How to set business goals for the new year

Business goals for 2016It is the time of year to set goals for your business. Some people are not the type to actually set goals. They have “wants” but those are different than goals. Wants typically are uninspired and very unactionable whereas goals are concrete and can be measured.

You are a business superhero so you produce results and you do so by setting, and then achieving, goals. And if you need a little bit of help with the process here are some steps to walk you through it.

Review last year

Take a moment and think back to where you were last New Year’s and what hopes and goals you had for the coming year. Think about what went right and what went wrong.

Reasons you might not have achieved your goals could be (in no particular order):

  • Tried to do too much
  • Bad health
  • Lack of time
  • Lack of focus
  • Market forces
  • Technological change
  • Life changes

Which of those things are temporary and which can you change going forward? These are where New Year resolutions come into play. Also, do what you can to get into the mindset that success is not a possibility but inevitable. You can only fail if you stop trying.

When looking at the things that went well ask yourself if those are things you should double down on in the new year. It is very likely that you can grow quicker by focusing on the things that you do well (and hire for the things you don’t).

“Understand your strengths and amplify them.” – Jeff Housenbold (Shutterfly)

Set realistic goals

You are setting goals for the next year. Make them goals that fit into that timeframe. The dreamline is a good exercise. In it you list five things you want to have within the next year, five things you want to be in the next year, and five things you want to do within the next year.

Set goals based on effort rather than results

While it might be counter intuitive, you will have a better chance of reaching your goals if you set them based on efforts instead of results. Effort is completely within your control while results are less so. A goal of emailing ten prospects a week is more actionable than signing up one new customer a week.

Breakdown goals

The key to achieving big goals is to break them down into smaller, and more actionable, steps. If your goal is to write a blog post a week then before you even begin writing you need to brainstorm topics and research the posts.

If your goal is to get to $10,000 a month in revenue then start by thinking about your first $100 in revenue. Set a goal for a certain number of cold calls or emails a day until you reach that. Then think about the first $1,000. After that you can look at what techniques worked on the first $1,000 in revenue and apply them to getting that next $9,000.

Revisit your goals

Write your goals down so that you can reference them throughout the year to stay on track. And then put an hour a month (or even a week) on your calendar to sit down with them and go over your progress and next steps.

Again, right now, go into your calendar and create entries for revisiting your annual goals.

Get to work

Yesterday is the best time to get started. Don’t be another day late and another dollar short. Get to work!

Building a Product vs. Building a Business

Building a Product vs. Building a BusinessToday is the launch day of StartOpz (!) which is my new app that adds premade processes to business tasks such as expense reports, time off management, and invoicing. I hope to grow it into a sustainable business. I had some thoughts on that process that I am sharing here along with the wisdom of many men and women smarter than myself.

While the goal I mention is a sustainable business it does start with a product. Without that there is no business. The better the product you build the better chance of success your business has.

If you can’t build a great product it doesn’t matter if you can build a great company. – Ben Horowitz (Andreessen Horowitz)

Building your product was a huge undertaking. Finishing it deserves a celebration. But it is only the beginning.

“Coding is 5% of the solution. It is only a portion of the story.” – Amit Chatterjee (Hara)

“There is a big difference between a feature, a product, and a company.” – Cyriac Roeding (Shopkick)

The product that you have poured your sweat, blood, and tears into is something that will make your customer’s lives better. You’re certain of it. You might have even tested the value proposition before building. But you have only just begun your journey.

“A startup is ultimately about whether or not you can create a business around the product.” – Ann Miura-Ko (Floodgate Fund)

Birthing your product unto the universe creates a tiny flicker of light amongst millions or billions of other stars. That light could takes years before reaching anybody.

Without marketing few people will see it. Without a sales process they will have no way to buy it. Without accounting you will have no way determine profitability and do your taxes. Without systems you will not be able to scale. Without a team you will not be able to build new products.

A business is the vehicle you will use to drive all of that forward.

“Building a company is very different than starting a company.” – William Hsu (MuckerLab)

Starting a company is paperwork. Building a business is harnessing the determination with which you built your product to the many activities required to allow it to live in this world.

A lot of the things you do while building your product you will also do when building your business. Instead of developing software you’ll be developing relationships. Instead of testing for bugs you’ll be testing marketing campaigns. And don’t forget about continuously improving your product!

Values and Ethics

I am starting off this look at building a company by looking at the somewhat abstract topics of ethics and values. Even though they are abstract they are the bedrock on which you build your company.

I have never been quite sure of the difference between the two so I’ll say that ethics are your values in action. Conversely, if your actions do not reflect your values then you are acting in an unethical manner.

“Values are what guide your behavior when no one is looking and you don’t think anyone is going to find out.” – Carly Fiorina (Former CEO, HP)

Business have responsibilities to their owners, their employees, and their customers. Capturing those in words as the company’s values will guide everything the company does going forward.

“Values are things we repeatedly come back to.” – Justin Rosenstein (Asana)

Challenges to uniformly acting ethically are that events in the real world are rarely black and white and that each person might view situations differently (relativism) due to different upbringings, education, or religious views. Being able to reference the company values for all interactions will keep the company, and all of the individuals that make it up, pointed in the right direction.

“It is a lot easier to make decisions if you have a value system.” – Mari Baker (PlayFirst)

One thing I had not thought about until I had heard the following quote was that even though the concept of values might be abstract the implementation of them might not be and thus something you can quantify and measure (something that will serve you well across all aspects of building a business).

“Have corporate values and measure performance on them.” – Mitch Kapor (Foxmarks)

Building a Team

If you have not already started hiring then it is something that you will do down the line as your business grows.

“Everything starts with having the right team.” – Thomas Prescott (Align Technology)

When you are in hiring mode it should take up an extraordinary amount of time as a bad hire early on in a company can have disastrous consequences. Those include morale, culture, and the time wasted on training them. Just as important is the opportunity cost as your first hires are the pipeline for many of your future hires as referrals are key.

“When you’re hiring the first ten people you’re actually hiring the first one hundred people because the first ten will bring ten along with them.” – (Patrick Collison)

For the first hires I often hear that you hire people whose strengths are where you are weak. If you are good at sales but poor at finances then hire somebody who is not just good, but great at them. That way you both can focus on your strengths.

“Surround yourself with the best and brightest minds.” – Amit Chatterjee (Hara)

The caveat is that even the best and brightest need to be a good fit for your team. If you create a position just to get somebody on the team then you will end up with confusion as to their role and, by extension, others’ roles. And do not forget to check their references.

“When you do reference checks, you’re not just looking for the bad stuff. What you’re really looking for from that person’s previous manager or co-worker is how you can help that person grow.” – Ben Congleton (Olark)

Some of the lessons I have personally learned over the years are to never hire somebody who has only worked for family (typically somebody right out of school), that what university somebody comes from is a poor indicator of their work ethic, that what university somebody comes from ceases to matter after a few years in the workforce (unless they are in sales or positions that require a good deal of networking) as they will learn a lot more in one year on the job than four years in any school, and that great employees can be anybody from anywhere.

“Celebrate diversity.” – Teresa Briggs (Deloitte)

Once the company is large enough that you are ready to delegate hiring to a specialized department, or to let each individual department do their own hiring, make sure that you are putting your best people in charge of the process.

“A-quality people hire other A-quality people and B-quality people hire C-quality people.” – Cindy Padnos (Illuminate Ventures)

At the end of the day you are potentially spending more time with your team that you are with your family. Make sure they are a group of people who bring out the best in you and each other.

“Build a team who can challenge who you are.” – Sukhinder Singh Cassidy (JOYUS)


Culture is something you should think about prior to hiring. It sets the tone for an organization that will last longer than many employees. Culture touches all parts of a company from employee interactions to customer service to investors.

“Culture is the most important part of any organization.” – Ken Wilcox (Silicon Valley Bank)

How excited (or not) employees feel when getting out of bed in the morning is hugely affected by the atmosphere of the office. Toxic culture leads to low job satisfaction and burnout.

As the business owner it is up to you to define the culture you want.

“Be conscious of what kind of company you want and what kind of culture you want.” – Mari Baker (PlayFirst)

A good culture might be one where everybody values the contributions of all employees from the janitor to the CEO. But you cannot just describe what you ideal culture is. Culture is not words and cannot be conjured out of thin air. Culture comes from all of the day to day interactions, policies, and structure that make up your business.

“Culture is the behaviours you reward and punish.” – Jocelyn Goldfein (Facebook)

When you get culture right you unleash your employees and get output that is more than the sum of its parts.

“Culture is a wind that blows everybody in one direction.” – Cyriac Roeding (Shopkick)

Your company is going to be leveraging the different strengths of the individuals that make it up in a way that is consistent with the company’s values.

Personally I am an advocate of a culture that values innovation as I believe it is the only way to become a leader in an industry (it is important to note there is a lot of room in any industry to innovate and the same can be said about any organization). Continuous innovation is the only way to maintain that position.

“Reward your risk takers because sometimes they are driving the most innovative ideas.” – Teresa Briggs (Deloitte)


It is not until you have culture conquered that you can move onto developing strategy:

“A strategy without a culture is meaningless.” – Marten Mickos (Eucalyptus)

Strategy is the higher-level plans that dictate the direction the company will go while tactics are the ways you utilize resources to implement strategy. Strategy = big. Tactics = small.

“Think big. Think strategy.” – Ron Gutman (HealthTap)

A strategy that is too broad will be difficult to implement. Therefore you should create separate strategies, each with explicit resources and responsibilities, for each major component of your business.

“Have a customer development strategy in addition to a product development strategy.” – Ron Conway, Mike Maples Jr. (Angel Investors)

“Create a market positioning strategy.” – Stephanie Keller-Bottom (Nokia)

Executing on a poor strategy can actually lead you further from your goal of building a sustainable business and you will have wasted resources, possibly hurt morale, and shortened your runway. So creating a good strategy and implementing it is paramount to achieving your goal.

“Strategy and tactical implementation equals success.” – Mark Forchette (OptiMedica)

Your company does not exist in a vacuum and you cannot lead it with your head in the sand. Communication is an important part of strategy:

“The people capable of changing strategy need to be the ones hearing good news and bad.” – Steve Blank (Serial Entrepreneur)

If you are not getting feedback in the form of metrics or verbally then you are not going to know if you strategy is working, if it needs to be tweaked, or if you need to change course completely.

Of course while strategy is important you are going to be spending a lot more time executing it than you did thinking it up. And as always, ideas are worthless without execution.

“The business world is 1% strategy and 99% tactics.” – Matt Rogers (Nest)


Sales differs from marketing and is very dependent on the type of business and the type of customer you are trying to close. If you are just starting up you likely do not have a huge budget to hire sales people (but it is absolutely something you should be concentrating on yourself). But businesses of all sizes should be doing marketing to get people into the top of their sales funnel.

Of course before you start implementing an initiative you should have a strategy on how you are going to do so.

“Before you can market you need to have marketing strategy.” – Donna Novitsky (Big Tent)

Current marketing wisdom, in particular for SaaS products, is to start marketing even before you have a product.

“The initial tests of sales and marketing doesn’t take a lot of capital. You can do it online.” – Kate Mitchell (Scale Venture)

Content marketing in the form of blogging, tweeting, or a mailing list will help you develop an audience who will be receptive to hearing about your product as you build it and will be your first customers when you finish it.

The recent “growth hacking” phenomenon is quantitative in that you set up your marketing efforts in a way that you can measure and then adapt your efforts by doing more of what works and less of what does not.

Importantly you should remember that marketing is a long game. Rarely does somebody become a customer the first time they hear about your product.

You shouldn’t worry about the current quarter. You should be focused on building a pipeline. – Amit Chatterjee (Hara)


For many entrepreneurs outsourcing many of the financial tasks such as bookkeeping and tax filing is a wise choice. They are time consuming and are not drivers of growth. However it is important for every business owner to understand them in order to gauge the financial health of the company and to allocate resources effectively. (And to make sure that the people you hire for those tasks do not take you for a ride.)

“Learn to read a balance sheet and understand cost accounting.” – Steve Ballmer (Microsoft)

Knowing where your business stands at any point in time is captured on a balance sheet. It shows the things that are owned by a company (assets), the amounts owed by the company to others (liabilities), and the investments by the company’s owners (equity).

Those balance out in the following equation:

Assets = Liabilities + Equity

An example of the balancing is when the company borrows money it creates a liability to the bank/bondholder/loan shark. That money is then deposited into the company’s account and listed as an asset.

Assets typically are cash in bank accounts, accounts receivable (money owed to the company by customers), equipment, buildings, and inventory (for businesses that manufacture products). Liabilities are typically debt, accounts payable (money owed by the company to suppliers), taxes, and wages.

The tracking of revenue and expenses is what is known as an income statement (called the Profit and Loss Report in Quickbooks). Having more revenue than expenses makes you profitable (yay!).

Revenue – Expenses = Income

As opposed to the balance sheet which captures a picture on a given day, an income statement looks at the business over a period of time. Specifically what the revenue and expenses were between two dates.

Do not forget about taxes and interest as expenses. You might have “operating income” (- EBIT – Earnings Before Interest and Taxes) when your gross margin is more than your cost of running the company but could end up with negative net income after you pay the bank their interest and the IRS your tax bill.

The last accounting report you will want to look at is the cash flow statement. A business runs on cash (“cash is king”) but for various reasons the earnings reflected on the income statement are not always available as cash when needed. For example you cannot make payroll with sales you have booked but have not been paid for. (This is where the differences between cash and accrual accounting become apparent.)

“Income statements and balance sheets are lagging indicators.” – Carly Fiorina (Former CEO, HP)

The equation for cash is more complicated that the others:

Cash = Current Liabilities + Noncurrent Liabilities + Equity – Accounts Receivable – Inventory – Noncurrent Assets

An example of the balance here is that when you pay the $3,000 bill from your lawyer you are reducing cash by $3,000 as well as current liabilities for $3,000.

Any accounting software you use will be able to automatically create all of these reports for you.

Keep a close eye on the financial statements (at least once a month) so that you are able to make educated decisions on the many spending decisions posed to you. Do not hesitate to ask your bookkeeper or accountant to explain to you anything you do not understand.


You are investing a lot of time, money, and effort in building a company. The more efficient a company is the more value it creates with every minute and every dollar.

“What you’re doing when you’re building a company is building an engine.” – Keith Rabois (Khosla Ventures)

Creating systems to manage your business will help free up your time as well as free up your mind. It is easier to delegate tasks when you have a system in place. A step-by-step checklist creates a repeatable output that you can hire people to implement. Also, having each step of the process written down allows you to question them (whether they are necessary at all), measure them, and make improvements on them.

(StartOpz can help you with some of the operating processes you currently have for your business or will be implementing to help you concentrate on growth.)

Even when you are a solopreneur taking away the worry about forgetting a step allows you to use your mind creatively. Getting ideas and tasks out of your mind and onto paper is the basis for Getting Things Done. When you can be certain that things are under control on the ground you can more easily think about things at the 30,000 foot view.


Building your product was just one step of your larger goal of owning and running a successful and growing business. Every day will bring new challenges and hopefully what was covered here helps provide a foundation and framework in which to meet those challenges (and turn them into opportunities!).

A great entrepreneur is focused on the goal. They make their companies successful by staying agile, passionate, driven, and tenacious. – Steve Blank (Serial Entrepreneur)

Best of luck with your entrepreneurial journey.

“Software Eating the World” is about demographics

Software eating the world is about demographicsFive years ago Marc Andreessen wrote a famous essay titled, “Why Software is Eating the World.” In it he states that “More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services—from movies to agriculture to national defense.” The reasoning behind that are that the cost of running servers is only getting cheaper and he gives plenty of examples of new companies disrupting the old guard.

What he doesn’t address in his essay is what I believe to be the largest driving force to his conclusion. Software eating the world is as much about demographics as it is about software innovation. Younger people more readily embrace software solutions and services.

Young people are technologically literate and already open up bank accounts, brokerage accounts, insurance, and purchase automobiles online without any face-to-face or phone interactions. They are comfortable with using computers to manage their money and, to a certain degree, computers managing their money (any financial firm that uses algorithms for asset allocation or order placement). They will likely retain that comfort throughout their life or, at least, until their wealth gets to be large enough that it would take more time and knowledge than they have to manage (e.g. setting up trusts).

The second reason that I believe demographics are causing software to disrupt many industries is that younger people tend to be more price sensitive due to their lower income levels. They are willing to trade individualized service for service powered by algorithms if it means saving money.

The final, and most speculative, of my reasons is that I feel that many young people place a higher value on their time than their parents did at that age. Whether they use that time productively or for entertainment they definitely do not appreciate wasting it.

What that means is that software will end up replacing service industries (though it could take a long, long time before it is true that anything a human can do a computer can do better). It is happening in the banking industry (Simple), wealth management (the many robo advisors), legal industry (LegalZoom), accounting and tax industry (TurboTax), human resources (Zenefits and Gusto), and the health industry (Fitbit is as much about the software as the band on your wrist).

Right now many people still trust humans more than computers. They want to get “a set of eyes on it” before sending off a report. That is totally understandable. I still hear people blame their computers/Outlook/Excel with their bosses nodding understandably. Younger people will more likely blame the user.

The people that still write checks at the grocery store might never embrace the software revolution. Supporting them will become a niche of every industry with high costs. Everybody else will eventually view services that requires a face-to-face or phone interaction as nuisances with the time being better spent elsewhere.

Learn by Doing

Learn by DoingWhile people learn different things in different ways, business is one activity that I firmly believe is best learned while engaging in the activity. In fact I feel that most people learn more in one year on the job than they do in multiple years of school as so many facets and nuances of business really cannot be taught in books or a classroom setting with fictional stakes. The rubber meets the road when working with real people (who have real families), real clients, a real balance sheet, and a real income statement.

It is with that in mind that I picked Learn by Doing as the title of my latest (10th!) collection of notes from Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders lectures.

The book contains a wealth of insight from startup founders and business owners such as Ben Horowitz (Andreessen Horowitz), John Collison (Stripe), and Joshua Reeves (ZenPayroll). While it is free do not let that influence your thoughts on the value. These lectures have provided me tons of inspiration as well as great career advice. I urge you to give it a read and then follow up by listening to any lectures that strike you for even more insight.

Best of luck.

The End of Jobs

The End of JobsWhen I first heard about Taylor Pearson’s new book, The End of Jobs, I was worried that he had written the book that I have been researching. What I found was instead a practical book that outlines how the employment equation is changing, gives examples of people that are at the front of the wave of change, and provides a framework to adapt to the new job paradigm.

Two books that The End of Jobs reminded me of are Escape from Cubicle Nation and The $100 Startup. One of the people interviewed in The End of Jobs was Dan Norris who recently released a book titled The 7-Day Startup. This book is a good supplement to those but with more of a focus on the digital nomad aspect of the new world of business.

The overarching point the book makes is that now, more than ever before, you have the ability to design the lifestyle you want and that entrepreneurship is the avenue to do that. Increasingly it will be the only avenue to do that due to advances in technology and a changing business landscape.

I like his definition of entrepreneurship and a job:

“Entrepreneurship is connecting, creating, and inventing systems–be they businesses, people, ideas, or processes.

A job is the act of following the operating system someone else created.”

He goes on to lay out many of the skills (sales and marketing among them) needed to succeed in the world without jobs that he is envisioning.

There is a particular argument that Taylor laid out that struct me as very insightful if it turns out to be true. He said:

“We aren’t going through a global recession–we’re transitioning between two distinct economic periods.”

I really cannot say that theory is true or not but I am in absolute agreement that we all should prepare as if it is. I have seen a lot of the examples he has laid out with my own eyes as I think most people have. Jobs are less secure and entrepreneurial skills will help you survive.

If I had one complaint about the book is that I think some of his arguments seemed to jump from point to point and could have been fleshed out a bit more (while I’m a big fan of Warren Buffett I was lost about how value investing tied in) or benefited from better examples. In particular the example involving Morgan Stanley and IBM and a bond sale felt a bit tenuous. However he quickly bounced back with a wonderful thought exercise about your local community out of which I readily understood that: entrepreneurship > knowledge > capital.

One other quirk, and I don’t know if this is due to his subjects choosing to be anonymous or the writing style, but I would have liked to hear more detail about the people and their businesses that he used as examples.

One reason this book was particularly interesting to me, and might not necessarily be a factor for others, is that I feel like I know Taylor and many of the people featured in the book due to having listened to each episode of the Tropical MBA podcast over the past five years.

Even without that background I think many people yearning for more freedom or dreaming of making the jump from job to entrepreneur will enjoy the The End of Jobs. It is a quick and inspirational read.

Join the Conversation

You might, like many of us, have some goals or dreams, personally or professionally, that you have yet to fulfill. Sometimes you feel stuck in a rut and wanting more. Often the feeling is one that is self-perpetuating as you lose enthusiasm and the energy to get out of it. Sometimes without taking action to dig yourself out you can end up burnt out or depressed.

Action is the key.

One action that I’m advocating for today is to join into the local, national, or global conversation that it happening around the goals you have both personally and professionally. I believe that participating in, rather than listening in, is a sure fire way to pull out of a rut, reenergize yourself, and getting your brain to work creatively again.

Conversations happen in many ways and in many places: in the open, behind closed doors, in meetings, over the phone, email, on message boards, and in the media. Some of those are available to you and some of those you have to force your way in.

I have an example of the latter from my job. Our company had started working on a web portal for our clients which is an idea I had long advocated for. For reasons I do not know (I was the only person at the company with a technical background) I was not included in almost any of the discussions leading up to the development nor any of the discussions during the development process. The development was outsourced and, while there technically was one person leading the project, in reality there were eight different people who were trying to control the project.

If the project was a human I imagine it felt like this:

I have eight bosses, Bob.

When the portal was finally launched it was something that neither our internal people nor our clients wanted to use. In fact, only one person logged in and interacted with the software in the first four or five months it was live. Obviously there was a problem.

I took this problem to be an opportunity and forced myself into the conversation. The first step was to write up nine pages on what I thought the issues were and ways to improve them (basically it all boiled down to vision and software being a tool that people use to solve a problem). I followed that up coding a different vision of the portal (in 1/20 of the time and for 1/1000 of the cost of the original). I demoed that and also created a forty slide presentation that highlighted the ways it would streamline things for our staff and would scale as we grew.

It was some of the best work I had done in a long time. It had dragged me out of the rut I had been in at the job and got my brain firing on all cylinders. New ideas were popping up as I was trying to sleep and I even had two dreams about it.

What brought me to that point was that I felt that you can only be ignored for so long. I responded by taking voicing my opinions and taking a lot of action. I did not see a downside. By forcing yourself into the conversation the worst case scenario is that you build up a body of work that you can repurpose into a blog, book, podcast, product, or company.

On that project, while I think I did get some people to ask the questions that should have been asked at the beginning, all of my efforts and suggestions were generally acknowledged but not acted upon. For whatever reasons the powers that be decided to continue down the path they were on.

It was not the wasted effort it seems to be. Out of it I have come up with a great idea for a company, an idea for a book, learned Ruby on Rails, and had some amazing discussions with some of my colleagues about the future of the industry.

This blog is another way that I am joining in a conversation. I am using it as a way to reach out to potential customers for StartOpz. I believe those people to be either entrepreneurs or employees at startups or small businesses. They are interested in starting and scaling their efforts to build a successful business. Hopefully some of my posts help them do that in some way. I know I have already learned a lot from them.

When things settle down a bit I also hope to get further engaged in the conversations around the various issues that are important to me and to find ways to help whether that be through charity or more hands-on efforts.

Words can be leveraged more than money can ever be. They are powerful in that they can incite action in others and that other people can pass them on thus reaching more people that you have ever met in your life.

The conversation is happening right now on the web on sites like Twitter and Reddit. It is happening on blogs (write posts and leave comments), in books (write one and self-publish), and in emails (find people in your field of interest and just write to them). It is happening at conferences around the world and at your local coffee shop.

Talking about what you do and what you want to do will get you excited and keep you excited about the efforts you are making to reach your goals. It will incite the action you need to get out of a rut or avoid it completely. It will keep you feeling alive.

The ONE Thing

(This is one of a series of posts about productivity books and the lessons I took from them. The series is: Getting Things Done, A Sense of Urgency, and The ONE Thing.)

The ONE ThingExtraordinary.

If there is one word to use to describe The ONE Thing it is that. The book’s premise is to figure out the one thing you can do that will make everything else easier or unnecessary and focus on that. The premise is simple enough but learning how to apply it, and then actually doing so, is a powerful change in the way you use your time.

(The other reason “extraordinary” is the one word is that the author uses it 115 times in the book. You can tell he is a true believer in what he preaches.)

I am in the middle of trying to start a business. It seems as if there is a never ending lists of things that need to be done. Often it feels like I am treading water and not making any progress. For a while now I have asked myself the question, “What is one thing I can do today to push the business forward?” After reading the book I realized the better question is, “What is the best thing I can do today to push the business forward?”

While I had expected the book’s message of concentrating on one, important thing, I was surprised at the emphasis on thinking big. In retrospect they should go hand in hand but often the big things are not achieved because they have not been broken down into smaller, actionable steps.

At the largest scale the steps are:

One passion -> one skill -> one person -> one life

And they all come back to the book’s central question:

“What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?”

Productivity in all situations

Everybody has the same number of hours in a day but some people seem to get so much more done than others. Obviously circumstances play a big part of that. A childless man in his 20s (the stereotypical startup guy or digital nomad) obviously has more hours to work with than a single mother of two.

I have heard many people say that when they have children they actually achieve more because they learned to focus on the really, really important things in their limited hours.

“When you want the absolute best chance to succeed at anything you want, your approach should always be the same. Go Small.”

Defer the busy work. Find the thing that matters most and concentrate your efforts on that.

When you let your inbox dictate your day, your calendar dictate your week, and have a to do list that would not be finished in months then likely you feel overwhelmed and that the success you strive for it out of reach.

That describe the demands on many of us but success does not come from busy work nor is success correlated with time or effort. Keller does a great job laying out that the results you are striving to achieve can be traced back to smaller, specific actions.


Throughout many conversations I have found that defining what you are passionate about is easier for some people than others. When I ask people I often get a response of “uhh…” followed by the generic responses of “my family” or “my job”. I then try to rephrase the question to, “if you had no other responsibilities what would you spend your day doing?”

Not every passion is something that you can build a business or career around. Nor do they have to be. Simply being able to indulge them is often enough to bring happiness into your life. If a business or career is your goal then Keller lays out a path to which to achieve it.

When you are passionate about something you spend more time on it which leads to developing skills. It is those skills that are what you will be able to build a business or career around.


This might be my favorite chapter of the book as it covers some of my biggest criticisms about the business world as it is practiced (by companies more than five years old). I will not go into those in depth here (you can find some of my rants elsewhere on the site).

One big lie that he covers, and perhaps the one most relevant to the topic, is that everything is equal. Most workers feel that all tasks need to be done and rank them by importance. Not all tasks need to be done. Importance cannot be defined by arbitrary things such as oldest item in inbox or even by anybody but you.

Breaking free from that lie allows you to truly focus on moving forward.

Big Ideas

While thinking big is an amazing exercise, and he encourages you to take your goal and make it larger so if you fall short you still achieve a lot, it can be hard to figure out how to get from where you stand today to where you want to be.

Keller presents a series of four practices you should explore:

  1. Go Small.
  2. Go Extreme.
  3. Say no.
  4. Don’t get trapped in the “check off” game.

Reading the book will provide you more color on those but all are powerful concepts to utilize on your quest to achieve big things.


Keller makes a case that multitasking, instead of getting two things done, results in getting nothing done.

“People can actually do two or more things at once, such as walk and talk, or chew gum and read a map; but, like computers, what we can’t do is focus on two things at once.”

When you are switching back and forth from task to task or project to project you are not finishing anything that is a priority (which I define as things that generate value to you or your business).

Indeed, if you finish one project prior to starting the next, the first project will be creating value while you work on the second. If you are multitasking then you are getting no value from either.

Keller also makes an interesting point in the book that the word priority has been sapped of its meaning be people talking about “priorities”. It is a word that should not be pluralized. The definition of priority means that it should be the ONE Thing and that everything else takes a back seat.


“Willpower is so important that using it effectively should be a high priority.”

The insight that I took from this section of the book is that willpower is a finite resource that must be recharged. One simply cannot ALWAYS be in control of their willpower. A long day of meetings, fires, and difficult decisions wears you and your willpower down thus making it easier for you to decide to skip the gym that night.

He goes into how your blood sugar level and the foods you eat contribute to your willpower.

“If you want to get the most out of your day, do your most important work–your ONE Thing–early, before your willpower is drawn down.”

Work-life balance

When you are focusing on doing one thing other things you view as priorities are going to suffer. It will be a constant balancing act. It is important to realize and accept that if have any hope of achieving the success you strive for.

“Time waits for no one.”

In order to make sure that you are doing your One Thing as well as not letting your family, job, or anything else important to you fall through the cracks Keller recommends time blocking which involves blocking out time on your calendar in advance. Switch tasks when your calendar tells you it is time. This way you will be constantly focused on whatever your one thing for that block of time is.

Other insights

There are many more insights in the book on topics such as happiness, responsibility, goals, fear, and success. All of them end up tying back to the book’s suggestion to focus on doing One Thing in order to get extraordinary results.

Set business goals based on industry outlook

The last thirteen years of my working life have been spent in the financial services industry. A good deal of the last two or three years of that has been spent vainly trying to convince the management of the firm that software is the future. For a few reasons I have been met with resistance.

  1. Complacent
  2. Time frame
  3. Risk

I do not intend to be dismissive at all by using the word complacent. The firm is full of people who are very smart and have been very successful. They do business face-to-face and they way they service clients has not changed in a long time. The adage, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, applies.

The second reason I believe I have struggled convincing them to invest in developing software to service clients is due to time frame. The partners in the firm are all somewhere in the second half of their careers. While they all want a firm that lasts well beyond them, looking out twenty years and they will all be retired.

The last reason is that developing software is a big investment and not just monetarily. It also is an investment in time and focus. A new product is no guarantee of success. It has to be executed at the standard of the firm and of the clients. And it has to be something that clients want and will actually use.

This story has a somewhat happy ending. The firm has decided to move forward with creating a software product. I hope that the vision is strong enough that a great product is the result.

The reason I am telling this story is that I think all businesses really need to stop and ask themselves the following questions:

  1. What is our industry going to look like in one year?
  2. What is our industry going to look like in five years?
  3. What is our industry going to look like in ten to twenty years?

What your industry looks like today is irrelevant. If you work for today you are going to be behind tomorrow.

Over the past ten to twenty years many industries have been changed by technology. Over the next ten to twenty years I expect the rate of change to only increase as technology matures and new ones are developed (AI will be a game changer for a lot of professional services).

A lot of times you are so focused on your business and industry that you effectively have blinders on to what is taking place in the world at large. I have heard it theorized that you cannot revolutionize an industry from within–that it takes something or somebody coming from outside an industry, someone who can bring in different experiences and bridge industries, to revolutionize it.

WIth that in mind it might be a good idea to have lunch or some drinks with a friend or someone you respect and ask them those questions about your industry. Listen to their answers with an open mind and you might end up with a new outlook and a revitalized excitement about your business.

Answering those three questions is critical to setting goals. You need to execute in the short term (one year) while you work on your long term goals. It is the long term goals for your business that, if you execute them, will make you an industry leader rather than an industry follower.

In Wayne Gretzky’s words, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

One you have done that then all that is left is to plan your work and work your plan.

We Can All Change the World

We Can All Change the WorldChanging the world is something that should be a goal for all but not all set out to do it. It sounds like the dreams of a college student that people either politely nod at or not so politely scoff at. But it is something that is attainable for all of us.

The world can be changed at a personal, local, national, or global level. The thing about change is that it begets more change and thus ripples of it spread near and far. You can build a business, start a charity, be a big brother or sister, or smile to somebody at the grocery store. All can make at least one person’s day a bit better.

We Can All Change the World is the ninth volume of my notes on Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders series. You can download it here for free. Hopefully it will inspire you to listen to the talks that have inspired me so much.

Reduce busy work. Increase luck surface area.

There is a concept known as luck surface area that suggests that the more you do, and the more you tell people about it, the greater your chance for success. Spend your time creating and communicating with your peers and you will be recognized for it.

The idea that being busy lowers your chances for success seems counterintuitive to that. After all if you are busy then you are by default having more interactions than someone who is not.

Busy work such as emails, Twitter, phone calls, etc. only increase your luck surface area if they are a part of a concentrated effort to network and move your efforts forward.

Being busy does not create the body of work that others will take notice of. Serendipity will not occur from paper pushing but, rather, will occur by setting goals and continually working to achieve them.

But first you must free yourself from the chains of bureaucracy and inefficiency that plague most organizations.

Paper pile - April 2011 - 2 by Sebastien Wiertz used under CC License

Combatting Busy Work

The best way to combat busy work is to implement systems that decrease the amount of time the work takes and, just as importantly, the amount of brain power devoted to it. For most people the place to start is in the inbox.

To start with do not spend all day inside your inbox. Check your email no more than a handful of times a day. You might be under the impression that your customers and coworkers would think the world is ending if you do not quickly respond to their emails but you would be wrong. If people needed immediate responses they would not use asynchronous communication and would instead pick up the phone to call you.

(I am aware that some people inexplicably expect email responses to be no more delayed than the speed of light allows. They often do funny things such as using words such as urgent or ASAP in the body of the email instead of using the high importance flags (and often on things that are not urgent at all). Those people need to be coached and it is up to you to do it or else you will never be able to fully focus on the things that really make a business successful.)

The second step is to turn off email notifications. Disable the new email pop-ups in Outlook and turn off the beeping on your phone. Those take you out of your train of thought and, as a knowledge worker, nothing is more important.

Now you are ready to tackle your emails at your own schedule rather than somebody else’s. Getting Things Done presents a very effective system that can be applied to your inbox. The system is:

“Do It, Delegate It, or Defer It.”

The premise is that if an email only takes a couple of minutes to act on or respond to then do it right then. If it can be delegated then forward it on. If neither of those can happen (it needs more than two minutes of your attention) then you defer it by putting it on your to do list or your calendar and then filing the email away out of your inbox.

(A pro-tip on your to do lists: You can drag an email to your tasks in Outlook or you can forward emails to services such as Asana, Evernote, or Trello to automatically add them. Just like with your emails address your to do list in your own time frame.)

By applying that system to each item in your inbox a few times a day you will arrive at the fantasy state know as Inbox Zero. It is much easier to achieve focus when diving into a project with no emails to address.

To lessen the number of emails you have to address each day setup filters so that certain emails are automatically filed away or added to your to do list.

Once you have tamed your inbox and created a single proper to do list (rather than writing tasks on whatever scraps of paper you have on your desk at the time) you are ready to tackle the busy work.

Start by documenting step-by-step each thing you do for one day. The next day spend some time going over that list (might help to include the boss on this) and identify anything that no longer needs to be done due to changes in the business. You would be surprised at the number of things that people do because they have always been done and nobody has bothered to stop and question it. Stop doing the things that do not need to be done.

Continue looking at the list and figure out where steps can be automated with a little technology. Investing a little bit of time and money automating processes will pay off in spades later.

Now you should have some systems in place to serve as defenses against busy work so that you can work on building the kingdom.

Startup Stock Photos

Capitalizing on Real Work

Begin by taking the time to identify things that are truly urgent which are the activities that are central to your business’ success or survival. That is where you want to concentrate your efforts.

Prioritize the activities and then set goals with actionable steps and timelines for each activity that you are going to create a project out of.

Those projects vary from business to business but could be a product launch, developing a new feature, a marketing campaign, or hiring. The bottom line is that you are trading busy work for the work that pushes your business forward.

That is the type of work that will increase your luck surface area and make others take notice of you both inside and outside of the company.