We spend a lot of time at Techstars talking to founders about focus. We talk a lot about saying "no" to things that don't matter. We talk a lot about not chasing too many things at once. We try to give founders tools for deciding what's important. We try to give them a framework for how to get things done.
For me, it boils down to three things: my next daily task, my next milestone and my big goal. Lets call them GMT. Here is what they look like right now:
1. My next task is to send semi-weekly update emails to Techstars mentors. This is something that I do every other weekend during the Techstars program to keep the mentors posted on what's going on in the program at large.
2. My next milestone is to recruit a great class for the fall 2015 Techstars session. Each program that I run is a stepping stone to my bigger goal.
3. My next big goal is to become great at my job and a great investor in New York City. My vision is to help founders create great, transformational, lasting businesses, have fun along the way and make a lot of money.
Being really clear about your next big goal, milestone and daily task helps you keep your head straight. Pick your goal first, and then work backwards from the goal, while measuring progress along the way.
Work backwards from the goal.
In my case, the goal is to become a great investor. To do that, I need to keep finding and investing in great startups.
How do I become a great investor? By funding great founders and helping them accelerate their businesses.
The semi-weekly mentor email is just one small task on my list to make sure mentors and the companies are connected. It is a small but important task that is a step towards a great demo day.
The daily tasks add up to a milestone, and the milestones add up to the goal.
Stick with the system.
First, you set your goal and figure out the milestones. Then you are down to the tasks, and it actually gets harder, because there are a bunch of tasks you need to do over time to get to a milestone.
On any given day, I try to be very clear about one important task I need to get done. If it's not in my head, I don't think I am focused enough. I then go to my to-do list and look through it to get back into the groove.
If you always have your top task in your head, you know exactly where you are going and why.
It's OK for some days to be muddy and disorganized, but most days need to be pretty clear.
What works for me is a weekly routine. I know what I need to do every day of the week. For example, I know that every other Sunday, I send mentor updates. Having a routine really helps me stay organized and keep executing.
The routines can change from month to month, but I use the calendar to chunk my times during the week and that helps me set a rhythm. And that, in turn, helps me focus, prioritize and know what my next task is.
Don't do stuff that doesn't matter.
When you have clarity about your goal and milestones, you also have clarity about what doesn't matter. Prioritizing and deciding becomes a lot easier.
For me right now, if something doesn't contribute directly to finding great companies for my next program, I won't prioritize it.
I use key performance indicators and data to measure progress towards the milestone. Using numbers to measure progress is important, because otherwise you can't tell if you are getting closer to milestone.
One of the ways that investors, myself included, measure progress is by looking at the value of their portfolio. It is difficult to do for early-stage companies, and by no means this is an exact science.
Still, as long as you have some sort of consistent measurement, it works. For example, I know that the 2014 batch of Techstars NYC companies have raised over $20 million in funding, and I know that this stacks up pretty well historically against other NYC and Techstars batches. While this does not mean that I'm getting great at being an investor, the lack of financing of the companies would imply that I am not doing well.
I also use other KPIs to help me check that I am heading in the right direction. For example, we ask the founders during the program and afterwards to rate my performance. High ratings mean that founders are happy with our help. When they graduate, this would lead to a positive word of mouth, and they will recommend the program to other founders, and that would help me invest in more great companies.
Apply this in your business.
This system works equally well for individuals and startups.
For a startup, you need to start with your vision. What does the world look like according to you? What does the world look like when your business is successful?
The vision leads to the milestones. What do you need to achieve the vision? How do you get there? For most startups, their first few milestones are about traction and funding. Typically, the first milestone is to prove that your product is needed, that there is a demand and to get early customers.
The second milestone is typically funding. Once you've proven that your idea has potential, it is easier to raise funding.
You set KPIs and drive to the milestone. Build the product customers want. Do things fast, have a hypothesis, test stuff, iterate and be organized and chaotic at the same time. But at any moment be clear about your next task: what are you working on and why? What milestone are you trying to hit? What is your big goal?
Do you know what your next goal, milestone and task is? Please share it in the comments section below.
Related: Why SMART Goals Suck