending way too much time grinding through them. Also predictably, I was immersed in a tremendous volume of time intensive drudgery that yielded no real results – I was over committing and under performing. I decided I needed to really focus on building the company effectively and that I had to maintain a healthy culture of high-quality output and forward momentum. This is how I did it.

I define an operational routine and adhere to it. For me, this included working out for a set amount of time per day as opposed to at a set time – this allows for flexibility in scheduling around exercise – and using a calendar religiously (and intentionally). In the beginning, relegating myself to a strict schedule felt impossible. It turns out the real problem for me was saying no. My sense is that every conversation is an opportunity to expand my network; a chance to formulate a new partnership, raise more money or generate a new sales prospect. This thinking is debilitating.

I knew logically that my time was something I had to protect because it was the one thing I couldn’t raise more of. I discovered the easiest path to effective time management is to set a period of time as “open” for appointment purposes at the beginning of the week and be rigid. I do not make exceptions to my calendar unless refusing to do so would cost money or a sale. I also don’t make this decision alone; if I feel something may need to be squeezed in, I’ll discuss it with Rachel, the ops manager.

I understand the sun rises on all disasters. No matter how big the problem, no company dies in a day. There’s time to manage every setback. In fact, there’s always a few fires burning in startup land. It’s important not to panic and even more important not to act on incomplete information because you feel pressured to make a decision because of some uncertain timeline. There is always more time if you are objective about complications existing in the first place. This is different than trying to solve every problem re-actively. Be aware of the entire field and prioritize.

I stopped conflating the number of times I said yes to someone else with success.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see the flaw here; but in the moment I associate saying “yes” to someone with helping someone, and I equate helping someone with success (especially if it’s inside my company). The most difficult thing for me is being able to prioritize conversations and not overextend myself in the pursuit of helping someone else. I need to remind myself that telling someone “no” is often an opportunity to enable them to help themselves. Ultimately, the ability and willingness to self-rescue is a valuable tool.

I pay attention to how much time is spent doing my actual job. I stay as close to a 70/30 split as possible – 70 percent of my time is spent working on high level tasks, and 30 percent of my time is spent working through individual or team problems. It’s easy for me to become distracted and begin looking for problems to solve. We are currently working on really interesting problems, and thus immersing myself in the day-to-day exploration of those difficulties is compelling. I have to make a concerted effort to remain focused on the tasks that move the company forward but at times aren’t the most interesting.

With founders, especially technical founders, it’s common to want to follow the “shiny thing”. Especially when the “shiny thing” is a challenging new problem. The key to continually doing what’s in the best interest of the company even when your entire universe is constructed of new and interesting challenges is straightforward: set priorities early, define how much time can be spent on non-core tasks. Admittedly, I had to go further and put a human safety net in place. She has the (very difficult) task of preventing me from over committing and over scheduling.

  1. Touches aren’t a measurement of success.
  2. Determine what your actual job is, then do it. his will change depending on the stage of your company, especially as a founder.
  3. You most likely won’t experience a disaster so substantial that your company won’t survive the night. Take time to recharge.
  4. Time is your most precious resource. You cannot get it back. Protect it.
  5. Define an operational routine and make adhering to it part of your job.

Finally, empowerment is critical to successfully founding a startup and sometimes forcing members of your team to self-rescue is key to their growth. Create an environment where taking on a challenge is encouraged, and more importantly, where failure is expected, analyzed and discussed as opposed to ridiculed and eventually hidden.

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