Tick tick tick

Every founder has one. That little clock inside your head telling you how much time you have before you run out of runway.

If you’re still bootstrapping, maybe the metric is cash in the bank divided by your monthly living expenses.

If you’ve raised outside money — especially if it has preference or automatic conversion built in — the pressure is even greater. If you run out of cash before you show enough progress to justify a fresh raise, you risk losing control of everything you’ve built.

Hacking forward progress is the magic that founders do — getting more done in less time than anyone (even you) thought you could. 

The teams that do this best work forwards and backwards: they know exactly what investors need to see to get excited about an up-round, and they keep their day-to-day efforts tightly aligned with those must-hit milestones.

The teams that most often lose their way are the ones that forget the main goal — staying alive — and burn precious time going down rabbit-holes that have little chance of producing the required results. This is particularly true of product- or engineering-centric teams that keep applying the hammer of product development to the nail of growth, putting off the hard work of sales + distribution until it’s too late.

When your team is small and resources are limited, the choices are relatively simple — whatever the founders can do to hack growth, they do. 

But when you’ve raised a decent-sized seed or Series A round, the math gets harder. Now you’re not just investing founder time, you’re deploying capital — mostly on salaries for non-founder employees — in hopes of accelerating your progress on every front that matters.

There are four important categories of effort that every startup team needs to keep in mind. Too much — or too little — weight in any one of these areas can lead to disaster when it comes time to raise the next round:

  • Product

    Seed investors exist to give teams of talented people running room to test a set of hypotheses. If those teams can demonstrate that a big / valuable audience actually wants what they’re buiding — what folks now call “achieving product / market fit” — they’re likely to be able to raise more money to scale into that opportunity.

    Lean / agile development methods are the most common hack for achieving product / market fit in a hurry. Rather than going heads-down on major releases, development teams shorten cycle times and increase velocity, gathering customer feedback and making adjustments along the way to ensure that all development effort is in service of solving actual customer problems, not just scratching your own itch.

  • Sales / Distribution

    Despite the popular mythology of “viral” growth, even the best products don’t sell themselves. High-performing startup teams put as much creative (and often, engineering) effort into their distribution strategies as they do into their customer-facing products.

    Investors love a beautiful demo, but they love steep and accelerating customer and revenue growth curves even more. Early-stage teams usually can’t afford armies of bag-carrying field salespeople, so expect to throw spaghetti at many different growth hacks — content marketing, affiliate sales, email marketing, evangelist selling, channel partners, SEO / ASO, even ganking craigslist — until you find out how to steepen those curves.

  • Recruiting

    Talent — especially digital creative talent — is more important than money these days. Attracting brilliant people to your team is the biggest challenge most young companies face, and hacking the talent wars is just as important to your startup’s success as your product and sales chops.

    The best founders understand that recruiting is their #1 responsibility — in Vinod Khosla’s words, “when I was starting my first company, I was more of a glorified recruiter than a CEO or a founder. I really spent well over 50% of my time recruiting, and I encourage all entrepreneurs to try and do that.” Aggressive recruiting and fearless hiring are the only way startups build a bench deep and strong enough to keep up with hyper-growth.

  • Storytelling

    It may seem odd to rank this skill up there with the others listed above, but I’m convinced it rates equally among winning startups. It’s not enough to hire amazing people, build great products and sell the shit out of them — you also have to convince a world full of skeptics that your crappy little startup is actually going to make a dent in the universe. So in addition to all the showing you do, you have to get good at telling.

    I’m not sure if storytelling is an innate or learned skill, but it’s the kind of thing that hustlers excel at without thinking. Someone in the company has to be your Steve Jobs — the guy (or gal) who makes people feel the magic, share the passion and join the parade as fans and advocates. Just as products don’t sell themselves, stories don’t tell themselves.

When the clock is ticking and your fear is welling up, your instinct is to go harder at whatever you’re best at. Too often, that means more lines of code, because that’s what you and your team know how to do.
Stop, take a deep breath and ask yourself — do I have each of the four bases above covered? If not, take the time to rebalance your team and your time to make sure you do. Your odds of survival will go way up, you’ll learn more, and I guarantee you’ll have more fun along the way.